HISTORY: Mark Catesby, naturalist

Hand-colored etching of a bald eagle from Catesby’s seminal two-volume work, which was on private display over the weekend. Originals will be displayed over the summer at the Gibbes Museum of Art in a special show of watercolors from the Royal Collection in England.

S.C. Encyclopedia  |  Mark Catesby was born in or near the village of Castle Hedingham, Essex, England, on March 24, 1682, the son of John Catesby and Elizabeth Jekyll. Little is known of his early life, but he probably attended the grammar school in the nearby town of Sudbury.

After spending a portion of his young manhood in London, Catesby came to America in 1712 to visit his sister in Virginia. Possessing a keen interest in natural history, he collected plants and made some bird paintings there. Returning to England in 1719 with some plants that proved to be new to science, he realized that he had missed a great opportunity to record some of the flora and fauna of eastern America, most of which had not been described or illustrated. With the financial backing of the physician-naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, the botanist William Sherard, the royal governor of South Carolina Francis Nicholson, and several other patrons, Catesby came to Charleston in 1722 to gather specimens and notes for an illustrated work on the natural history of the Carolina region.

 “As I arrived at the beginning of the Summer, I unexpectedly found this Country possessed not only with all the Animals and Vegetables of Virginia, but abounding with an even greater variety,” he wrote. The following year he journeyed to the “Upper uninhabited Parts of the Country” around Fort Moore on the Savannah River and then took “several Journeys with the Indians higher up the Rivers, towards the Mountains,” which introduced him to more new plants and “afforded …  the Diversion of Hunting Buffaloes, Bears, Panthers, and other wild Beasts.” Catesby recorded his specimens with notes and sketches. “In designing the Plants I always did them while fresh and just gather’d: and the Animals, particularly the birds, I painted while alive (except a very few) and gave them their Gestures peculiar to every kind of Bird, and … adapted the Birds to those Plants on which they fed, or have any relation to.”

He left Charleston in 1725 and went on to Florida and to the Bahamas. On his return to England, Catesby began preparing the plates and text for his publication, teaching himself the art of engraving to avoid the high cost of a commercial engraver. His richly illustrated work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, appeared in two volumes, the first completed in 1731 and the second in 1743. They contain 220 hand-colored plates illustrating 171 plants and 228 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and insects. Not a trained artist, Catesby did not figure all of his animal subjects as well as might be desired, but many of his plants are exceptional. His report of the “grinders of an Elephant” found on the Stono River near Charleston was the first published record of fossil remains of the mammoth in South Carolina. The first extensively illustrated work on the natural history of any region of North America, Catesby’s volumes were used by Linnaeus for the inclusion of North American flora and fauna in his system of classification of plants and animals.

Catesby’s marriage to Elizabeth Rowland in 1747 produced a daughter and a son. He died in London on December 23, 1749.

— Excerpted from an entry by Albert E. Sanders.  This entry hasn’t been updated since 2006.  To read more about this or 2,000 other entries about South Carolina, check out The South Carolina Encyclopedia, published in 2006 by USC Press. (Information used by permission.) 

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