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These very rare prints of birds by J.G. Keulemans depict male and female pairs of the genus Moho from Laysan Island in the Hawaiian chain. Laysan Island was home to an astonishing array of bird species in the 19th century and now part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. In 1890, the British natural history collector Lionel Walter Rothschild sent a sailor named Henry Palmer on a collecting expedition to Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, with special emphasis on Laysan. Palmer spent over two years accumulating almost 2,000 specimens, including 15 species previously unknown in the West, many of which have since become extinct. These served as the basis for Rothschild’s monograph The Avifauna of Laysan and the Neighbouring Islands, which included 83 plates, 55 of which were hand-colored lithographs, mostly by Keulemans.
The two Moho species pictured in these plates are now on the official list of extinct species, probably due to habitat destruction and introduction of disease-causing mosquitoes. In the 1890s, only four species of Moho were known in Hawaii, and Rothschild wrote in his monograph that the scientific community suspected that Moho apicalis, commonly known as the O’ahu ‘o’o, had already disappeared, given that the last three specimens had been collected in 1837. Concerning the other Mohos, Palmer reported that they were shy birds, difficult to shoot, and found at elevations of over 2,000 feet, where they lived high in the trees. Moho nobilis, known as the Hawaii ‘o’o, was last collected in 1898 and last seen in 1934.
John Gerrard Keulemans was the most sought-after bird artist in Europe from roughly 1870 to 1910, esteemed for his high standard of scientific accuracy. Working largely from bird specimens, he had a special talent for creating drawings that were both anatomically correct and aesthetically striking. A skilled lithographer as well, he was unusual among natural history artists in that he generally transferred his own drawings to plates. In his early twenties, the Dutch-born Keulemans was mentored by Dr. Herman Schlegel, a renowned zoologist and director of the natural history museum in Leiden, who brought him on an ornithological expedition to Africa and then hired him onto the museum staff and encouraged his artistic development. Soon Keulemans attracted his own commissions for natural history illustrations, mainly from England, a center for study of the zoological specimens arriving from farflung expeditions. In 1869, he received a major assignment from Richard Bowdler Sharpe of the Zoological Society of London to produce 120 lithographs for his Monograph of the Alcedinidae, or Family of Kingfishers and thereafter pursued his artistic career in Britain, illustrating monographs and scientific journal articles by leading ornithologists. He was one of several well-known artists who contributed to Lord Thomas Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands (1885-1897), a seven-volume work contained 421 plates, representing late 19th-century chromolithography at its best. Keulemans illustrated many volumes of the British Museum’s Catalogue of Birds (1874-1898). He also illustrated other natural history subjects, including a book on monkeys.
Lionel Walter Rothschild, 3rd baronet and 2nd Baron Rothschild, was a member of British branch of the wealthy and influential Rothschild family. His position required him to work in the family business of banking and finance until he was allowed to give it up in 1908, and to serve as a member of the House of Lords in Parliament. In the meantime he used his wealth to pursue his true passion, collecting and researching zoological specimens especially in the areas of ornithology and entomology, building the largest such collection ever accumulated by an individual. While he did some of his own on site collecting, he also contracted with other people to acquire specimens for him, and employed a staff to mount, curate and document his collections. A respected authority in his own right, he published important scientific papers and monographs throughout his life. He was also active in Jewish causes and directed the Balfour Declaration in 1917 approving a Jewish homeland in Palestine on behalf of the British government. Rothschild was elected a Trustee of the British Museum in 1899 and elected to the Royal Society in 1911. Today his collections are housed in the American Museum of Natural History and the British Museum (Natural History).
The entire original publication of Rothschild’s The Avifauna of Laysan has been scanned and placed online by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries on the web site “Rothschild: Birds of Laysan. Full Text Edition,” edited by Leslie K. Overstreet. The plates related to the four species of Moho can be viewed at http://web4.si.edu/sil/rothschild/toc.cfm by selecting Plates 72-75, and the text by selecting Part III, pp. 217-228. The plate related to the Canada Goose is Plate 80, and the text is in Part III, p. 279.
Brooks, T. “Moho apicalis.” 2000. In: IUCN 2003. 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. http://www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=13624 (1 November 2004).
Brooks, T. “Moho nobilis.” 2000. In: IUCN 2003. 2003 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. http://www.redlist.org/search/details.php?species=13625 (1 November 2004).
Fontana, Elizabeth, ed. "John Gerrard Keulemans." Beautiful Birds: Masterpieces from the Hill Ornithology Collection, Cornell University Library. June 1999. http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/ornithology/exhibit/exhibit5d.htm (3 June 2002).
Overstreet, Leslie K. “Rothschild: Birds of Laysan.” Smithsonian Institution Libraries. February 2002. http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/nhrarebooks/rothschild/essays/overstreet_rothschild.htm (1 November 2004).