Illuminating Natural History
The Art and Science of Mark Catesby
by Henrietta McBurney
Publication: 22 June 2021
368pp, 285 x 245mm, 250 colour & b-w illustrations
£40.00 hardback / Distributed by Yale University Press
This richly illustrated book explores the life and work of the celebrated 18th-century English artist, explorer, naturalist and author Mark Catesby (1683–1749). During Catesby’s lifetime, science was poised to shift from a world of amateur virtuosi to one of professional experts. He worked against a backdrop of global travel that incorporated collecting and direct observation of nature. As well as creating spectacular watercolours and prints, Catesby made important contributions to early theories of bird migration and introduced several North American plants such as the Catalpa and Magnolia grandiflora to English gardens.
The book shines new light on the role of art and the artist in the exploration of the natural world. Catesby was the first to show the interaction of birds and other animals in the wild in what we would now call ecological terms; he considered colour essential for ‘illuminating natural history’, and he made drawings in the field to capture the colours and ‘gestures’ of animals and plants. He watched with amazement in the Bahamas as the voracious barracuda devoured a blue tang in three mouthfuls; he painted and described several birds now extinct, including the spectacular ivory-billed woodpecker and the rainbow-coloured Carolina parakeet; and he developed his original observations on bird migration after hearing flocks of bobolinks fly overhead at night while he was lying on a boat off Andros Island.
Catesby spent two prolonged periods in the New World – in Virginia (1712–19) and, sponsored by the Royal Society, 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 majestic volumes reflected the excitement, drama and beauty of the natural world, and were esteemed ‘a most magnificent work’ and ‘an ornament for the finest library in the world’. Indeed, the majority of the watercolours Catesby made for his Natural History are housed today in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, where they are among the most prized sets of natural history drawings in the Royal Collection. Selections of Catesby’s watercolours have been displayed in Britain and abroad, but many have never been seen in public, and smaller groups in the British Library and British Museum are virtually unknown. Hundreds of plant specimens collected by him for his English sponsors, now in London’s Natural History Museum and in the Department of Plant Sciences in Oxford, are rarely seen.
Interweaving elements of art history, history of science, natural history illustration, painting materials, book history, paper studies, garden history and colonial history, Henrietta McBurney’s meticulously researched volume brings together a wealth of unpublished images as well as newly discovered letters by Catesby, which, with their first-hand accounts of his collecting and encounters in the wild, bring the story of this extraordinary pioneer naturalist vividly to life.
Henrietta McBurney is a freelance curator and art historian; she was previously curator in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle.
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