Bird prints were quite easy to find in second-hand bookshops 50 years ago. They represented birds of all kinds - domestic as well as tropical, small and soberly coloured as well as extravagantly showy, and a single individual or sometimes a pair of the same species to a page. Each had a title at the bottom giving the bird's name in both English and Latin, suggesting that the books concerned had scientific pretensions. And on either side of the main title were the credits: ''del'', short for delineavit, to indicate the artist who drew the image; ''lith'' - lithographit - for the draughtsman responsible for transferring the design to lithographic stone; and ''imp'' - impressit - for the printer. One name occurred more than any other in these credits - either as del or lith or, indeed, both - Gould.
There were, in fact, two Goulds: John and Elizabeth, his wife. In 1830, John Gould was working for the newly founded Zoological Society of London as its official taxidermist. Zoology at this time was still preoccupied with compiling an inventory of the world's species. Sometimes the Society imported animals as scientifically prepared skins and skeletons. Sometimes they arrived alive and were put on show in enclosures in the Society's newly established gardens in Regent's Park, the London Zoo. John Gould's job was to take skins from both sources and mount them for exhibition.
Towards the end of 1830, the Society received a hundred or so bird skins from a collector working in the Himalaya mountains. Many were of species hitherto unknown and some were extremely spectacular. Gould had to prepare them for exhibition, but he also decided that, as a private venture, he would publish illustrations of them. He would persuade Elizabeth to draw them in watercolour and then, using the newly invented technique of lithography, produce prints and issue them to subscribers in groups of a dozen or so. The concept was a bold and innovative one. But it was not Gould's. It had been conceived by another man, 10 years his junior, who was also working for the Society. His name was Edward Lear.
In 1830, Lear was only 18 years old, bespectacled, shy and asthmatic. He was born in Highgate - at that time a village north of London - the 20th child of a bankrupt and widowed businessman, and brought up largely by his elder sister, Ann. She, like so many properly educated young ladies of the day, was a proficient watercolourist and she encouraged her brother to try his hand at the art. He proved to have considerable facility and happily produced fanciful pictures of imaginary colourful birds as well as quite accurate drawings of butterflies and flowers.
With his father bankrupt, Lear had to earn his living from a very early age and he did so, initially, by painting decorations on the backs of ladies' fans. He also, less romantically, earned money from doctors and hospitals by producing ''morbid drawings'', visual records of the diseases and afflictions of their patients. While doing this, at the age of 16, he worked as an assistant to one of the most prominent ornithologists of the time, Prideaux Selby, who was producing a work on British birds. Selby was a fellow of the Zoological Society, and it may have been through this connection that Lear was asked to produce one or two small illustrations for the Society's guide to their newly founded Gardens.
The illustrations in the guide were reproduced by wood engravings, as were most printed illustrations at that time. But this long-established technique was about to be displaced by the new process of lithography, which could reproduce an artist's drawing much more faithfully and sensitively. Here, the design was drawn with a wax crayon on the highly polished surface of a fine-grained limestone block. When the block was inked and wiped clean, the crayon lines retained enough oily ink to transfer the design to a piece of paper. So, for the very first time, it was possible for an artist to have his drawings reproduced several hundred times in all their subtlest detail exactly as he had drawn them. Each print could then be hand-coloured to match a pattern provided by the artist.
Young Lear was much taken by lithography and conceived the idea of drawing scientifically accurate portraits of birds and issuing them in groups of three or four lithographed plates to subscribers. A few years earlier, the American naturalist John James Audubon had started publishing prints of the birds of North America in this way. But Audubon's pictures were printed from engraved copper plates which, like wood engravings, did not have the delicacy and detail of lithographed drawings. Lear would also add scientific stature to his publication by devoting it to a single bird family, something that had not been done before. He chose the parrots.
It was a hugely ambitious enterprise for a young lad. In his lodgings in Gray's Inn Road, he would sketch the bird and transfer the design to a block of lithographic stone. He then had to carry the heavy block all the way to Great Marlborough Street, supervise the printing, have the design removed from the block by grinding the surface with carborundum grit, and then carry it all the way back to his lodgings to start work on the next subject. In between times, he had to keep sending out prospectuses to try and enrol more subscribers.
On November 1, 1830, he issued the first three of his parrot plates, without any accompanying text and enclosed in a pictorial folder. Only the birds themselves are coloured. The twigs and branches are only loosely sketched and left in black and white. Some plates of the smaller parakeets are rather tentative. But one or two, particularly the scarlet macaw and the sulphur-crested cockatoo, are splendidly conceived and executed, portents of the glories that were to come. But they attracted little attention. Subscribers did not materialise in the numbers Lear needed to cover his costs. Soon he was in considerable financial difficulties.
Gould watched the younger man struggling. But he could see the format's commercial possibilities and he decided to enter this new market himself. The recently arrived Himalayan bird collection provided him with an excellent subject. Gould himself had no real talent as an artist but his wife, Elizabeth, like Lear's sister, was a competent watercolourist. He therefore persuaded Lear to teach her the techniques needed for successful lithography and made rough sketches showing her the composition he wanted. Using his contacts in the Society he managed to enrol 296 subscribers, almost twice as many as Lear had for his parrots. And less than two months after Lear's second issue of parrot plates, Gould published the first instalment of his own book, A Century of Birds hitherto unfigured, from the Himalaya Mountains.
In artistic terms, it compared unfavourably with Lear's. Elizabeth's birds were stiff and lacking in life and posed somewhat awkwardly. None the less, the project attracted more attention than Lear's, doubtless aided by the fact that they were published by a full-time official of the Zoological Society. A reviewer in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, either ignoring or unaware of Lear's work, described Gould's Himalayan birds as ''by far the most accurately illustrated work on foreign ornithology that has been issued up to this period''.
