Mark Catesby: Bahama Finch (Western Spindalis, Spindalis zena)
MARK CATESBY: PIONEERING NATURALIST OF EARLY c18
There’s been (yet) another abrupt side-swerve away from a topic I’d intended to post about, resulting from a newspaper article I read over the weekend. This concerns what was gushingly described as “the ultimate coffee table book”, a facsimile of Mark Catesby’s renowned work, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands.
Catesby (1682 – 1749) was a pioneering English naturalist and artist who published his magnum opus based on a number of expeditions he undertook from 1712 onwards. His was the first ever published account of the flora and fauna of North America, and the 2 volumes (with a supplement) included some 220 colour plates of the creatures and plants of land and sea that he had come across.
Mark Catesby – Angelfish
Mark Catesby – Queen Triggerfish
Catesby’s growing fame as a botanist led to his undertaking expeditions on behalf of the Royal Society to collect plants and seeds in Carolina. He widened his researches both in America and to the West Indies, collecting plants and fauna as he went and sending them back to England. Among other discoveries, he was one of the very first people to observe and record the occurrence of bird migration as a twice-yearly phenomenon.
Red-legged Thrush in Gumbo Limbo Tree
Eventually, in 1726 Catesby also returned to base and set about writing up his findings and painting what he had seen. He learnt how to etch printing plates, and gradually the illustrations became more sophisticated, starting without backgrounds then including plants with the animals and birds. The whole project took him some 20 years; quite soon after completing it, he died.
Flamingo Head & Gorgonian Coral
CATESBY: THE VIDEO INTRO
WHERE IS THE ORIGINAL WORK NOW?
Catesby’s original drawings were bought by King George III for £120 (a very considerable sum in 1768 – my quick attempts to discover how much suggest ± £200,000) and have remained in the Royal Family ever since. This treasure is kept in the Royal Library of Windsor Castle, the property of HM QE2, though it is occasionally exhibited elsewhere. Later facsimiles of the original were produced, of which some 50 survive today.
Mark Catesby – ‘Bahama Titmous’ (Bananaquit)
SO WHAT’S ALL THE EXCITEMENT ABOUT NOW?
Addison Publications has printed a very limited edition facsimile of 60 in 4 lavish volumes, printed one at a time, “to mark the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in the New World”.
The cost per set? A stonking £39,500 ($61,330). Now this may sound a great deal of money for a modern copy of an old book and it undoubtedly is. But here’s the Christie’s Auction catalogue entry for one of the early facsimiles. Mmmmmm.
Mark Catesby – Hawksbill Turtle
“Illuminating natural history is so particularly essential to the perfect understanding of it” (Mark Catesby)
Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)
Delphi afficionados, especially any who have stayed in Room 1, may recognise 3 of the illustrative images I have chosen – the Spindalis, the Bananaquit and the Grassquit. No, I don’t mean the actual species, I mean that Catesby prints of them are tastefully hung on the walls. I can never decide which of the 3 is my favourite…
CHARLES CORY & ABACO 1891
THE PIONEERS (Wilson, Audubon, et al)
MR SWAINSON (on his 224th Birthday)
STOP PRESS Thanks to Woody Bracey for his interesting comment. More information about the Catesby Commemorative Trust and the book The Curious Mister Catesby can be found HERE. A slightly curious promo video was also released.
For anyone tempted to look further into the importance of this ground-breaking naturalist, the CCT produced a 50 minute film that is well worth watching if you can spare the time.
Credits: Sunday Times (article), HM QE2, National Geographic, Catesby Commemorative Trust, sundry open source info-&-pic-mines inc. Wiki, Addison Publs, & my Bank Manager for declining to loan me the purchase price of the new facsimile…