Prints are from The
Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama
Islands (1731 & 1771 Editions)
and are approximately Folio approx. 14" x 21"
Mark Catesby, born in comfortable
circumstances in Essex, England, was fortunate to form an early friendship
with the great English Natural
History scientist, John Ray (1635-1705). Ray published
with Francis Willoughby (1635-1672) the first systematic treatise on
Birds, Ornithologia Libri Tres (1676), laying
the foundation for British Ornithology. At the
age of twenty-nine, Catesby embarked for America to visit his sister,
Elizabeth, who had married
without their father’s consent. His brother-in-law, Dr. Cocke
was well established in Williamsburg and Catesby
was introduced to the leading lights of colonial Virginia, including
the wealthy and powerful
William Byrd II of Westover. George Washington
(1732-1799) was an intimate of the Byrd Family.
Catesby’s visit, which included a trip
to the West Indies in 1714, lasted seven years.
During this time he collected and shipped
seeds and botanical specimens to England and
observed and noted American birds and thus became
known in British scientific circles. Later, when the most prestigious English scientific
body, the Royal Society, organized a plant collecting
expedition to Carolina, Catesby
was recommended. William Sherad, a wealthy patron
of Natural History, who founded the Chair of
Botany at Oxford University, suggested Catesby “as
a man pretty well skilled in Natural History
designs and paints in watercolours to perfection.”Catesby returned to America in 1722 under the patronage of Sherad
and Sir Hans Sloane, whose extensive Natural History collection formed
the basis for the British Museum. During the four years he spent in
Charles Town (Charleston, South Carolina) he collected seeds, plants,
animals, fishes, turtles, snakes and birds.
One of his letters from Charles Town dated 15
November, 1723 states, “I
hope you have received the remains of a cargo of plants, birds, shells,
etc., which fel into the hands of pirats.” Catesby preserved
his birds by keeping them in alcohol or drying
them slowly in an oven and then stuffing them. The stuffed birds were
then sprinkled with
tobacco dust to deter insects and retain the
freshness of the plumage color.
These preserved specimens and his own field sketches from living
birds were the only evidence he had when he returned to England in
1726 to begin work on his opus, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida
and the Bahama Islands, containing the Figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes,
Serpents, Insects and Plants, Particularly Those Not Hitherto Described,
or Incorrectly Figured by Former Authors, with their Descriptions
in English and French.
Mark Catesby, too poor by this time to engage a professional engraver,
etched his own copperplates for the reproduction of his splendid drawings.
To supply a mere one hundred copies of his first volume, finished
in 1732, required pulling ten thousand etchings from his 100 painstakingly
prepared copperplates, then watercoloring by hand each leaf, flower
and bird on each of these ten thousand plates! He labored on until
1746 when the 220th and final plate was printed. Reissued in 1754
and 1771, this great work was the first comprehensive study of American
Flora and Fauna.