Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

In February 1722, Mark Catesby, a 40-year old Englishman with an enigmatic past and an insatiable curiosity for the wondrous serendipity of nature, set sail on a three-month voyage to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. His sojourn in the New World was taken under the auspices of London’s Royal Society. Catesby was to spend the next four years exploring the natural habitat of the southeast colonies and the Bahamas, and the subsequent 20 years writing and illustrating his exhaustive two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and The Bahama Islands.

Coming at the golden dawn of modern natural science, Catesby’s achievements are numerous and interdisciplinary in nature. As an explorer, he was the first to conduct a critical study of the lush and varied habitat of North America, particularly the southeast colonies and the environs of the Lowcountry and the Piedmont area. As a scientist, he was the first to empirically observe and recognize the natural and man-made dangers impacting species’ survival. As an artist, his meticulous paintings and etchings of birds and plants captured the diverse natural beauty of colonial America 100 years before Audubon.

The details of Mark Catesby’s early life are sketchy at best. We know that he was born in March 1683 in the village of Castle Hedingham in Essex. We know that his father was a “Dissenter” – a Calvinist Protestant who dissented from the Anglican Church – and that a distant cousin was one of the organizers of the infamous “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the king and parliament in 1605. We do not know where he went to school, but his writing makes it obvious he was well-educated. We do not know how or why he became a naturalist, although he was a frequent visitor to Castle Hedingham, where his uncle had a botanical garden. We also know that he became acquainted with John Ray, the leading English naturalist of the late 17th century and co-author of an early classic study on birds. We do not know where or how he learned to paint.

His life comes into sharper focus in 1712, when he sailed to the colonies to live with his sister, Elizabeth Cocke, in Williamsburg, Virginia. It was during his seven-year stay in Virginia that Catesby “not being content with contemplating the Products of our own Country, [I] soon imbibed a passionate desire of viewing as well the Animal as Vegetable Productions in their Native Countries; which were Strangers to England.” It was also during this time that he began collecting botanical samples and sending them to friends in England and that he met William Byrd II, who was an amateur naturalist, a member of the colonial Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1714, Catesby and others traveled “from the lower part of the James River in Virginia to that part of the Appalachian Mountains where the sources of that river rise…” In the same year, he sailed to Jamaica, where he gathered samples of Jamaican plants to send to England.

By 1719, Catesby had returned to England, where influential members of the Royal Society, then chaired by Sir Isaac Newton, had learned of his work in the colonies. Led by William Sherard, “one of the most celebrated botanists of the age,” members began soliciting sponsors to finance Catesby for a botanical expedition to the Lowcountry of South Carolina. By 1722, Catesby was again crossing the Atlantic. This time his studies would reveal the natural marvels of what was still an exotic – and largely unexplored – continent and which would be chronicled in his monumental Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands.

Catesby’s four years of travels throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas took him to lush and mysterious places: swamps where coniferous trees lost their needles in winter; dense maritime forests of oaks that bore leaves year round; endless salt marshes where grasses drifted in the wind to the horizon; and bark huts pitched for him by his Native American helpers. Everywhere he saw and painted plants and animals unknown in his homeland: massive buffaloes, and frogs in exotic stripes of yellow and green; swallowtail butterflies and summer ducks who nested in trees; painted and indigo buntings, blue herons and bald eagles; magnificent broad-leaved magnolias, wild lilies, flowering laurels and climbing vines.

Catesby’s odyssey produced a treasure trove of insights and observations about the untouched wilderness of North America. A number of his drawings depict species we will never see again — the Carolina Parakeet, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and the Passenger Pigeon. He was very likely the first to recognize how natural and man-made destruction and depredation of a species’ habitat lead to extinction. He was the first to depict birds, in conjunction with environmentally-relevant plants. Earlier natural historians, such as John Ray and Joannes JohNstonus, who authored a series of books on vertebrates, including one on birds, depicted their subjects as dead or isolated figures crowded together on the page, with little or no background. And, Catesby was the first to discover that birds migrate, rather than hibernate in caves, hollow trees or at the bottom of ponds, as was commonly believed in his time.

After returning to England in 1726, Catesby spent the subsequent 20 years laboring over his Natural History, the first fully illustrated study of the natural history of North America and the most comprehensive to date. Working virtually alone, Catesby personally oversaw every aspect of the work’s production – even learning the difficult art of etching on copper plates, when Continental sources for this skill proved unavailable or too expensive. Published in eleven sections and featuring more than 200 hand-colored etchings, the Natural History remains Catesby’s singular achievement. To finance this arduous and expensive printing project, Catesby sought subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months. Each of the 160 subscribed copies of the work was individually hand colored and bound to the specifications of the subscriber. It is possible that no two were exactly alike.

While many copies were lost, damaged or split apart for the beauty of the engravings, roughly 80 first edition copies of the Natural History still exist. They can be found, for example, at the Smithsonian Institution, Middleton Place Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, the Natural History Museum in London, and in several private collections. In a fortunate twist to the Catesby story, the entire collection of his original paintings are in the Royal Collection in Windsor Castle. They were purchased in three leather-bound volumes from a bookseller by King George III in 1768. The 1997 public exhibition of a number of them at Buckingham Palace and in the Unites States has stimulated an international re-examination of Catesby’s artistic and scientific achievements. Remounted and photographed by Alecto Historical Editions Limited of Essex, England before being returned to storage, these original paintings do much to restore the reputation and significance of Mark Catesby’s work.