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Throughout her married life, Elizabeth Gould was forced into a delicate balancing act between supporting her husband’s burgeoning career and raising the children they had created together. For Elizabeth, these two priorities were placed into direct conflict when the couple travelled to Australia to conduct fieldwork, leaving three of their children behind.
The family business
When Elizabeth married John Gould in 1829, it is unlikely that she expected her life to be dominated by assisting him with artistic endeavours. However, while Elizabeth may not have anticipated being pulled into her husband’s ornithological world so completely, it was not unheard of for a woman’s artistic education to be put to some use in her marriage. Many young ladies received tutoring in drawing, which was considered a suitable “ladylike” past time, along with embroidery and music.
As Caroline Jordan states in her 2005 book Picturesque Pursuits: Colonial Women Artists and the Amateur Tradition, although young women were not expected to make their own living from their artistic education, they were expected to put it to use within the confines of marriage (which may explain why there is no surviving artwork done by Elizabeth prior to her marriage):
It was bad form for girls to take their pursuits too seriously, or to take too much pride in them. The goal of women’s art was service and usefulness to husband and children, not selfish indulgence. For this reason, it was recommended girls not develop their accomplishments too much before marriage, so they could tailor them to their husbands interests.
Notwithstanding Elizabeth Gould’s artistic talent, there may have been another reason why John Gould enlisted her to create the art for A Century of Birds of the Himalaya Mountains rather than a more experienced artist – he was not required to pay his wife for her time and efforts. While this was a transition that Gould made remarkably smoothly following Elizabeth’s death (enlisting Henry Constantine Richter in finishing the plates for The Birds of Australia mere days after her passing), this would have been far more difficult a decade earlier, when his publishing and entrepreneurial credentials were untried and untested.
“And the dear little tots, how I long to see them”
For Elizabeth Gould, the decision to accompany her husband to Australia was heartrending. On the one hand, Elizabeth was essential to her husband’s livelihood. Without his principal artist in tow to draw Australian bird specimens from life, John’s project was destined to fail. On the other hand, Elizabeth was a mother as well as a working wife. The possibility of bringing the entire family along to Australia was out of the question; while their oldest son John Henry would go with his parents, the three youngest Gould children would have to stay behind.
Along with three small children, Elizabeth had an ailing mother who she would be leaving behind for at least two years. Not only that, but there was a five-month delay on news sent from the other side. If the worst were to befall her family in England, Elizabeth would know nothing of it until nearly half a year had passed.
Elizabeth corresponded frequently with her mother and friends in England while in Australia, and also kept a diary for a five week period towards the end of 1839; most of her surviving writing dates from this time. Her correspondence during her time in Australia reflects her yearning and a strong sense of maternal guilt. In a letter to her mother from Sydney, she writes:
I saw yesterday a little girl who so strongly reminded me of Lizzy, my darling, that I could scarcely leave her. Of the looks of my poor dear Louisa I cannot form a correct judgment […] Oh, my dear mother, how happy shall I be if permitted to see you once more and my dear children. Does my Charley grow a nice boy? Is he altered much? Pray give my love to all our friends, none of whom are forgotten by us. Elizabeth Gould, letter to her mother, 13 September 1839. In John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works by Gordon C Sauer, 1998-2006
Three months later, she again expresses homesickness in a letter to family friend (and her children’s guardian) Mrs Mitchell, from her brother Stephen’s estate at Yarrundi:
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. I suppose poor little Louisa toddles about by this time quite strong at least I will hope so. Dear Charles and Eliza too. I am often fancying what they will be like on our return[,] most likely they will be much altered. Elizabeth Gould, letter to Mrs Mitchell, 6 December 1839. In John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works by Gordon C Sauer, 1998-2006
Elizabeth Gould's maternal worries were ever-present, even for the children with her in Australia. Between the short accounts of scenery and the weather in her diary are entries detailing her worry over her infant son Franklin’s health:
Baby was rather poorly while in Sydney. His disorder has increased he is losing flesh poor little fellow he has been put out of his accustomed habits lately. Elizabeth Gould's journal, 13 September 1839. In John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works by Gordon C Sauer, 1998-2006
Received invitation to dine with Mr Jackson and Mr Erskine both of which I excused myself from on the plea of baby not being very well - Poor child he gets thinner and looks poorly. Elizabeth Gould's journal, 17 September 1839. In John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works by Gordon C Sauer, 1998-2006
"I cannot regret our coming"
To this day, it is unclear to what extent Elizabeth felt and exercised agency in her artistic career. Unfortunately, little correspondence exists from Elizabeth’s early life or the early years of her marriage, so her feelings on her sudden career change from wife to working artist are unknown to us. There is very little evidence that Elizabeth’s artistic pursuits extended outside of her husband’s orbit – her surviving artwork, and correspondence about her art, all relate to her work with John Gould. It is further complicated by the fact that he outlived her by four decades, his ongoing career and fame eclipsing his early work and his contributions for many years.
It is also hard to judge Elizabeth’s agency by our twenty-first century standards. It is certain that Elizabeth took pride and pleasure from her art, and her participation in her family’s livelihood. Although her early death at 37 paints her as a tragic figure, Elizabeth Gould found purpose and meaning in her work with her husband:
Indeed John is so enthusiastic that one cannot be with him without catching some of his zeal in the cause, and I cannot regret our coming though looking anxiously forward to our return. Elizabeth Gould, letter to her mother, 8 October 1838. In John Gould The Bird Man: Correspondence, with a Chronology of his Life and Works by Gordon C Sauer, 1998-2006