A Question of Authority
Australian Pelican, Pelecanus conspicillatus from Frederick McCoy's 'Notes on aquatic birds of Australia'
Released Under Licence - CC BY Credits and acknowledgements - Source: Museum Victoria / Artist: Presumed to be Arthur Bartholomew.Copyright
Copyright Museum Victoria
Undoubtedly one of the most recognisable figures in Australian ornithology is the English ornithologist and publisher John Gould (1804–1881). Gould journeyed to Australia in 1838 to prepare his seven-volume Birds of Australia (1848-1869), but chose not to visit Victoria believing he would see the same birds elsewhere in Australia. Nevertheless, Gould's work was an important source of information for Victorian ornithologists.
The museum purchased its first volumes in 1854 and immediately put them on public display. They were so popular the curator, William Blandowski wrote to the government demanding glass cabinets for them, as they were sustaining great wear under the strain of constant handling. As the public library did not open until 1856, this was the first publicly available copy in Victoria.
Given the comprehensive scope of Gould’s endeavor, it has often been assumed that the first director of the National Museum of Victoria, Frederick McCoy (1817-1899), neglected ornithology in favour of disciplines that offered opportunities for new research and publication. However, these illustrations in the museum’s collection show that McCoy was quietly challenging Gould’s supremacy.
McCoy commissioned detailed miniaturized copies of illustrations from Birds of Australia. McCoy’s miniatures are probably the work of artist Arthur Bartholomew, McCoy’s personal illustrator and lithographer for more than 40 years.
The miniatures show McCoy following the well-established tradition of copying the canons to promote learning. Wearing his other hat, as foundation professor of natural science at the University of Melbourne, he was compiling a visual reference of the aquatic birds present in Victoria from Gould’s work. The annotations indicate that McCoy was also adding more detailed observations about habitat, behavior and distribution particular to Victoria.
Here for the first time several published plates and miniatures are reunited.