The two projects continued to run in parallel for several months, but eventually the financial difficulties were too much for Lear and after his 42nd parrot plate was published - two short of his projected series - he had to give up. Gould now took over the project. Whether it was a generous act aimed at helping a younger and commercially less experienced man or a way of dealing with a competitor, who can say. But Gould not only bought up all Lear's unsold parrot prints, he also purchased copyright in them all, saying that he would arrange for the completion of the work. He never did.
Instead, even before the last of the Himalayan plates was issued, he started on another and even more ambitious project - The Birds of Europe. It would not break new scientific ground as the Himalayan volume had done, since all the species it portrayed were already well known. None the less, it would be more thorough than any predecessor and each plate would be accompanied by anatomical and geographical descriptions of the species concerned. The work was to have 22 parts, issued at three-monthly intervals and each containing 20 plates. Elizabeth Gould would deal with the more run-of-the-mill birds - thrushes, skylarks, tits and warblers. But the great dramatic birds, the eagles, the owls, the flamingo, the pelicans and the storks - they would be the work of Edward Lear.
And magnificent they are. Lear was now superbly confident in his art. He scorned the use of a draughtsman to transfer his designs to stone. He relished doing that work himself, and one can sense his delight in the strokes of his crayon, sometimes pen-sharp to inscribe tiny details, sometimes blunt and broad to delineate his subjects with splendid sweeping flourishes. His birds are seldom merely pretty. His pelican sits lugubriously beside a lagoon with an expression of long-suffering patience. The magnificent eagle owl grasps his perch with alarming strength and glowers at the spectator. But strangely, although Lear firmly and boldly signed his work on the barn owl plate, the credit beside the title at the bottom contradicts that. ''Del. and lith. by J.E. Gould'', it says. It is the same with the plate of the cinereous vulture. Was this just carelessness on Gould's part? Or a misunderstanding on the part of the calligrapher who inscribed the names?
Birds of Europe was an almost immediate success. Gould had now found the ideal formula. Even while his European birds were still in full production, he announced another project. This would not cover birds from a particular geographical area, like his first two productions. Instead, like Lear's aborted parrot project, it would focus on just one bird family and show all the species known to science. And what a family he chose - the toucans.
Thirty-three species had been identified at the time. Elizabeth Gould painted 14 of them. Lear did a further 10, and once again his plates include the best in the volume. Miraculously, they manage to convey the comic appearance of these engaging birds as they squint at us over their huge clownish bills, whilst at the same time hinting at their somewhat sinister character. The observer is not surprised to learn that these birds would steal and swallow a nestling - as they do.
But once again, Gould downplays Lear's contribution. There is no mention of his name in the text and, as in the Birds of Europe, one plate carries his handwritten signature beside the drawing, but Gould's name in the inscription. And in this instance, there can be no doubt about Gould's desire to claim the credit, for when the work was reissued in 1834, Lear's signature had been deliberately erased.
Did the young Mr Lear complain about this to his employer? There is no record that he did. Nor even that he betrayed any resentment. But, in his old age, he wrote that Gould ''was one I never liked really, for in spite of a certain jollity and bonhomie, he was a harsh and violent man''. By the time work on the toucans was finished, Lear had had enough. He told his master that his eyesight was no longer good enough for the detailed work needed for wildlife illustration. In July 1837, Lear left for Rome to start on his new career as a landscape painter.
I first knowingly saw one of Lear's bird plates in 1954. I had just returned from a three-month trip to Guyana, filming a collecting expedition that had been sent there by the London Zoo. We brought back hummingbirds, anacondas, caiman and marmosets, and I hankered after pictures of some of the spectacular birds which I had just seen for the first time in the wild. Many were the subject of Gould plates. Among the first I found was one of a toco toucan. It was a particularly dramatic composition, showing the bird with wings slightly lifted away from its body as if in threat and glaring balefully at the spectator who perhaps has approached a little too closely. And it was signed very emphatically ''E. Lear''. It was then that I discovered that the poet whose nonsense verses I had learnt as a child was also a superbly accomplished ornithological artist. From then on, I kept an eye out for more of his prints. One by one, I acquired them. The first cost only a pound or so, but as the decades passed, so the prices increased. Eventually I had them all - but one.
Gould had given his wife the task of drawing all the trogons except for the giant, Trogon gigas, which for some reason, he commissioned from Lear. It was the last work Lear undertook for Gould. The finished plate - once again - carries the credit ''Drawn from nature and on stone by J and E Gould'' but bibliographic experts agree that it was, indeed, drawn by Lear. It must have been the last he did. It took me a long time to find a copy and when I did it proved to be an early proof and had not yet been inscribed with credits. No one could claim it to be an example of Lear's finest work. But it was, after all, the last drawing Lear was to make for Gould, so none the less I bought it. How could I not, if it made the whole collection complete?
Then, a few months later, the drawing on which it was based appeared in a New York saleroom. It was unfinished, almost perfunctory, but it carried an inscription on the back, written by the same hand that catalogued the contents of Gould's studio after his death. It reads, ''Lear made drawings of birds for John Gould up to 1836 of which this is one, no doubt done in preparation for Gould's A Monograph of the Trogonidae (1838). As I found the drawing with others by Elizabeth Gould, it certainly belonged to John Gould.'' And that, happily, I was also able to acquire.
Birds drawn for John Gould by Edward Lear is a limited edition published by The Folio Society, $1995 and available from foliosociety.com/ELB
The Daily Telegraph, London