A woman overshadowed by history steps back into the light . . .
Artist Elizabeth Gould spent her life capturing the sublime beauty of birds the world had never seen before. But her legacy was eclipsed by the fame of her husband, John Gould. The Birdman’s Wifeat last gives voice to a passionate and adventurous spirit who was so much more than the woman behind the man.
Elizabeth was a woman ahead of her time, juggling the demands of her artistic life with her roles as wife, lover, helpmate, and mother to an ever-growing brood of children. In a golden age of discovery, her artistry breathed wondrous life into hundreds of exotic new species, including Charles Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches.
In The Birdman’s Wife, the naïve young girl who falls in love with a demanding and ambitious genius comes into her own as a woman, an artist and a bold adventurer who defies convention by embarking on a trailblazing expedition to collect and illustrate Australia’s ‘curious’ birdlife.
In this indelible portrait, an extraordinary woman overshadowed by history steps back into the light where she belongs.
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BRUTON STREET, LONDON 1828
Stepping down from the carriage into the mad bustle of Bruton Street, it was as if I had entered another world. Towers of wooden crates stamped with exotic destinations piled up around the entrance to the Zoological Society’s headquarters as delivery men jostled to unload more treasure from the back of a horse-drawn van. I jumped back just in time to avoid colliding with two scruffy youths as they wrestled an oversized crate to the ground in front of me.
A finger and thumb protruded through a broken slat in the crate. Unable to resist, I stooped down to inspect it more closely. The hand they belonged to seemed almost human, I thought, except longer, the skin much thicker. I looked over to where the two men had hurried off to unload more crates and wondered if I should tell them to take more care. But as I peered into the darkened crate I was too stunned by the quiet creature’s shape. I could not judge whether the beast had expired during its voyage or was a taxidermist’s precious specimen in need of repair and restuffing. It was rare for an animal from foreign climes to survive the seaward journey to London’s docks. Even if, by grace, the creature was alive at the voyage’s conclusion, after clearing port it was unlikely to thrive. Some thought it was the climate that disagreed with the animals, the little known about their feeding habits, the effects of the loss of a mate and family. I feared it was these conditions and more; they were pining, alone and imprisoned, parted from all they knew and loved.
At that moment I was feeling displaced myself.
It was difficult not to feel a little apprehensive as I waited beside my brother to enter his place of employment. Charles had been hired as a stuffer by Mr John Gould, who rented rooms from the Zoological Society to conduct his business. Behind the shopfront window, a striking scene had been posed: a bear cub, a red stag with impressive antlers, and several English garden birds wired to a stump of tree limb. The mounted specimens were dusty and matted, their hides and plumage faded to a greyish-brown. I wondered aloud why Mr Gould advertised his trade as London’s leading animal stuffer using such common varieties. Charles explained that sunlight caused the hides and feathers to fade and while a rare or exotic animal might well be more likely to catch the attention of passers-by, the damage would devalue the mount’s worth.
How ironic, I thought, that the best way to care for such treasures was to keep them out of sight in cabinets, under cloth and key.
‘What’s the strangest creature you’ve encountered at Mr Gould’s?’
‘An ostrich, if I recall,’ said Charles.
I pictured the specimen laid out on a worktable, its muscular legs and cloven toes and ridiculous plumage spilling over the edges, its long neck lolling. ‘Did he need many men to sew up the skin?’
‘Yes, several.’ Charles laughed. ‘And a few strong clamps. He once repaired a lioness in the viewing room of the British Museum, after a removalist tore its thigh on a cabinet edge.’ My brother’s eyes lit up. ‘Oh, and then there was the Thames whale. Several summers ago a whale calf beached itself in an estuary. Mr Gould shocked all the taxidermists of London by dissecting the rotting carcass right where it lay, in front of a crowd. His assistant claimed he took a coach back to his rooms with rings from the whale’s aorta slung around his neck like horse-yokes.’
Charles had entertained me with many such wild tales of the exploits of his employer during our coach ride from my lodgings on James Street. I still found it hard to believe that on the strength of my brother’s mention of my passion for sketching and painting, Mr Gould had insisted we meet, inviting me to his rooms to make him a drawing. Charles told me that Mr Gould required sketches of some of the more unusual animals that he was called to work on to ensure their forms and proportions correctly represented their appearance in life. However, as his business had expanded and demands from his clients grew, he had become frustrated at his lack of suitability to such a task. So here I was, summoned to Bruton Street for a trial.
Charles touched my shoulder. ‘Shall we proceed?’
I sighed and nodded, smiling at my nerves.
