Extracted with kind permission from the author's book, The Great Bird Illustrators and Their Art, 1730-1930 (see bibliography), and illustrated with images from our own website. Click on these to enlarge them, and for more information where available. Cross-references in the original have been omitted. — JB

Joseph Wolf aged seventy-two. "Photogravure from a photograph by the author" (frontispiece to Palmer).

Josef Wolf, "The Bird Man" from Möerz in Prussia, was the first of a select band of continental European bird and animal artists to be attracted to England during the middle and latter half of the nineteenth century — Smit, Keulemans, and Grönvold were to follow suit. Born on 21 January 1820, in the village of Möerz near Coblenz, the son of a farmer and local headman, young Josef was regarded as something of an oddity by his family and friends as he slipped away to watch and trap birds, try his hand at drawing, or walk the twenty miles to Neuwied to observe the rare South American birds collected by Prince Maximillian. He was also regarded as an idler for, like other boys of his age, he was expected to work hard on his father’s farm. At the age of sixteen he left home and apprenticed himself for three years to the lithographic firm of Gebruder Becker in Coblenz; this training as a lithographer was not only to gain him the grudging respect of his family and to stand him in good stead throughout his life, but also to assist, at least in part, in getting him his first important commission from Hermann Schlegel, a fellow countryman who was at that time assistant keeper at the museum in Leyden. Schlegel, no mean artist himself, was a prolific author and advocate of lithography as the best and most direct process for the illustration of ornithological works.

After brief spells in Frankfurt and Darmstadt, Wolf went to Holland and settled in Leyden in 1840; he was soon at work on the illustrations for Traité de Fauconnerie by Schlegel and Wulverhorst. The collaboration with Schlegel was to continue over several years as the Traité de Fauconnerie was followed by Birds of Japan which formed part of von Siebold’s Fauna Japonica. The success of these plates did not satisfy Wolf, who still felt he had much to learn, so in 1847 he enrolled as a student of painting at the Antwerp Academy. Wolf’s big break came when Dr Kaup visited England bringing some of the artist’s studies with him, which resulted in John Gould commissioning directly a watercolour of partridges; realizing the importance of this commission and also the potential market for his work in England, Wolf moved to London in 1848.

He quickly established himself in London, exhibited at the Royal Academy — his first exhibit there in 1849, Woodcocks seeking Shelter, had been commissioned by Gould — made contacts with Edwin Landseer and other animal artists, and also with influential patrons like the Duke of Argyll and Lord Derby. The rapidity of the growth of his reputation was due, according to his biographer A.H, Palmer, to his power "of revivifying a dried skin and not merely revivifying, but showing the most characteristic and beautiful attitude and expression of the living bird or animal." This in turn was due to the fact that as a boy he had spent a lot of time studying the attitudes of birds, both at rest and in flight, in the woodlands and heathlands near his father’s farm, and had realized at an early age that the stance and flight of a bird were as distinctive as its markings.

Caprimulgus Vexillarius (Palmer, facing p. 30).

Wolf had an amused respect for Gould and contributed plates to both The Birds of AsiaThe Birds of Great Britain, and Gould became a frequent although not always welcome visitor to Wolf's studio; in 1856 the two artists travelled together through Norway. By the early 1850s Wolf was already held in such repute that P.L. Sclater, writing the preface to Zoological Sketches (First Series), was able to say "In the year 1852 the Council of the Zoological Society, impressed with the sense of the great value of an artistic record of the living form and expression of the many rare species of animals which exist from time to time in the menagerie, resolved to commence the formation of a series of original water-colour drawings to illustrate the most interesting of these subjects. For this purpose the Council was fortunate enough to secure the services of Mr Joseph Wolf, who may be fairly said to stand alone in intimate knowledge of the habits and forms of Mammals and Birds." A selection of the original watercolours was reproduced in the two series of Zoological Sketches published in parts between 1856-67.

Left: The White-Tailed Deer (Wolf ). Right: The Greenland Falcon (Wolf ).

By this stage in his career, Wolf’s watercolours were in considerable demand both in their own right and as illustrations to books and journals; from 1859-69 he was the regular artist for Ibis the journal of the Zoological Society, and his work was also reproduced in the Illustrated London News, Once a Week, The Leisure Hour, The Sunday at Home, and The Graphic, so it is not surprising that the job of transferring his watercolour drawings onto the lithographic stone gradually passed to other artists.

Wolf was not always happy with the results that these lithographers produced and on one occasion, while looking at a very curious sky that had found its way into one of these lithographs, he remarked “And then they did the clouds you see; one — two — three — four! They weren’t even asked for that." However, in some cases he was luckier; J.G. Keulemans was employed to transfer the watercolours for Elliot’s A Monograph of the Phasianeidae, a combination that was particularly successful since Keulemans had a penchant for bright colours, while Wolf, one of the greatest bird artists of the nineteenth century, was most completely at home with the more muted colouring of the birds of prey. Unfortunately, during the 1870s, Wolf was increasingly hindered by the onset of chronic rheumatism, which gradually curtailed his work, but he lived on into his eightieth year and died in London surrounded by his pet birds and held in high popular esteem. More than three-quarters of a century later his plates are regarded as among the finest productions of the great period of the illustrated book, while his watercolours and drawings are prized by museums and collectors alike.

Links to Related Material


Palmer, A.H. The Life of Joseph Wolf, Animal Painter. London: Longmans, Green. 1895. Internet Archive, from a copy in the University of California Libraries. Web. 3 October 2023.

Wolf, Joseph. Zoological Sketches: Made for the Zoological Society of London from Animals in Their Vivarium, in the Regent's Park. Edited, with Notes, by P. L. Sclater. 2 vols. Vol. I. London: Henry Graves, 1861. Internet Archive, from a copy in Harvard University, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Ernst Mayer Library. We. 4 October 2023.

Created 3 October 2023