Born into a military family in England in 1804, Elizabeth was probably taught to draw and paint, skills that were expected of middle- and upper-class women of the time. At 22, she was working (unhappily) as a governess. Her brother, a taxidermist, introduced her to one of his colleagues, John Gould. They married in 1829 when they were both 24.
John wanted to write a book about birds from the Himalayas and informed a no-doubt-surprised Elizabeth that she would do all the drawings, paintings, and lithographs. She taught herself the new art of lithography while pregnant with their first child. Elizabeth designed and illustrated 80 lithographs of 100 bird species, all hand colored.
When the book was published, John listed only himself on the title page. In the preface, John noted her “well-known abilities” in “delineating these birds.” Although Elizabeth didn’t sign any of her artwork, each plate bears a small credit: “Drawn from nature on stone by E. Gould.” The book was a huge success, leading to another project on the birds of Europe.
Over the next five years, Elizabeth worked on the illustrations and created 448 plates for the book. She also gave birth to five more children, but only three survived.
During this time, Charles Darwin brought back bird specimens from the Galapagos Islands, and Elizabeth created the illustrations to go with John’s text about the birds. One of these was of the famous Galapagos finches, referred to in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Elizabeth’s name didn’t appear on any of the illustrations.
With another successful book, John now wanted to tackle Australian birds. Elizabeth’s brothers both had farms in New South Wales, so the Goulds could base themselves there for the new project.
Elizabeth didn’t want to travel to Australia. The Goulds had four surviving children, and the plan was to take their oldest son (age seven) with them, leaving the three youngest children with Elizabeth’s mother. The idea of leaving behind her youngest child Louisa (only six months old) was extremely distressing, and Elizabeth nearly didn’t go. However, John insisted, so they traveled to Australia in 1838.
In her letters to her mother and diaries, she didn’t talk about her art. She missed her children and mother and was frustrated by the separation. She stayed busy, working on hundreds of drawings and paintings and learning about native plants as well as the birds. She worried about how many bird specimens her husband was collecting, calling him “a great enemy of the feathered tribe,” and wrote to her mother: “I hope he leaves some of the birds in the skies.”
As a zoological artist, Elizabeth faced real challenges in the days before photography. Bird specimens to draw from were collected, killed, and stuffed. The resulting illustration was often stilted and unnatural, a style referred to now as “birds on a stick.” Their time in Australia allowed Elizabeth to observe and draw birds in their native habitat. Her art had to be scientifically accurate, lifelike, and beautiful—she achieved all three.
While John Gould never put her name on the title page of any of their books, he did name an Australian bird to memorialize Elizabeth, calling it the Gouldian Finch. He noted that his late wife had “laboriously assisted me with her pencil, accompanied me to Australia, and cheerfully interested herself in all my pursuits.” Ironically, even though he named the bird in honor of Elizabeth, he used only his surname.