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While Elizabeth Gould was busy growing her family and developing her art in England, her brothers, Stephen and Charles Coxen, had both emigrated to Australia. The two men often sent specimens of local birds to their brother-in-law from their new homes in New South Wales. It was these colourful and unfamiliar specimens that gave John Gould the idea for his most ambitious work to date.
Up to this point, the range of bird life in Australia was virtually unknown to European naturalists. John Gould decided he would publish the first comprehensive work of Australian ornithology – and Elizabeth, of course, would do the illustrations. From 1837, the Goulds worked from specimens sent by collectors in Australia, including the Coxen brothers. Two parts of The Birds of Australia were issued in this time. This initial attempt was abandoned, and the parts recalled, when it quickly became clear that the speed and quantity in which they required specimens far outstripped the capabilities of 19th century intercontinental delivery services.
For the project to succeed, John and Elizabeth Gould would need to travel to Australia and observe the birds for themselves. In May 1838, John and Elizabeth Gould, their oldest son John Henry, collector John Gilbert, and Elizabeth’s nephew Henry Coxen embarked on the five-month voyage from England to Tasmania. Their three youngest children were left in the care of Elizabeth's mother and family friends the Mitchells. They would not see them again for two years.
Hobart, Lady Jane, and a new Franklin
The Gould party first arrived in Hobart, Tasmania in September 1838, where they were to base themselves until August 1839. Their arrival was met with excitement by the colonists; an article appeared in the Hobart Town Carrier praising John and Elizabeth’s previous work:
Of all the Ornithological paintings, those of Mr. and Mrs. Gould’s are far the most natural and beautiful […] Mr. and Mrs. Gould are now in the colony, to which they have come at great expense and sacrifice of comfort purely with the view of making this work still more valuable by taking their drawings from living specimens. The Hobart Town Carrier, October 12, 1838.
The Goulds soon made the acquaintance of Van Diemen’s Land Lieutenant-Governor John Franklin and his intrepid wife, Lady Jane Franklin, who accompanied John on a thwarted expedition to the south coast of Tasmania. Elizabeth and Lady Jane developed a close friendship. While John Gould went on collecting expeditions in Tasmania, New South Wales, and South Australia, Elizabeth remained in Hobart, staying in Government House with the Franklins. This was a busy time for Elizabeth Gould, who occupied herself with studying and sketching Tasmanian botanical life to feature in the backgrounds of plates, while preparing for the birth of another child. Her son, Franklin, was born at Government House in Tasmania and named after her hosts.
Arriving in Sydney
In August 1839 the Gould party bid the Franklins farewell and continued their journey onto Sydney, where they stayed with Dr George Bennett, curator of the Australian Museum, for ten days. On the journey from Hobart, Elizabeth Gould began to keep a diary. Elizabeth was impressed by her first impressions of Sydney, writing:
[I] was much pleased with the heads at the entrance of the harbour […] perpendicular rocks having the appearance of having been rent asunder by some convulsion of nature, from the mouth of the harbour the town of Sydney is beautifully situated on a gently rising ground at the farthest end of the deep bay, and bears evident marks of its prosperity. Elizabeth Gould's journal, 3 September 1839.
Almost immediately upon their arrival, they were invited to a ball at Government House. Elizabeth initially wished to decline due to the expense involved in purchasing appropriate attire but was assisted by her brother Stephen who “did all that was needful and more”. Elizabeth apparently “made up well” in her new clothes – “He [Stephen] decidedly approved and said if John went off the hooks I should soon pick up a capital match.”
Elizabeth Gould in the Hunter Region
On September 14, 1839, the Goulds caught an overnight steamboat from Sydney to Newcastle and then travelled onto Maitland. It was during this time that Elizabeth experienced her first and only camping trip out bush, when she and her sons accompanied John to Mosquito Island where he collected with Alexander Walker Scott. The uniqueness of this experience for a middle-class woman is revealed in a letter to Elizabeth from Jane Franklin, in which the latter exclaims,
I almost envy you to hear of you living in tents on the Hunter and what do you do next? Lady Jane Franklin in a letter to Elizabeth Gould, 15 January 1840.
While in Maitland, Elizabeth Gould spent much of her time working. Several of her diary entries from Maitland mention drawing all day. Elizabeth was astounded by the beauty and birdlife of the Hunter Valley:
Walked on the race course before breakfast the air balmy and very delightful, great numbers of the blue mountain parrots [Rainbow Lorikeet] were making their morning meal on a large kind of the Eucalypti – two of the beautiful Nankeen night herons passed over our heads – and we heard the curious note of the caul [cowl] bird or bald-headed friar [Noisy Friarbird] – returned with an excellent appetite – drew all day Elizabeth Gould's journal, 26 September 1839.
From Maitland, Elizabeth travelled onto her brother Stephen’s homestead at Yarrundi, where she and her sons stayed while John continued to explore. This separation wore on Elizabeth: “it is particularly unpleasant to us to be so frequently separated, but of course my going with him is out of the question”. Although she and her sons had enjoyed the novelty of a single night of camping with the explorers on Mosquito Island, for her to hazard the dangers of serious exploration with an infant in tow would have been nearly impossible.
Return to England
After four months, John and Elizabeth Gould left Yarrundi in February 1840 and returned to Sydney. Elizabeth stayed in the town while John collected in the Illawarra district. In April 1840, after nineteen months in Australia, they boarded a ship and left Sydney for England. Elizabeth spent the journey home continuing to work on her drawings.
Elizabeth and John Gould arrived in England on August 18, 1840, with hundreds of sketches and specimens, several live birds, a new son, and a desperate desire to be reunited with their family. For the journey had weighed heavily on Elizabeth: while she and her husband’s careers would be made from their expedition, her thoughts had never strayed far from the children she had left behind:
I am very anxious to get back to home sweet home. I am very glad my dear Mother continues so well, it is my constant prayer that I may be permitted to see her again. And the dear little tots, how I long to see them. Elizabeth Gould in a letter to Mrs Mitchell, 6 December 1839
Tragically, she had little time left with them. Within a year of her homecoming, Elizabeth Gould would be dead.
All quotations taken from Sauer, Gordon C. John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works. Maurizio Martino, Mansfield Centre (Connecticut): 1998-2006.