Peter Paillou
circa 1720-1790
The Swallow Tailed Sheildrake

PROVENANCE: Private collection, England.

Signed and dated in brush [lower left corner on wooden stumps] Peter Paillou 1771, gouache on vellum

371 x 526 mm. (14 7/8 x 20 3/4 in.)



By Peter Mazell, plate 154, Thomas Pennant, The British Zoology, Class 1 quadrupeds, 2 birds, 1766.

The present gouache was engraved with minor differences in Thomas Pennants The British Zoology, the post on the left was not included in the engraving nor the brief landscape on the right [see Figure 1]. It is interesting to note that this drawing is dated after the engraving. This can be explained by the fact that it is common for artists to date works when they sell them, this is a typical practice amongst artists of all periods, including today1.

The entry in Pennants book on this print reads,

The male of this elegant species weighs two pounds and ten ounces, the length is two feet, the breadth three and a half. The bill is of bright red, and the base swells in a knob, which is most conspicuous in the spring, the head and upper part of the neck is of a fine blackish green; the lower part of the neck white, the breast and upper part of the back is surrounded by a broad band of bright orange bay, the coverts of the wings and the middle of the back are white, the scapulars black, the greater quill feathers are black; the exterior of the neck are of a fine green, and those of the last orange, the coverts of the tail are white, the tail itself of the same colour and except the two outmost feathers tipt with black, the belly white, divided lengthways by a black line, the legs of a pale flesh colour. These birds inhabit the sea coast, and breed in rabbit holes. They lay fifteen or sixteen eggs, white, and of a roundish shape. In winter they collect in great flocks. Their flesh is rank and bad.

The British Zoology is an exceedingly important publication and is arguably the first serious systematic treatment of a national zoology that was financially accessible to the average person. It was antedated by Pennant's folio edition (1761-6) which had a briefer text but 132 magnificent folio hand colored engravings. This is a scholarly treatise and Pennant describes and discusses 233 species of birds with a synonymy that includes Linnaean nomenclature and with a variable life history depending on knowledge of the time. The essay on migration is particularly important. Pennant comes down strongly on the side of southward dispersal, even of swallows, and completely debunks the contemporary notion that they might hibernate under ice. The entire work contains 139 uncolored engraved plates including two that are folding and unnumbered. Of these, 77 are ornithological. Many plates do not contain designations for artist and engraver. Of those that do, Peter Mazell is invariably the engraver and the artists for the ornithological plates include Peter Paillou, Desmoulins, De Seve, George Edwards and Moses Griffith. The fish were mostly drawn by G. Wilkinson.

Both this and An Egyptian Goose are drawn on vellum, a medium that Paillou used frequently, but not exclusively since it was more expensive than paper. The vellum support ensured that the quality of the watercolour and gouache remained luminous.

1.I would like to thank Lowell Libson for providing this explanation.