Mark Catesby (1682 -1749)

The Natural History of Carolina Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729 - 1749)

Mark Catesby was the first artist / naturalist to undertake the daunting task of cataloging and illustrating the natural history of the New World.  To reign in the scope of the project, Catesby focused on the Southern colonies and the Bahamas, and selected plants and animals that were not commonly found in England.

To gather as many specimens as possible and draw the flora and fauna from life, Catesby traveled from England to the American Colonies twice, first from 1710 to 1719 and again from 1722 to 1726.  He undertook the second expedition at the invitation of the Royal Society of London (Sir. Isaac Newton, President) and primarily funded his project by fulfilling requests to bring back plant specimens and seeds from the new world to London collectors.   In an effort to cut costs and accurately translate his original watercolors to the copper plates, Catesby learned the craft of engraving and hand-colored many of the prints himself.  The result is a work of immense personality and originality.  The compositions are notable for the quirky combinations of plants, snakes, insects and animals in odd proportions (insects are often larger than birds, and flowers routinely dwarf large animals.)

In the course of his travels, Catesby made fresh scientific discoveries of his own.  He spent time among the Native Americans and recorded his encounters with them; he noted the migration of birds and mentioned the variations and trends in animal size and species diversity relative to the Southern climate.  Carl Linnaeus relied on Catesby’s drawings, notes and specimens of North American plants for his publication, Systema Naturae in 1758 which is the basis of current biological taxonomy.  Lewis and Clark consulted Catesby’s catalog for their cross country expedition of 1804 – 1806 and one hundred years after its publication, John James Audubon used “
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” as a model for his enormous double elephant folio book, “The Birds of America,” 1826 – 1838.

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