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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gould, Elizabeth (1804–1841)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Elizabeth Gould, painted after her death

Elizabeth Gould, painted after her death

Elizabeth Gould (1804-1841), natural history artist, was born on 18 July 1804 at Ramsgate, England, the daughter of Nicholas Coxen, a member of a family that was largely devoted to the army and the sea. As a young woman she became governess with a family in London, and it was probably through her artistic work, to which talent she added languages and music, that she met the zoologist, John Gould. They married in January 1829, when both were aged 24, and they had four children when, in 1838, Gould resolved to extend his ornithological studies by visiting Australia, a decision that was partly prompted by the fact that two of Mrs Gould's brothers, Stephen and Charles Coxen, were on the land in New South Wales.

Facing a severe wrench in agreeing to accompany her husband to Australia, Mrs Gould left her three youngest children with her mother and took the eldest, Henry, aged 7, on the journey, together with a nephew of 15, Henry Coxen, who later became a prosperous pastoralist in Queensland. As her letters reveal, she never ceased to worry about the children at home, though in Hobart Town she found solace in warm friendship with Lady Jane Franklin, and while there and in New South Wales she was kept continually occupied in executing drawings for her husband's projected publications on the birds of Australia. Moreover, she had to care for an additional child, a 'little Tasmanian' born in Hobart in 1838 and named Franklin after the lieutenant-governor, Sir John Franklin.

Mrs Gould left Sydney with her husband and the two children in April 1840, and in August she fulfilled her poignant desire to see again her mother and the three children in England. In the next year she gave birth to a sixth child, and on 15 August 1841 she died at the age of 37. It would appear that the strain of motherhood, together with the executing of approximately 600 drawings for publications, had sapped her vitality.

Subsequently knowledge of Mrs Gould became almost totally eclipsed by the fame of her husband. In 1938, however, a considerable number of letters which she wrote from Australia were discovered in the possession of her great-grandsons in England, and through these she became revealed as a cultured and gracious woman, and a shrewd observer of the social scene in Australia. In 1964 additional letters were recovered and published, and these further emphasized the amiable and informed character of their writer. All of the letters are now in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Mrs Gould is commemorated in the name of the beautiful gouldian finch of tropical Australia, Chloebia (Poëphila) gouldiae. And, of course, her numerous drawings remain in her husband's books: all, if necessarily formal, are admirable examples of their kind.

Of the three sons, Henry became a doctor and died in India in 1855, aged 25; Franklin, who also became a doctor, died at sea in 1873, aged 33; and Charles, sometime a government geologist in Tasmania, died at Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1893, aged about 58. All three daughters lived to become elderly, but only the eldest, Eliza (Elizabeth), married, and although she married twice she had only one child, a daughter. Although all six of the Gould children became adults they failed to perpetuate the family name. A portrait is in the possession of her great-grandson, Dr Alan Edelsten, England.

Select Bibliography

  • A. H. Chisholm, The Story of Elizabeth Gould (Melb, 1944)
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘Elizabeth Gould: Some "New" Letters’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 49, part 5, Jan 1964, pp 321-36.

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Gould, Elizabeth (1804–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 29 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Elizabeth Gould, painted after her death

Elizabeth Gould, painted after her death