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Mark Catesby followers have another jewel for their crown

The cover of McBurney’s book features Catesby’s painting of a yellow-throated creeper in a red flowering maple. Image provided.

By Charles W. Waring III

As of the publication of this newspaper, Henrietta McBurney’s Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby is available to fans of the life and art of the 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby, as well as his extraordinary work regarding the flora and fauna of North America. This richly illustrated book explores the life and work of the celebrated 18th-century New World explorer, English artist, naturalist and author Mark Catesby (1683–1749). During Catesby’s lifetime, science began to shift from a world of amateur renaissance men to one of professional experts.

His mission required difficult travel that provided direct observation of nature. He created stellar watercolors and prints and put analysis of his observations into written form such that he provided one of the earliest theories of bird migration and introduced several North American plants such as the catalpa and magnolia grandiflora to English gardens.

Affluent and educated Charleston audiences in the era when the Charleston Library Society was our leading local intellectual light 270-plus years ago were familiar with Catesby, but he took a back seat to Audubon in notoriety for many years until David Elliott of Charleston put together a group of scholars and benefactors to help set the record straight. Elliott founded the Catesby Commemorative Trust in 2002 and was executive director of the documentary The Curious Mister Catesby. (For the sake of full disclosure, your author had a small speaking part in the film regarding conservation.) It premiered at the Royal Society (and in Charleston at the College of Charleston) in London in November of 2008 and was reviewed by none other than The Times of London. The reviewer noted:

The real curiosity in The Curious Mister Catesby, the premiere of which took place at the Royal Society on November 14, is why so few people either in Britain or the U.S. have heard of him at all. Mark Catesby was in many ways the most important artist and scientist of the Americas. He was certainly the first to set out in loving detail an extraordinary collection of drawings and information about the birds, insects, other wildlife and plants of the then colonies. Yet John James Audubon, whose work was published more than a century later than his forebears, and whose style it might be charitably said owed not a little to Catesby, is a much more famous individual.

The Royal Society funded Catesby’s exploration, so the premiere was a cultural home run for Elliott and his team. Filled with passion to tell the story about this remarkable Englishman, Elliott helped inspire publication of the hardcover book on Catesby in 2015. Six years after the University of Georgia’s publication of E. Charles Nelson’s The Curious Mr. Catesby, naturalists and historians have yet another scholarly volume to aid in discovering this once-largely-overlooked explorer. McBurney said that her book indeed does cover very different ground beyond the collected essays of The Curious Mister Catesby; it also contains an appendix of all Catesby’s letters, including some never previously published.

Catesby spent two prolonged periods in America — in Virginia (1712-19) and in South Carolina and the Bahamas (1722-26) — which he documented in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731-43). These grand and impactful volumes gave the Old World its first vivid glimpse of the New, reflecting the excitement, drama and beauty of the yet-unspoiled nature of the east coast of North America and the Caribbean. McBurney agrees that Catesby was the first to show the interaction of birds and other animals in nature in what we would now call ecological terms; he considered color essential for “illuminating natural history,” and he made drawings in the field to capture the colors and “gestures” of animals and plants. We think of how much has changed since he came to this area to explore, especially as we recall that he painted and documented several birds now extinct, including the spectacular ivory-billed woodpecker and the rainbow-colored Carolina parakeet. As to how he developed his original observations on bird migration, he drew up his theory after hearing flocks of bobolinks fly overhead at night while he lay on a boat off Andros Island.

Catesby’s book was described by Thomas Jefferson as the first “complete illustrated natural history of America.” As Catesby followers know, most of the watercolors he made for his Natural History are housed today in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, but smaller groups rarely seen are in the Morgan Library & Museum, New York and a private collection in Philadelphia.

The Yale Press further advises as follows:

This volume shines new light on the role of art and the artist in the exploration of the natural world. Interweaving elements of art history, history of science, colonial and garden history, natural history illustration, painting materials, book history and paper studies, Henrietta McBurney’s meticulously researched volume brings together a wealth of unpublished images as well as newly discovered letters by Catesby. With their first-hand accounts of his collecting and encounters in the wild, these bring the story of this extraordinary pioneer naturalist and his significance for Anglo-American culture vividly to life.

The author has made many contributions to Catesby scholarship. She is a freelance curator and art historian and was previously curator in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Her publications include studies on Alexander Marshal’s florilegium and the natural history drawings for Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Paper Museum.

Yale Press is distributing Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; book details are as follows: 384 pages, 9 11/16 x 11 3/16, with 250 color + b/w illus.; hardcover price is $50.00; publication date is August 3.


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