The Curious​ Mr.​ Catesby

Posted on Leave a comment
Trees

There are a few names that could be considered as the “Inventors of Nature” in the European sense of understanding the Natural World between the 17th and 19th Century. Giants of Exploration with a constant thirst for knowledge (and sometimes money and prestige). Alexander von Humboldt, Joseph Banks, John Gould, John James Audubon, who will all be featured in future blog posts, and last but not least Mark a little boy from rural Suffolk.

Sea Hermit Crab (Cancellus maximus)
Sea Hermit Crab (Cancellus maximus) from The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749).

Mark Catesby was an English painter and naturalist who Between 1729 and 1747 published his “Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands“, the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America. It included 220 plates of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, mammals.

Water Frog (Rana Aquatica)
Water Frog (Rana Aquatica) from The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749).

In 1712 Catesby sailed to Virginia to visit his sister in Williamsburg. For the next seven years, Catesby traveled throughout the colony, observing the natural resources and gathering plant samples and “many birds, shells, snakes and other specimens” to send back home. When he returned to England, he caught the attention of William Sherard, one of the leading botanists of the day. Sherard and a group of “curious friends” sponsored Catesby’s second trip to America in 1722 to collect more samples and to make the first extensive drawings of American nature.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis)
Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749).

Catesby spent the next twenty years preparing and publishing his Natural History. The publication was financed by subscriptions from his “Encouragers” as well as an interest-free loan from one of the fellows of the Royal Society.


Black Murrey (Muraena Maculata Nigra)
Black Murrey (Muraena Maculata Nigra) from The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749).

Amazing to think that Mark Catesby was a self-taught artist from rural Suffolk had an insatiable curiosity about nature. Catesby’s timeless illustrations and to his keen observation of the natural world have become a revered classic on both sides of the Atlantic. He was inexhaustible in the pursuit of botanical and zoological specimens.

Wild Pine (Locusta Caroliniana)
Wild Pine (Locusta Caroliniana) from The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1754) by Mark Catesby (1683-1749).

Mark Catesby was a man of exceptional courage and determination combined with an insatiable curiosity and multiple talents. Nevertheless, no portrait of him is known. Ultimately, Catesby’s explorations, collections, artwork, and publications mark his importance within the pantheon of early naturalists.

References:

Waring, J. O. (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A” truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds. University of Georgia Press.

Meyers, A. R., Pritchard, M. B., & Catesby, M. (Eds.). (1998). Empire’s nature: Mark Catesby’s new world vision. UNC Press Books.

Catesby, M. (1754). The natural history of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants; particulary the forest-trees, shrues, and other plants… together with their descriptions in english and french, to wich are added observations on the air, soil, and waters, with remarks upon agriculture, grain, pulse, roots,[et] c. to the whole is prefixed a new correct map of the countries treated of; Vol. I [-vol. II].

Allen, E. G. (1937). New light on Mark Catesby. The auk54(3), 349-363.

McBurney, H., & Catesby, M. (1997). Mark Catesby’s natural history of America. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in association with Merrell Holberton Publishers London.

Frick, G. F., & Edwards, G. (1960). Mark Catesby: the discovery of a naturalist. The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America54(3), 163-175.

Chaplin, J., Meyers, A. R., & Pritchard, M. B. (1999). Mark Catesby, a Skeptical Newtonian in America. Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision.