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Avian jewels in Asia's crown

At Christie's next week, 158 exquisite watercolours of Asian birds go on sale - the basis of a book that took 34 years to compile. Geraldine Norman on a unique scientific record
AN EXTRAORDINARY opportunity is offered at Christie's next week to invest in works of art which are also scientific documents - the original watercolour illustrations for John Gould's The Birds of Asia, a book which took 34 years to compile, from 1849 to 1883, in which many species were illustrated for the first time. Art could still serve science in the 19th century; today a scientist employs a camera, not a watercolourist, to record his or her findings.

Gould used three very gifted artists, Joseph Wolf, Henry Richter and William Hart, to make the book's 530 plates. Some 158 of them, whose survival was quite unknown until last year, are to be auctioned on 15 December. They include examples of the work of all three artists and there is one plate by Gould himself - who was primarily a publisher but also a competent amateur draughtsman. The 21in x 14in sheets, mostly depicting the birds life-size, are enormously decorative. Christie's expects to get between pounds 1,000 and pounds 10,000 for each of them, depending on the visual interest of the bird in question. For another pounds 50 you can have the simple oak frame in which the watercolour has been mounted for the sale.

The illustrations were bought by one of the most distinguished naturalists of the late 19th century, Frederick du Cane Godman, shortly after Gould's death in 1981. Godman's family were partners with Whitbread in the brewing industry, and he was immensely wealthy as a result. He also bought illustrations for Gould's Birds of Great Britain and Birds of Australia, another 250 or so drawings, and had two massive 18-drawer cabinets made to contain them where all the illustrations lived from around 1900 to 1994, beautifully preserved from the light. They have been sent for sale by his great, great nephew, V A Gordon Tregear. The family were well aware of what they owned, but never thought of alerting scholars to the existence of the drawings.

In 1984, they invited Christie's to disperse the contents of one of the family homes, South Lodge in the village of Lower Beeding, Sussex, and the auctioneers told them how much this treasure-trove of drawings was worth. For another 10 years they held on to them, sentiment winning out over greed. Last year they decided to sell. The Birds of Great Britain made just over pounds 1m in October 1994 and the small group of Australian birds made another A$126,730 (pounds 60,000) at a Christie's auction in Melbourne, Australia, last month. Since the watercolours were kept out of damaging sunlight, the colours are as bright and dazzling as they were the day the pictures were painted.

Gould bullied his artists to make absolutely faithful renderings. They painted from specimens sent home by British soldiers and diplomats working in Asia, mostly ready-stuffed but occasionally alive - the live ones lived at the Regent's Park Zoo where the artists went to paint them. The light on every feather had to be just right, and Gould dug through books on Asian botany to find the plants and habitat to which the bird would be accustomed in its homeland. The twigs, rocks and flowers in the paintings are scientifically inspired fantasy.

John Gould was a "self-made" publisher with business acumen. His father was a gardener at Windsor Castle and young John's passion for ornithology found an early outlet in selling blown eggs and stuffed birds to Etonians up the road - natural history collecting was then a popular pastime. Stuffing birds and beasts was Gould's training ground. In 1825, at 21, he moved to London to work as a taxidermist, receiving many royal commissions, including the preservation and mounting of George IV's pet giraffe which died in 1829 after spending two years in Windsor Park.

It was a commission to stuff and mount a private collection of birds from the Himalayas that gave Gould the idea of publishing beautiful drawings of them. He knew the keen naturalists among his aristocratic clients would happily pay for a set of plates depicting interesting birds. He persuaded his wife Elizabeth, a gifted artist, to draw them and issued 80 plates between 1830 and 1833 which the subscribers collected and bound as a single volume. He called it A Century of Birds from the Himalayas.

Emboldened by the success of this first venture, he embarked on a five- volume Birds of Europe with 448 plates, securing Edward Lear (of nonsense verse fame) to help his wife with the bird drawings. He added another five titles before embarking on The Birds of Asia in 1849.

