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Pioneer of Natural History Illustration: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby

By Henrietta McBurney

Today, the broadcaster and natural historian Sir David Attenborough shares his passion for the natural world with TV audiences across the globe through slick documentaries. These films not only showcase Attenborough’s boundless curiosity for the flora and fauna on our planet, but also educate the viewer about the consequences that we all face when human activity interrupts nature’s symbiotic balance.

Nearly three hundred years prior, the eighteenth-century naturalist, explorer and artist, Mark Catesby, was similarly committed to capturing and sharing the natural world through striking images. Yet the lack of cameras doesn’t mean that Catesby did not strive to emulate the ‘exotic’ animals and plants he saw on his travels as accurately as possible. Here, author Henrietta McBurney analyses the ways in which pioneering Catesby distinguished his art from other illustrators of his time – wherein the fundamental inspiration for the images he produced came directly from his first-hand observations of the natural world. 

Discover how Mark Catesby connected the plant and animal worlds of North America through his art…

Fig. 1: Mark Catesby, Great hogfish. Watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum (RCIN 925959). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

One of the many eye-catching images in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands is his portrait of a great hogfish (fig. 1). Only the head with the front part of the fish is depicted and even that part is not completely visible. The dorsal fin ‘branching into four long pliant Flagelli large at the Basis’ disappears off the top edge of the sheet. Catesby accompanies this illustration with a written description:

The Iris of the Eye red, the upper Mandible of a fleshy callous Substance and of a reddish purple Colour … from under the Eye to the Angle of the Mouth it was purple sprinkled thick over with crooked blue Lines in Form of Wormes … The inside of the Mouth was of a blood-red Colour, the under jaw yellow. From the Eyes to the Tail, the Back was covered with large purple Scales, those on the Belly lighter with stains of yellow.

Fig. 2: Mark Catesby, Great hogfish, detail of dorsal fin. Pen and ink (RCIN 925959 verso). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

At three to four feet long clearly no more than the foremost section of the fish could be illustrated life-size. However, a discovery made by the paper conservator in the Royal Library at Windsor in 1996 revealed a drawing Catesby had made of the ‘long pliant Flagelli’ in pen and ink on the reverse side of the sheet (fig. 2). Catesby included this sketch as a detail in the etched plate for his book which he made from these preparatory drawings (fig. 3).

There was another reason for Catesby to draw only this section of the hogfish: ‘The Tail of this Fish being cut off before I had it, I cannot say of what Form it was.’ His comment emphasises that he was painting animals ‘from the life’. Elsewhere he writes that as ‘Fish … do not retain their colours when out of their Element, I painted [them] at different times, having a succession of them procur’d while the former lost their colours.’

Capturing the ‘Colour’ of Life

Depicting the colours of animals and plants accurately was as important to Catesby as showing them life-size and from the life. ‘The Picture of an Animal, taken from its stuffed skin or case, can afford but a very imperfect idea of the creature, compared with what is done from the Life, not only as to what regards their Shape, Spirit, and Gesture, but also their beautiful colours.’

Fig. 3: Mark Catesby, Great hogfish. Hand-coloured etching (Natural History, 1743, II, pl. 15). © The Royal Society, London.

The hogfish (Lachnolaimus maximus), a now threatened species native to the western Atlantic Ocean, frequents the coral reefs around the Bahama Islands where Catesby was exploring. His dramatic image conjures up vividly the exotic world of animal and plant life that he encountered during his trip to South Carolina and the Caribbean in 1722-26.

Ecological Contexts

Catesby’s readers were accustomed to traditional modes of illustrating plants and animals as isolated objects on the page, the way in which they were known from specimens in collectors’ cabinets. Driven to travel to the New World by his ‘passionate Desire of viewing as well the Animal as Vegetable productions in their native countries’, Catesby broke with these traditions. He depicted animal and plant life as he had seen it in the wild – in interdependent relationships, or what we would now call ecological contexts. He explained ‘where it would be admitted of, I have adapted the birds to those Plants on which they fed or have any Relation to.’

Fig. 4: Mark Catesby, Blue jay and laurel greenbrier. Watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum (RCIN 924828). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.
Fig. 5: Mark Catesby, Northern cardinal, mockernut and pignut. Watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum (RCIN 924852). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

He shows the blue jay on a branch of the laurel greenbrier with its clusters of berries which are ‘food for some sort of Birds, particularly this Jay’ (fig. 4). Further underlining the biological associations he observed between animals and plants, Catesby played on their shared shapes and reflected colours. The deep purple-black colour of the greenbrier berries appears again in the ‘dusky purple’ colour of the bird’s plumage. The sharp angles of the crest and bill of the cardinal bird are mirrored in those of the triangular-shaped shells of the hickory nuts, features which not only connect the bird with its food source but emphasise its alert posture – its ‘Spirit and Gesture’ (fig. 5).

Other Artistic Sources

Yet while the fundamental inspiration for his images came directly from his first-hand observation of the natural world, Catesby’s striking compositions reveal other influences.

The techniques involved in the arrangement of truncated and flattened plant specimens on to the herbarium sheet clearly influenced the layout and design of many of his plant drawings. Features such as broken and bent stems and folded over leaves translated easily into drawn and etched images, as, for example, in the mockernut hickory tree which provides the background for the cardinal.

As a gentleman amateur, Catesby trained himself by studying and copying the works of other natural history illustrators, both earlier and contemporary.  These works provided an alternative source of authoritative images which he adapted and incorporated into his own art. Sometimes these artistic sources are merely echoed; at other times they are fully integrated into his own compositions. The model for his illustration of the flying squirrel sitting on a stem of the American persimmon tree, for example, was copied exactly from a lively drawing of the animal by the Dutch artist Everhard Kick (fig. 6-7).

For Catesby, inspiration from nature went hand in hand with inspiration from art. But while nature and art are in constant balance in his work, he came to the illustration of natural history as a naturalist rather than as an artist. It was his first-hand experience of nature in the wild combined with his artist’s eye that allowed him to illustrate the underlying connections between the plant and animal worlds that distinguish his art.

Fig. 7: Mark Catesby, Flying squirrel (after Everhard Kick) and American persimmon. Hand-coloured etching (Natural History, II, pl. 76). © The Royal Society, London.
Fig. 6: Everhard Kick, Flying squirrel, 1700-03. Plumbago (RCIN 926034). Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021.

Henrietta McBurney is a freelance curator and art historian. She was previously curator in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Her publications include studies on the florilegium of Alexander Marshal and the natural history drawings for Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Paper Museum.

Her latest book focuses on the life and art of the eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby, exploring his pioneering work and its depiction of the flora and fauna of North America in vibrant detail.

Find it online or at your favourite local bookshop.

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