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Mark Catesby – Naturalist, Pioneer & Arm Stretcher

Dear Friends:

Mark Catesby (1683-1749) was an English naturalist.  Born 1682 the fifth son of a lawyer, and raised in the town of Sudbury in Suffolk, England. He is best known for his two-volume work entitled Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Catesby was not a trained artist or botanist.  Noted naturalist John Ray, a family acquaintance, influenced Catesby. As his own interest in natural history grew, Catesby developed a passion for viewing and recording fauna and flora production in their native habitats not common to England.

Taking advantage of the home base offered by his sister Elizabeth, who had moved to Williamsburg with her husband, Catesby first came to America in 1712 and spent seven years exploring the colonies where he collected specimens for noted botanists in England.  He drew those species he believed were indigenous to Virginia and diligently sent collections of plants and seeds to England.   He returned there 1719 to make further study and complete his artwork.

His illustrations brought him to the attention of the Royal Society and Sir Hans Sloane, later the founder of the British Museum. With the patronage of a number of notables, Catesby left in 1722 for a second expedition to continue his observation of the natural life of the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. Altogether he spent ten years in the American colonies.  He worked predominantly alone, observing, researching, and illustrating in graphite, gouache, and watercolor. His collection of specimens included flowering plants, conifers, and ferns, marine algae, and a multitude of animals from mammals, birds, and fish to tiny insects and beetles. He even gathered some marine organisms, but most importantly he concentrated on the birds.1

In 1726, he returned again to London and began work on The Natural History, which he financed in part by working as a horticulturalist. Because Catesby lacked the funds to have the drawings professionally engraved, he engaged a print maker to teach him how to make his own etchings. He also wrote the descriptions of the species and added information about the climate, geology, agriculture, and native peoples of the regions he visited.  The Royal Society assisted by creating a proposal to its members, which eventually resulted in a 154 subscribers. The first volume was published in parts: 1729 and 1732. The entire two volumes were finally completed in 1747.The finished Natural History consists of two volumes: the first devoted to birds, the second to fish, crustaceans, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and insects. Plants appear throughout both volumes as Catesby sought to pair the fauna with flora from their natural habitats.

Catesby can rightly be considered a founder of American ornithology. He was the first to publish pictures accompanied by reasonably accurate written descriptions. His style although unique for the time, set a certain precedent for how illustrators would work in the future.  Instead of illustrating his subjects independently, he chose to depict fauna and flora together by combining and synthesizing his research in compositions that revealed significant natural history relationships. His interplay of plants and animals was revolutionary and influenced the style of later artists, notably John James Audubon.

Mark Catesby was the first artist/naturalist to undertake the daunting task of cataloging and illustrating the natural history of the New World.  Though Catesby may have lacked the technical skill of the later ornithological illustrators, his book remained the premier example of the art until the start of the next century. His work was in many ways a “first” at the same time that it was representative of an era. His work and his collaborations established in the Americas assisted Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) in his work as botanist.  Mark Catesby’s scientific discoveries, his research, his notes and his drawings were relied upon by Carl Linnaeus for his publication, Systema Naturae in 1758 which is the basis of current biological taxonomy. It was Linnaeus who revolutionized botany and its illustration and changed its focus to include the whole plant with flower and fruit.  The Linnaean System of binomial classification would change the names of not only the specimens illustrated by Catesby, but create a worldwide system of Latin nomenclature and unify the work of botanists to follow. Even though the work of Catesby may have been eclipsed by Linnaeus, in the final analysis, it is an example of how when arms are stretched across the table, we feed each other.

God bless. OM


Bibliographical Notes:

1. Reveal, James L.  A Nomenclatural Summary of the Plant and Animal Names Based on Images in Mark Catesby’s Natural History. Feb 2012. Cornell University.



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