By this time his wife had died, forcing him to secure the services of other artists. Joseph Wolf was a bird and animal painter of some note - much admired by Landseer, Queen Victoria's favourite artist; Richter was in his early 20s when he joined Gould, and appears to have devoted his life to bird illustrations, mostly for Gould; Hart was a professional illustrator, joining Gould in 1851 and taking over as his main artist when Richter left in 1872. There is an impressionistic freedom in Wolfe's work and an innate feeling for the bird's character; Richter paints more tightly and with less feeling for life but more elegant composition; Hart is the most careful of the three, with a tendency to a tight, jewel-like finish.

The artistic process was a convoluted one. First Gould himself would sketch the composition he wanted, including the arrangement of trees or rocks and the number of birds to be included (only Wolf was ever trusted to make his own compositions). Each of the three artists then worked from the stuffed skins Gould had secured, or from life, to create a finished watercolour in which every feather and its colouring was faithfully indicated. Gould would criticise the product and often asked for changes. Once the artist and Gould were satisfied, the watercolours became the model for the plates. It is these watercolours that are being offered for sale.

Next the artist would make a black- and-white lithograph, copying from the watercolour with a wax crayon on to a lithographic stone. One lithograph pulled from the stone was hand-coloured by the original artist. This, together with the complete edition of black-and-white lithographs, was handed over to professional colourists. They would faithfully copy the colours on top of the black-and-white lithographs (before colour printing was invented, there were armies of colourists in London who would "colour up" black-and-white prints, both lithographs and engravings).

The absolute dazzler of Christie's sale is Lady Amherst's Pheasant, painted by Henry Richter and estimated at pounds 7,000-pounds 10,000. It has a red crest, a big white ruff, a red and gold body and long arching striped tail. Gould has arranged two males perched among ferns beside a pool in which one pheasant is reflected, while a large butterfly (Papilo Paris) flies by.

Lady Sarah Amherst (1762-1838), who gave her name to this species, was the wife of the Governor-General of India and a keen naturalist. She brought two pheasants back to England in 1828 which Sir Archibald Campbell, the commander of the British forces in the Burmese war, had been given by the defeated King of Burma. The pheasants couldn't take the British climate and died within weeks of their arrival. Lady Amherst had one stuffed, which was copied by Gould and Richter 30 years later.

One of the last plates added to The Birds of Asia was Bulwer's Pheasant by Joseph Wolf (pounds 3,000-pounds 5,000). Gould's assistant and biographer, Dr Bowdler Sharpe, recalled that "it was a real pleasure to see the delight which animated the old naturalist when, in his invalid days, I took him some startling new form of bird, such as Bulwer's Pheasant, to be figured in his Birds of Asia." On seeing it, Gould "exclaimed that there was only one man in the world who could do justice to such a splendid creature... Mr Wolf."

The smaller birds were more difficult to turn into artistic sensations, and look more like vignettes. Hart is particularly good at giving them a jewel-like finish, as with the two Streak-throated Barwing perched on the branch of a flowering bush (pounds 2,500-pounds 3,000). The species had been discovered by a mountaineer, Major Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen, in the Naga Hills of Assam. He lent Gould a stuffed one for Hart to copy.

The only Gould watercolour in the sale is Swinhoe's Pheasant (pounds 2,000- pounds 3,000), very blue and white, crouching in the grass. Swinhoe, who had been vice-consul in Formosa, wrote to Gould in 1862 that he would "esteem it a favour both for private and public reasons if you would name the new Fireback Pheasant after me... It would not perhaps be entirely vain in me to claim as specially mine own the most interesting bird that I have managed to introduce into the scientific world."

Though Gould's birds were generally painted by other artists, it is no matter of personal vanity that the plates are remembered by his name. His 12,395 stuffed birds were bought after his death by the British Museum, and his humming birds are still on display at South Kensington.

! Watercolours for 'The Birds of Asia' will be sold at Christie's on Friday 15 December at 11am. Viewing from today.