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Monday, January 23, 2012

Offering of the Day: An Exceptional Original Watercolor by William Matthew Hart

William Matthew Hart (1830-1908)
Common Pheasant; Phasianus colchicus Linnaeus
Study for John Gould’s The Birds of Great Britain, IV, plate 12 
Pencil and watercolor heightened with white and gum arabic
Paper size: 14 1/4” x 21 1/4”
Framed size: 24” x 31”
Provenance: Frederick Du Cane Godman

The talented natural history painter William Hart was the artistic genius behind some of the lavish illustrations for John Gould’s splendid work The Birds of Great Britain.  John Gould was without question the most prolific natural history publisher of the nineteenth century, his work embodying the Victorian fascination with the wildlife of both Britain’s foreign colonies and the homeland.  He combined his passion for natural history with outstanding scientific, artistic, and entrepreneurial talents.  Drawing on these abilities, he embarked on a series of projects that would eventually make him the leading publisher of ornithological illustrations in Victorian Britain.  Gould's unparalleled career spanned five decades, and he produced a monumental series of books of birds throughout the world.

Gould was especially proud of his sumptuous work on the Birds of Great Britain, and partly because its subject was British, it was seen as the culmination of his genius. He described it as a return to his old love, and his rightful pride in these illustrations was reflected in his preface explanation of their coloring: "…every sky with its varied tints and every feather of each bird were colored by hand; and when it is considered that nearly two hundred and eighty thousand illustrations in the present work have been so treated, it will most likely cause some astonishment to those who give the subject a thought."  Gould's pride in The Birds of Great Britain was matched by its public success.  The list of 468 subscribers included the nobility and scientific luminaries of Europe and America. 

A veteran of numerous Gould projects, the prolific and highly accomplished Hart was especially famed for having produced the elegant originals for Gould's remarkable monograph on hummingbirds.  He is roundly regarded as Gould's most devoted protegĂ© and his most accomplished artist, drawing upon Gould's incomparable legacy of research and craftsmanship to create a splendid tribute to Gould, and his favorite birds.  The lithographs from this monumental book are rare in themselves, but the original watercolors for this splendid project very rarely become available, especially examples of such outstanding quality as these.

In this spectacular watercolor, Hart’s mastery of ornithological painting is fully displayed.  He captures the luminescent qualities of the plumage of the pheasant, skillfully translating them to paper.  Although Gould considered the pheasant to be an introduced species like the turkey and peacock, he agreed with his subscribers’ wishes to include it since it was partially wild in woodlands.  The portrayal of a male pheasant killed by a poacher’s snare represented ‘an old and true Phasianus colchius which has met a fate to which hundreds of its brethren are annually subjected’.

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