An exquisite study of the man who documented North America’s wildlife in the 18th century

Mark Catesby (1683-1749), the English naturalist, artist and horticulturalist, published his life’s work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, in parts between 1729 and 1747. Visually magnificent, with full-size, hand-coloured plates, it was a pioneering work on North America’s flora and fauna. Despite being produced according to a pre-Linnaean system of classification (Catesby’s career did not quite coincide with the Swedish-born “father of modern taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), it was nonetheless internationally admired. In 1748, a year before Catesby’s death, Linnaeus’s student Pehr Kalm declared that Catesby had “with unbelievably lifelike colouring, presented the rarest trees, plants, animals, birds, fishes … it is difficult to believe that it is not the real thing that stands in its natural colour on the paper”.

Henrietta McBurney’s publication—in turn beautifully produced, with ample space to showcase her subject’s artistic skill—is, in the words of the author, “a case study of the material culture out of which Catesby created his book”. She is unapologetic in her focus on the primary sources that collectively tell us about the man and the early modern world in which he operated: a period that blurred the distinctions between amateur and professional, and between art and science. Concentrating on the surviving 300 original watercolours in the Royal Collection, his herbarium sheets, sketches and written descriptions, the result is a rich and deeply researched account of Catesby’s journey from amateur naturalist in East Anglia, self-taught master of drawing, painting and etching, to intrepid observer and collector in the New World.

It is Catesby’s idiosyncrasies, energy and boldness, that continue to delight audiences

The book is not an examination of Catesby’s career within the theorised contexts of colonialisation and empire. Indeed McBurney argues that theoretical claims about empire—and botanists as agents of empire—need to be grounded in evidence. That said, the context is not ignored. It is impossible to divorce Catesby from the history of England’s, later Great Britain’s, colonial ambition in America given that he first travelled to Virginia in 1712 with his sister, whose husband, William Cocke, was a physician in Williamsburg. While there, Catesby resided with wealthy plantation owners on the James River and, on his second trip, one of his sponsors was Francis Nicholson, the Governor of South Carolina. McBurney is particularly interested in the private objectives that drove Catesby—his genuine passion for discovery, truth and beauty, and ultimately the creation of his book. This, especially on his return trip to South Carolina and the Bahamas in 1722-26, was at odds with the demands and economic interests of his private sponsors for whom he trafficked specimens. Eventually the constant sending of consignments to England—seeds, dried and pressed plants, or live ones in tubs of soil—proved onerous.

Catesby’s The Blew Jay and the Bay-leaved Smilax (1722-25), which conveys the bird’s gestures in its natural environment Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

Catesby as an artist is where art and science most obviously intersect, and this provides one of the book’s most absorbing chapters. Catesby sketched in the field while on his collecting trips to the coastal areas of the Tidewater, up the Ashley, Cooper and Savannah rivers, to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in difficult swampy terrain, and in uninhabited areas accompanied by Native American guides. Pehr Kalm’s admiration of Catesby’s “unbelievably lifelike colouring” was no accident. He was stimulated by the colours he encountered, trying to mimic them exactly and always sketching his specimens either freshly gathered, if a plant, or alive if an animal. When in the Bahamas, where he became fascinated by marine life, he observed that fish lost their vibrancy when out of water. “I painted them at different times, having a succession of them procur’d while the former lost their colour”, he said, a startling insight into the practicalities involved in reproducing their correct shimmer and iridescence. To convey size he sometimes “zoomed in” on his specimens, such as the giant hogfish, shown by just the head: one wary eye, jaws agape. Catesby was also unusual in showing birds and animals in their natural environments. Rather than single specimens on a page, his birds perch in the very trees or bushes that they would have fed on or nested in. He tried to convey the natural “gestures” of his subjects: the blue jay sitting on a branch of green briar, where Catesby had watched it eating the berries of the plant, is shown screeching.

Catesby stated that he deliberately aimed at a “flat” style of illustration to better communicate his subjects to the service of science. McBurney suggests that this may indicate an amateur’s defensiveness, unable to match the superior skill of professionals such as his younger contemporary, Georg Dionysius Ehret. Ehret’s brilliant plate illustrating Magnolia grandiflora, a plant observed by Catesby in the wild, is included in the latter’s Natural History, perhaps hinting at collaboration between the two. Ehret, however, sketched the magnolia in Sir Charles Wager’s garden in Parson’s Green, then just west of London. Catesby was certainly influenced by such professional illustrators, sometimes borrowing their designs and compositions. But it is Catesby’s idiosyncrasies, his energy and boldness, that continue to delight audiences.

Sadly, thanks to human activity over the subsequent 300 years, many of Catesby’s species are now either extinct or, like the ivory-billed woodpecker, on the critically endangered list. Even in Catesby’s day, the now extinct Carolina parakeet was hunted, both as a pest and for its colourful plumage, while the last of the passenger pigeons, which once migrated in vast flocks, died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914. This beautiful book acts as both a record of Catesby’s profound joy in and devotion to nature, and as a warning.

Henrietta McBurney, Illuminating Natural History: the Art and Science of Mark Catesby, Paul Mellon Centre/Yale, 384pp, 250 colour + b/w illus., £40 (hb), pub. 22 June 2021

Tabitha Barber is curator of British Art 1500-1750 at the Tate and was the lead curator and catalogue editor/contributor of British Baroque: Power and Illusion (Tate Britain, 2020)

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