The Nuremberg Lizard, a supplement

It may be a coincidence, but the last two major discoveries concerning the history of the London Fancy and the Lizard canary have been made by European enthusiasts: Hein van Grouw (Netherlands) and Didier Mervilde (Belgium) in the case of the 1850 London Fancy, and Michael Monthofer (Germany) in the case of the Nuremberg Lizard.  Now Danielle Sugliani (France) has matched their achievements.

Those of you who followed the link in her comment to Part 1 will know that I am alluding to her discovery of a watercolour painting in the Taylor White collection at McGill University.  It shows a pair of canaries, but unlike the Nuremberg Lizard there can be no doubt about their identity.  Described simply as ‘the canary finch’, they are very early examples of the Lizard canary.  It is a candid portrayal, the sort of evidence I have been hoping to find ever since I started researching the history of the breed.

Taylor White
A portrait of Taylor White in his judge’s attire.
Source: Wikimedia (T1kkat3)

Taylor White (1701-1772) had many things in common with Christoph Jacob Trew, his German contemporary.  Both were wealthy professional men (White became a judge), keen collectors of natural history, and were elected as fellows of the Royal Society.  Both commissioned artists to illustrate their projects.  In White’s case they comprised a ‘who’s who’ of early British bird illustrators: Charles Collins, George Edwards, Eleazar Albin and above all, Peter Paillou.

Unlike Trew, however, White never published his collection of watercolours; instead he began to assemble a ‘paper museum’ in the 1730s.  By the time of his death, this amounted to 938 watercolour paintings assembled into six volumes of animals, one of fish and reptiles, and sixteen of birds.  Many of the paintings were supplemented with additional notes in a manuscript written in Latin by White.  The collection is now held at McGill University, Montreal, which has generously published the illustrations online (2).

Let’s take a closer look at the canaries.

Peter Paillou canaries
Close up of the canary birds by Peter Paillou.  Credit: McGill University.

The bird on the right displays a clear cap, spangles, modest rowings, dark wings and tail, and an amber ground colour.  It is not perfect: the cap is verging on bald-face, and there is variegation on the wing butt.  It is undoubtedly a clear cap gold cock Lizard canary, known at the time as a ‘jonque fancy bird’.  The bird on the left has a broken cap, spangles and a more subdued ground colour; it is presumably a mealy hen.  Her faults are more serious with a grizzled tail and extensive variegation in her wings and breast. 

It is not difficult to account for the faults.  These were early days in the development of the fine spangled sort.  Breeders had no books or internet to guide them; they had to work things out by trial and error.

You may recall that in Part 2 I repeated a quotation that Michael Monthofer had used in his article on the Nuremberg Lizard concerning the two principal divisions amongst canaries: ‘gay’ (i.e. clear) and ‘fancy’ birds (i.e. Lizards).  The anonymous writer, who was familiar with the activities of London’s canary societies, warned his readers that two should not be mixed:

“Careless breeders will often match a gay bird with a fancy bird, and then the produce, partaking of both kinds, are called mules; being foul, irregular birds, of no value to feather.” (3)

It is those ‘mules’ that we see here.  The advice, published in 1779, still holds good today.

The painting is unsigned, but is ascribed to Peter Paillou, a London born Huguenot.  Not much is known about him; even the years of his birth and death (1720-1790) are approximate (4).  He began producing watercolours for White’s ‘paper museum’ in 1744 and continued for almost 30 years.  He also produced oil paintings which better demonstrate his technical skills.

A farm birds by Peter Paillou
Oil painting of farmyard birds by Peter Paillou.  Credit: Burghley House

The mention of Huguenots inevitably conjures up romantic notions of desperate silk weavers and their spangled canaries escaping from persecution in France and finding sanctuary in Spitalfields, London.  Thanks to Blakston, it has become part of canary folklore, but the truth is rather more complicated.

The Huguenot weavers congregated in the tenements of Spitalfields because it lay outside the city boundaries and beyond the control of the weavers’ guilds which objected to the influx of highly skilled competitors. Early in the eighteenth century the weaving industry began to face strong competition from another source: cheaper fabrics imported by the East India Company.  It led to a loss of work, poverty and riots.  Fancy canary birds were expensive, and surely beyond the means of poor silk weavers.

