MARK CATESBY: PIONEERING NATURALIST OF EARLY c18


Mark Catesby Bahama Finch (Western Spindalis, Spindalis Zena)

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 – Angelfish

Mark Catesby - Queen Triggerfish

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 (HM QE2)

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 (HM QE2)

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)

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”.
catesbys_natural_history_9
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.
CATESBY AUCTION JPG
Mark Catesby - plate 139 Hawksbill Turtle

Mark Catesby – Hawksbill Turtle

“Illuminating natural history is so particularly essential to the perfect understanding of it”                 (Mark Catesby)
Mark Catesby (Black-faced Grassquit)

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…

RELATED POSTS

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THE PIONEERS (Wilson, Audubon, et al)  

MR SWAINSON (on his 224th Birthday)

51C+Zz+7CSL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_

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…

10 thoughts on “MARK CATESBY: PIONEERING NATURALIST OF EARLY c18

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  3. Thanks for your interesting blog, which I came across when writing an article about my March 2015 trip in the Western Bahamas with the ‘Liberty Clipper’. Your readers may be interested to know that a cheaper facsimile of Catesby’s two folio volumes is available from the German publisher Fines Mundi (http://www.fines-mundi.de/verlagstart.htm). The price would translate to about $500. It’s the only edition I could find which has all the color plates in the original size. They also sell via Abebooks.

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    • Hi Rianne, of course I immediately checked out ‘Liberty Clipper! What a wonderful vessel, and what a great way to explore all that the Bahamas has to offer. Glad you enjoyed the blog, and many thanks for pointing the way to the Fines Mundi facsimile. Extremely useful to know, and bearing in mind the price of a single Catesby from a disbound volume (although an enviable possession), rather good value. And actually accumulating a good set of a selection of prints would be very expensive. I’ll need an excuse to be extravagant though… wait… today is a Wednesday, maybe that is excuse enough… RH

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  4. …love this post, particularly because I am in the middle of the wonderfully-written 18th-19thC botany-centred novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, which takes place (most often) in Philadelphia, about a woman who continues her father’s foray into the world of collecting exotic plant life while attending to all the many complications life dishes out.

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    • Thanks for your comment, and very glad that the post chimes in with your current reading – sounds an excellent read, I’ll check it out. Catesby probably doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, maybe because he was such an early naturalist. He was fun to research! RH

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  5. Mark Catesby is my all time favorite naturalist! Many of his plates adorn my home in Abaco. His fish plates are especially beautiful. I was lucky enough to buy them for very little at an estate auction in Ft. Lauderdale for very little in 1980 and they have been treasured ever since. I’d be happy to show them to anyone interested.
    The Catesby Commemorative Trust has just recently published a wonderful book “The Curious Mister Catesby” which has a chapter devoted to his visit to the Bahamas in 1725 & 1726 and recording our Natural History illustrated by his watercolors of our plants, fish and birds.
    I commend this website for bringing this all to our attention.

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    • Thanks for this Woody. I have expanded the post to add more about the CCT and the book. One day, we would love to come to TC and see the fish plates, which look astonishing for detail and colour. I wonder if you have the “Bonefish” one, which is clearly a different fish from the Albula Vulpes we know, love, catch, and return. RH

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  6. Very interesting post, RH. I had not heard of Catesby, so I enjoyed learning about him. A very talented artist and naturalist. Chuckled at your Bank Mgr credit. 😀

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    • Very talented – and precursor of his far better-known peers from the following century (Mr Audubon, for one). It’s extraordinary to think, at such an early date, of a man voyaging to foreign parts for years at a time to conduct research, collecting samples, measuring and drawing etc – then returning home and spending 20 years putting it all wonderfully together in printed form. Occasionally individual plates from a disbound facsimile can be bought (for several hundred dollars)… One day I will succumb to temptation! RH

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