Three hundred years ago this May, Mark Catesby stepped ashore at Charleston Harbor. The thirty-nine-year-old British naturalist would spend the next three years exploring the Lowcountry and interior of South Carolina, as well as Florida and the Bahamas. In 1725 he returned and settled in London, putting together the first-ever illustrated guide to the plants and animals of North America, his Natural History of Carolina. Collectors, botanists, and patrons in England were wowed by what the Royal Society called a “Curious and Magnificent Work,” which gave them their first images of the ivory-billed woodpecker, the American bullfrog, and the Southern magnolia.
Natural History remained in print for a century before it—and Catesby—were overshadowed by the life and art of the ornithologist John James Audubon. But today, many art critics, naturalists, and curators think it’s unfair how Catesby has been lost to time. I think so too: I hope my own book on Catesby, due out next year from Pegasus, will bring Catesby and his accomplishments to a wider audience.
“[Catesby’s] independence from prevailing trends, and the originality of his eye and his artistic practices, set him apart,” writes Henrietta McBurney in her lavishly illustrated Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby. McBurney, a former curator at the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, is perhaps the leading authority on Catesby’s art. In her view, those qualities “give his images their perennial appeal.”
What Catesby described as his “passionate Desire of viewing as well the Animal as Vegetable Productions in their Native Countries” drove him to observe and collect American flora and fauna on an unprecedented level. In the Carolina Lowcountry, he visited plantations and spoke with enslaved people to learn how they grew plants such as African arum and snakeroot for food and medicine. On the frontier near present-day Augusta, Catesby wrote that he was “much indebted to the Hospitality and Assistance” of the Native Americans with whom he hunted bison and collected specimens. And unlike Audubon, who killed thousands of birds in service of his art, Catesby could say that “the Animals, particularly the Birds, I painted them while alive (except a very few).”
Unusually for his time, Catesby in his illustrations created vignettes which paired birds with “those Plants on which they fed, or have any Relation to.” (Or not: Catesby yanked a tall, treelike coral out of the ocean onto dry land to place behind his flamingo. The striking composition looks practically modern.) His snakes curl and writhe in rhythm with the vines they’re paired with; you can almost hear his “Blew Jay” scream.
Back home in England, Catesby learned the skill of engraving, and then produced and colored almost all the 220 plates himself. Josephine McDonough of McDonough Fine Arts in Atlanta, who deals in antiquarian prints including Catesby’s and Audubon’s, is a fan: “Many clients tell me they love the fact that Catesby did his own engraving as well as his original watercolor studies,” she says. It’s a view shared by modern collectors: on April 23, a second edition of the Natural History went for $240,000 at auction with Arader Galleries in New York.
The tricentennial of Catesby’s arrival in Charleston is bringing new focus to both the man and the art. The Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina is the site of a comprehensive exhibition running through August, and also hosts the Mark Catesby at 300 Symposium (May 12–14). The Centre maintains an informative website with links to Catesby’s art and other resources. First editions of Catesby’s Natural History can be viewed at the Charleston Library Society and Middleton Place outside Charleston, as well as at the Catesby Centre, and online thanks to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Even centuries later, Catesby’s personality shows through in his depictions of creatures that Europeans found exotic. As McDonough says, “Of all the antique natural history prints out there, the work of Mark Catesby is the quirkiest, the most interesting, and the liveliest. He is just not boring at all!”