A straggly-haired boy motioned to Charles. We entered the building and walked along a dim corridor, passing a room stacked from floor to ceiling with crates. Charles steered me to the staircase that led to Mr Gould’s basement laboratory, the stench of ammonia and preserving salts strengthening with each step. I hastily lifted my handkerchief to my nose. I knew from Charles’s stories that the wide oak door we were approaching concealed the workshop where the stuffing was carried out. It was kept exceedingly warm, lit by a blazing coal fire, and I felt a little uneasy, anticipating the horrors he had warned me lay ahead.
Charles held open the heavy door and I stepped inside, thrilled to be permitted into this strange environment. A long bench dominated the room, arranged into individual workplaces like settings for supper, each supplied with curiously shaped cutting tools, measuring tape, rags and tubs of stuffing flax and tow, and lit by a small gas lamp. Charles tied on a leather apron while I hung up my cloak and removed my gloves and bonnet, taking care to keep out of the way of the youths bustling in and out with tins and boxes containing the animals Mr Gould wanted skinned. I drifted towards the back of the workshop, my attention caught by a menagerie of shorebirds – a godwit, several sandpipers, curlews, dotterels, herons and varieties of plover. For a heart-stopping moment the display tricked my eyes. It seemed the birds had flown into the room via a secret passage and, like children, settled before the warmth of the flames in the hope of being treated to a story. But as I drew closer I could see that the birds were perched on wooden boards, each miming its own dramatic scene. The sandpiper probed for molluscs. One of the plovers preened his shoulder. The heron reared to strike. The curlew held a shell in the barber’s tongs of its beak. The darter had drawn his long neck into a loop.
‘Why are they so close to the flames?’ I whispered.
Charles explained that immediately after being wired into position by Mr Gould’s stuffers, the specimens were set before a fire to dry and harden. The process required several days and was like firing ceramic. At the conclusion of the airing, a transformation had taken place; the mount, as the specimen was called, permanently kept its shape. If I had looked more closely, I would have seen the pins and clips, the bandages and nails that supported the specimens in their drying, as if they had just been carried out of surgery.
‘Where shall I set up?’ I asked, noticing how little space the room offered, what with the crates taking up most of the floor and the cutting tools, lamps, bins and stuffing materials spread across the long workbench.
Charles indicated a stool beside his own. ‘You could try your hand at one of the specimens I’m to look over.’
I set out my paper and sketching pencils. The stack of tins near Charles’s work mat reminded me of Father’s tobacco containers. Curious about the dead birds my brother worked with, I picked up the nearest tin – its size would suit a drawing-room pipe – and pried off the lid. A hand over my mouth, I summoned my courage and stole a look at the distinctive black face and wing markings, the red belly feathers and undertail of a spotted woodpecker. It lay in a bed of cotton, chalk powder sprinkled on its plumage to absorb the bleeding. In many parts there were dried lumps. Even I could tell it was practically ruined by shot.
‘How do you fix the torn skin?’ I asked, both curious and fascinated.
‘They mostly turn up looking like that,’ said Charles. ‘The amateurs use the wrong shot size and then expect us to perform miracles. Aren’t you fast with a needle and thread? I should set you to work sewing up the tears.’
‘I’m positive you know what you’re doing. And you must remember how I detest needlework.’
Natural history and the associated art of taxidermy were becoming a craze. According to Charles, new adherents joined the ranks at the rate of fungi sprinkling grass after rain. It was inexpensive, after all. In penny shops you could purchase a pamphlet with precise instructions on how to stuff a bird or vole or ferret, to preserve a sea sponge or cut and polish a beach-combed fossil. The would-be practitioner was advised to fashion tools and instruments from objects found about the house: reeds, quills, kitchen scissors, a hammer and small blade. There were recipes for cooking a batch of arsenical soap over the fire and for pot-stirring a mound of gum Arabic and candy sugar into fixing glue. Windowsills and hearths were suggested as niches for drying.
I replaced the lid and opened the next box. Compelled by the corpses’ fragility, I examined all of them – a coal tit, chaffinch, redwing, nuthatch and, in a sort of metal milliner’s case, a whimbrel with a downward curving beak – trying to decide which I should draw.
The door handle turned and I glanced up. One of Mr Gould’s delivery men, sandy hair curling to his shoulders, strode into the room. But he was not carrying a crate. Then I noted that he wore a blood-smeared apron, like Charles. Another stuffer. He moved with a sense of purpose – I do not think he noticed us at the table – inspecting the specimens drying around the fire. He tilted them this way and that, squeezing their necks and pulling at their tail feathers, testing for dampness. I observed the breadth of his shoulders, the obvious strength of his arms beneath his shirt: his work must have involved more lifting than my brother’s. Would the fellow drop in and out like this, I wondered? And then I chided myself, sensing my cheeks grow warm. How was it that I was admiring the build of a working boy?
