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 from London on a three-month voyage to South Carolina. His sojourn in the New World was taken under the auspices of a group of Fellows of London’s Royal Society. Catesby was to spend the next four years exploring the natural habitat of Carolina and the Bahamas, and the subsequent 20 years writing and illustrating his magnificent 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. As an explorer, he was the first to conduct a critical study of the lush and varied habitat of the southeast colonies of North America, particularly 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, other animals including fish, and plants captured the diverse natural beauty of colonial America a century before Audubon.

The details of Mark Catesby’s early life are sketchy at best. We know that he was born on 24 March 1683, probably in the village of Castle Hedingham in Essex. We know that his father was mayor of the nearby town of Sudbury 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 Mark went to school, but his writing makes it obvious he was well-educated. We do not know how or why he became a naturalist. His uncle, Nicholas Jekyll, who lived in Castle Hedingham had contacts with local naturalists and evidently kept an interesting garden. We also know that Mark was acquainted with the work of the Reverend 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 arrived at Williamsburg, Virginia, accompanying his married sister Elizabeth (Mrs William Cocke) and two of her children. 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 specimens, especially seeds, 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 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 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 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 naturalists such as John Jonston, who wrote 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 observe 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 two decades 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 220 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. He personally presented the first section to Her Majesty Queen Caroline in May 1729, and later he dedicated the first volume of the Natural History to her.

Each of the 160 subscribed copies of the work was individually hand-colored so 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, Washington, DC, Middleton Place Plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, the Royal Society in London, and in several private collections.

For the two decades it took him to create his great book, Mark Catesby lived in London with his partner Elizabeth Rowland. They had four children born between April 1731 and December 1737. Elizabeth and Mark were “clandestinely” married on 8 October 1747 in St George’s Chapel, Hyde Park Corner, London. Just over two years later, following a collapse, Mark Catesby died at his home on Old Street, London, on 23 December 1749, and he was buried in the churchyard of St Luke’s Church.

In a fortunate twist to the Catesby story, the original paintings for Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama islands are now 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 some of them at Buckingham Palace and in the United States stimulated an international re-examination of Catesby’s artistic and scientific achievements. Separately mounted 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.