Canary historians seem to have overlooked the fact that some Huguenots were extremely wealthy (5), and that many others were amongst the emerging middle class.  As an artist, Paillou would have been at the lower end of this scale.  Artists were not highly regarded in Georgian society until the Royal Academy was established in 1768 to promote the work of British artists, leading to fame and fortune for some.  Paillou had good connections and was acknowledged by his fellow artists (6), but he was not one of the elite.

Unlike Sir Joshua Reynolds, the leading English painter of his generation, Paillou could not afford a fine house in Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square) and had to settle for much more modest accommodation in Islington (7).  During the eighteenth century, Islington was predominantly a rural area to the north of London; its profusion of inns and pastures provided a final staging post for visitors and livestock on their way to the city.  It was here that he raised his son, known as Peter Paillou the younger, who enjoyed a successful career as a miniature portrait painter in Glasgow.

Islington in 1780
Islington in 1780. Note the sheep in the paddock and the traffic on the great north road.

The painting of the canaries is unsigned and undated, but if we compare it with Paillou’s paintings of the serin (Serinus serinus) and the Eastern goldfinch (Spinus tristis tristis) which are signed and dated 1755 and 1759 respectively, we see a consistency in style.  The arrangement of the birds is very similar (the goldfinches are simply a mirror image), as is the painting technique in the shape of the tail and the clumsy articulation of the feet.  The canaries are clearly by the same artist, and may have been painted in the same period.

Peter Paillou serins
A pair of serins, signed and dated 1755 by Peter Paillou. Credit: McGill University.
Peter Paillou eastern goldfinch
A pair of Eastern goldfinches, signed and dated 1759 by Peter Paillou.  Credit: McGill University

Whether Johann Daniel Meyer’s engraving is earlier or later than Peter Paillou’s watercolour is not important; this is not a competition.  The more interesting question for me is how did two different artists working around the same time in two different countries both choose a pair of Lizards as exemplars of the domestic canary?  Was it more than a coincidence?

I have found so many intriguing links between the people connected with the two paintings that I may as well finish this series with another.  

Inevitably it involves the two men who were calling the shots: Messrs Trew and White.  They were both members of an international network of amateurs (8) connected by their passion for natural history, their extensive collections, their membership of the Royal Society, and the necessary wealth to fund their interests.  They also had something else in common, or to be more accurate, someone else.  They both used the services of the greatest botanical illustrator of the eighteenth century: Georg Dionysius Ehret.  He was one of Trew’s protégés, but moved to England in 1736 where he remained for the rest of his life.  Significantly, Trew remained a lifelong friend.

Erhet magnolia
A magnolia species by Georg Dionysius Erhet, circa 1737. Credit: The Wellcome Collection.

Dare we imagine that Ehret had seen Paillou’s painting and told Trew about it?  Or was it the reverse, and he informed White of Meyer’s engraving?  Did the Lizard canary become the subject of international one-upmanship: anything you can do, I can do better?  Now that is something I can believe.


1  It was Dany who translated the London Fancy show standard and COM presentation into French for me.

2  You can find the site here.  

3.  ‘A Natural History of Singing Birds’ by Eleazar Albin, 1779 edition.  The notes on fancy canaries were added by an anonymous writer after Albin’s death.

4.  Some sources claim Paillou was born in France and emigrated to London at an early age, but I have followed the biographical details from the McGill website.

5.  Seven of the original directors of the Bank of England were of Huguenot descent, including the first governor, Sir John Houblon.

6.  Paillou included Robert More, Joseph Banks, and the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant amongst his clients.  He was elected to the Society of Artists, a precursor to the Royal Academy.

7.  Giles Bird OBE comment on the National Portrait Gallery website.  Father and son lived in Lower Holloway, and later The Angel, in Islington between 1776 and 1782.

8  I use ‘amateurs’ in the sense that applied in the eighteenth century.  Unlike today, it was a mark of approbation.  Sir Kenneth Clarke, in his book “Civilisation’, ascribed it to people who were “rich enough and grand enough to do whatever they liked, who nevertheless did things that require a good deal of expertise””

9  Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770) was born in Heidelberg and met Trew around 1731.  Trew became his patron and lifelong friend, and commissioned him to produce 100 plates for his Plantae selectae. Ehret was exploited by George Clifford, a Dutch banker, while working with Carl Linnaeus on an early botanical masterwork Hortus Cliffortianus, and moved to London in 1736 where his talents were more generously rewarded.  He remained there for the rest of his life.

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