The young man straightened. He tucked his hair behind his ears and met my gaze. He had been aware, all along, of my appraisal.
‘The pamphlets make our art seem simple, don’t they?’ he said to Charles, strolling over to our end of the bench.
‘She can’t possibly understand,’ said Charles, winking at the youth.
I playfully narrowed my eyes and turned to our visitor, seeking an ally against my brother.
The man seemed amused. He moved towards me, holding his hand out to take mine. ‘I’m Mr John Gould,’ he said, ‘and I’m pleased to finally meet you, Miss Coxen.’
‘Mr Gould?’ I stared blankly at my brother’s employer, unable to help noticing the striking cobalt blue of his eyes. ‘I expected somebody more senior,’ I said. ‘You are senior of course. What I mean is that I imagined someone older.’ I withdrew my hand and sat awkwardly on my stool.
‘Should it be a problem?’ asked Mr Gould, a half-smile on his lips.
My hands wanted to pick up my drawing paper and tear it into shreds, but I forced them to stay still and composed in my lap. ‘Surely not,’ I said, glancing away. He could not be any older than me. He must be exceedingly clever, I thought, to head the city’s most successful taxidermy business. I sat a little taller, relieved I had worn the elegant green silk walking gown that Father had brought back for me from France. How it had pleased him that it complemented my dark hair and fair skin so well. Most days I dressed in my plain governess clothes.
‘Charles tells me you’ve spare time in the afternoons?’ said Mr Gould.
I fiddled with my pencil, then put it down and folded my hands in my lap. ‘I am a governess, but it doesn’t keep me very busy,’ I said. ‘I only have one charge, the daughter of the King’s chief proctor, but she is often ill, poor child.’
Mr Gould thought a moment, his lips bunched like a ripe plum. He moved to the fire where a metal trolley stood. ‘Here, I’ll show you something. You can tell your charge about it when you go home. Come, you too, Charles.’
We slid from our stools and followed Mr Gould across the room. He took a box that had been set to warm between two flickering candles and transferred it to the worktable. Peeling back its cotton cover, he unveiled a bird’s nest the size of a dinner plate, a mess of twigs organised into a scruffy cone. Sitting in the base were four pale green, speckled eggs. ‘You’ve come here on the right day, Miss Coxen.’ Mr Gould’s face was suffused with pleasure.
‘Why might that be?’ I said delightedly, leaning in to the nest.
Mr Gould pointed to a series of cracks in one of the eggs. ‘It’s alive! One of the Zoological Society’s boys climbed the elm tree at Regent’s Park and fetched down the nest.’
‘Mr Gould’s been coming in every morning to check,’ said Charles. ‘He simply won’t give up.’
‘Oh, but I almost had,’ said Mr Gould. ‘They’re rooks. The chicks are born with a tiny tooth on their bills. They use it like a chisel to break the shell, tapping and tapping away until the protective covering is shattered.’ His voice took on a note of admiration. ‘Can you imagine waking up one morning to have outgrown your home? That if you don’t escape, you’ll run short of air? They must hit at the inside of the shell in frustration until the wall yields.’
I was somewhat relieved to see that my prospective employer’s passion for animals was not restricted to their corpses. ‘I cannot imagine they give it much thought,’ I said. ‘Aren’t they driven by instinct?’
‘Which imparts them with the desire to act. Outside the shell awaits a new world. After a crack or two, a few shards of light are let in. It must motivate the chick to keep hammering away.’
‘Surely they’re senseless as an infant?’ But as I spoke, I felt my confidence disappearing. The egg moved.
‘There’s the little beak!’ I said, pointing, infected by Mr Gould’s wonder. More cracks appeared, the tiny bill pecking incessantly at its walls. Soon its head emerged, a shoulder and naked wing. The egg began to collapse until there before us stood the chick, shell on its head, its pink body covered in mucus. Its feathers were thin and wet, its skin prickled. It was feeble of foot and claw. A string of membrane attached the bird’s feet to the calcified shell. As we watched, it stepped sideways, as if to test its lack of boundaries. It dipped its bill into the nest, and came up with a skein of spider web. It made weak chirping sounds, as bewildered and surprised as we were.
‘We need to find it food,’ said Mr Gould.
‘Would garden worms suffice?’ I ventured.
‘Are you volunteering to fetch or to administer them?’ Mr Gould laughed.
