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Natural History of Mark Catesby

by O.M. Braida

Dear Friends:

The following brief biography will give you some insight into the work of Mark Catesby (1682-1749) – an English naturalist.  Born in 1682, the fourth child of a lawyer, Catesby was raised in the town of Sudbury in Suffolk, England. He was not a trained artist or botanist, but was influenced strongly by the noted naturalist John Ray, a family acquaintance. 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 the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas to continue his observation of the region’s natural life. Altogether he spent ten years in the American colonies.  He worked predominantly alone, observing, researching, and illustrating native plants and animals in graphite, gouache, and watercolor.

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 book was 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 important natural history relationships. His interplay of plants and animals was revolutionary and influenced the style of later artists, notably John James Audubon.

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. The fact that he was, for the most part, self-taught as both a naturalist and an artist, and that the massive volumes of The Natural History were produced from start to finish, largely by his own hand, is certainly cause for admiration.  God bless. OM

Bibliographical Notes:


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One Response to “Natural History of Mark Catesby”

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