I shook my head. ‘Neither! Much as I’d like to dig around in my employers’ flowerbeds, I don’t think their gardener would approve. And I don’t like worms. But Charles,’ I playfully tapped my brother’s arm, ‘is rather fond of rummaging in the dirt.’
Mr Gould winked at me and smiled. ‘Then you’ve a job for later in the afternoon, Coxen.’ He reached into the breast of his shirt and removed a piece of paper. ‘What do you make of this?’
I unfolded the paper, which revealed a crude sketch of an unfamiliar species of bird. ‘I’m afraid I cannot make out its tribe,’ I said.
Mr Gould brushed at a feather stuck to his hand. ‘For the record, I was interested in your opinion regarding the sketch’s composition.’
Was the bird foraging for food or merely sliding to the ground from illness? I kept my true impression hidden. ‘Forgive me,’ I said, touching Mr Gould’s sleeve cuff without thinking. ‘I thought you were testing my knowledge of local species. I’d hate to fall short in your estimations.’
Mr Gould ignored my impropriety and turned to take the newly hatched chick from its nest, absently cradling it in his palm. ‘It’s supposed to be a wren.’
‘Oh, I see,’ I said, screwing up my eyes to feign closer examination. ‘It has rather a large bill for a wren.’ My nine-year-old charge, Harriett, could produce a superior likeness with one eye shut, I thought. She was a precocious little girl, much like me at that age, and would have struggled to keep her impressions private just as I had done.
Mr Gould furrowed his brow. It was then I realised that the sketch was his. In all honesty, I had never seen such a poorly executed drawing.
‘Would you care to hold it?’ asked Mr Gould, offering me the tiny rook.
‘I daren’t hurt it,’ I said, feeling the warm wrinkly skin on its back with my thumb.
‘I’ll take care of it,’ said Charles. I watched as he mixed a gruel-like substance in a beaker. Using a glass pipette, he patiently dripped the food into the chick’s gaping yellow mouth. Satisfied that his charge was well fed, Charles returned the tiny rook to its nest in the lined box, leaving off the fabric cover and placing it back between the candles.
Mr Gould turned and bowed. ‘It was a pleasure to meet you. I must apologise, but I’m to attend a presentation at the Zoological Society about a new species of parakeet from Brazil. I promise, Miss Coxen, I’ll speak with you again before the afternoon is out. I’m eager to view your sketches.’
‘I look forward to your opinion.’ To my considerable surprise, I meant every word. The door shut and I nudged my brother in the side. ‘You didn’t tell me he was our age.’
‘You’re disappointed?’ said Charles, his grin sly.
‘You know I’m not!’ I said, flushing. ‘But you had me all worked up over nothing.’
‘I wouldn’t call Mr Gould nothing. He’s made rather a name for himself in these parts.’
‘Do stop mocking me,’ I said, taking the chaffinch out of its cotton-lined tin and turning it about in my hand, my fear of the dead creature vanished. ‘You know how unsettled I have been lately. Harriett has been so unwell that the King’s physician was called in. She’s the sweetest, cleverest child and nothing can quell my nerves about her health. And Lady Rothery is inconsolable. Two days ago she was sobbing in her nightgown before the library window. Her maid and I had to carry her up the stairs to her chamber.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Charles. ‘You didn’t come to London expecting this.’
‘No, I did not,’ I agreed. ‘You would never guess but here, in this strange dungeon, surrounded by Mr Gould’s weird little birdskins, I’ve managed for the first time in a week to almost put Harriett out of my mind. I must be a morbid sort, but I’m actually rather inspired by your strange companions.’
Charles stuck his finger through the eye socket of the dotterel he was examining, wiggling it like a worm. ‘Well then,’ he chuckled, ‘we must both be cast from the same odd mould.’
I smiled, closing the lids of all the tiny tin coffins except for the chaffinch’s, for I had made my selection. The specimens revealed a new world to me. It reminded me of visiting a sweets store as a young girl with my father. Inside the delicious-smelling shop we lingered over trays of delicacies of every imaginable colour and shape: macaroons, spun sugar, sugar-carrot sweets, pastries, toffee and marzipan. The platters of exotic treasures enlivened all of my senses, and though I was invited to take my pick, I bade my time revelling in their textures and scents, their layered colours and fragrances, wishing I could spend the whole afternoon drinking in the sight, committing it to memory like a painting.
With its plumage of bold browns, blacks, greys and whites, the adult chaffinch would not require special colours. I began with a simple outline, and the action of observing and replicating, of rubbing out and starting over – never satisfied but gradually bettered – proved remarkably absorbing. The markings on its wings, the grey crescent that stretched from its crown to its shoulder, the black smudge on its forehead, its russet face and belly, were not difficult to replicate with my pencils. I shaded well, noting as I struggled with line and perspective that I needed more experience in sketching the basic form of a bird. Despite having been tutored at fifteen by a professional artist, my usual drawing subjects of fruits and flowers, stems and stalks had not prepared me for this. It was daunting but strangely exhilarating to take on a fresh subject.
Every once in a while I stole another glance at the tribe of mounted specimens drying before the fire.
As their feet and wings set into position and my drawing took shape, I began to yearn for more than a life of simply teaching frail Harriett to dance the quadrille to my appalling renditions of Strauss, critiquing her hand until her invitations to picnics were elegantly composed, rehearsing the life cycle of bees and orchids, and endlessly conjugating her French and German verbs. I was immensely fond of my charge, but since moving to London I sometimes regretted following my brother from our home in Shoreham to take up this post instead of settling for the more secure position I had been offered close to home, serving as governess to the daughter of one of Mother’s closest friends. I was determined to make a new life for myself, but on some days the loneliness I felt was almost unbearable.
‘You’re very quiet,’ said Charles.
‘I was just thinking about home,’ I said, putting my pencil down and gathering together the sheaf of sketches I had made.
‘You will settle in,’ said Charles. ‘You must be patient.’
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Well, I had better be going. I need to return to Harriett. The last mail coach is at four.’
Charles, his fingers caked in powder, walked me to the oak door. Making my way to the building’s entrance, I saw the crate that had intrigued me on my arrival. The lid had been levered off, and I could not resist peering inside. I glimpsed the creature’s orange fur and its strange flat nose, dominated by two triangular nostrils. Unpeeling one of my gloves, I reached my naked fingers into the crate and touched the soft pads of the animal’s hands, stroked its brown fingernails.
‘This impressive specimen is an orang-utan,’ boomed a familiar voice, ‘shipped all the way from the island of Borneo.’
I stepped back, startled, my fingers at my throat. ‘I was just on my way out,’ I said. I had been so taken by the animal that I had not heard the door open. ‘You must check its hand,’ I added. ‘I think it’s a little spoiled.’
‘I’ll be sure to,’ said Mr Gould. ‘Not all our visitors are so observant.’
He walked over to the crate. ‘Do you think others will be as intrigued by this creature as you?’
‘I don’t see why not. I find it fascinating,’ I said, ‘but confusing, too. It’s like a human child of some queer sort. I cannot explain.’
‘An awfully hairy child,’ Mr Gould said.
Suddenly I felt awkward, unsure of what to say next. ‘I lost track of the time but I do have to go – my employer will be wondering where I’ve disappeared to.’ As I spoke, I became aware of Mr Gould’s attentive blue eyes, of how closely he stood beside me. I was thankful for the crate, not only as an anchor for our conversation but also a shield of sorts, and the layered protection of our thick coats, for my skin tingled, charged somehow.
‘I should like very much to see you again,’ said Mr Gould.
‘And I, too,’ I replied, unable to think of words to add to our exchange. Instead I felt unusually aware of the heat in my cheeks, of the hasty knot that held my dark hair, my scuffed overshoes. I had never been a vain woman – it wasn’t in my nature to preen – and yet I fervently hoped that Mr Gould’s intense gaze meant he found me pleasing to look upon.
Seated above the jostling wheels of the carriage, I pressed my nose to the window glass. One day I will belong in this busy city, I reflected. One day I shall call it home. Paused at a crossroads, I examined the plain dresses of the flower sellers, the easy rapport they shared between shouting the prices of their bouquets. I glimpsed the bulging sacks of coal delivered to terrace porches, imagined the glossy slick lumps inside. I slid the glass open and smelled roasted peanuts, a whiff of beer, the clumps of hay-filled horse pats that stained the road. A chill stole through the open window. Beyond the noise and bustle of the streets hung the smoky fog caused by the fires that burned in every hearth, dulling the setting sun to a yellowish haze. Though I was soon to return to Harriett’s sickbed, a sense of twigs kindling to flame warmed me inside.
Melissa Ashley is a writer, poet, birder and academic who tutors in poetry and creative writing at the University of Queensland. She has published a collection of poems, The Hospital for Dolls, short stories, essays and articles. What started out as research for a PhD dissertation on Elizabeth Gould became a labour of love and her first novel, The Birdman’s Wife. Inspired by her heroine, she studied taxidermy as a volunteer at the Queensland Museum. Melissa lives in Brisbane.