The naturalist, author, and artist Mark Catesby landed in Charleston, South Carolina on May 3, 1722 on his second visit to North America. To celebrate the 300th anniversary, the Mark Catesby Centre at the University of South Carolina, Columbia presented a symposium, Catesby at 300. The Centre is part of the University Libraries, and its Rare Book Collection has mounted a special exhibition running, Catesby in the Carolinas, which also includes exhibits at the university’s McKissick Museum with its extensive natural history collection; it runs through August. The University Libraries holds five copies of Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands representing all three editions. Since there were less than 200 copies printed of the first edition and about 100 survive, this is an amazing treasure and well worth showing off. This fine collection is one reason the rare print collector Herbert Fitzgerald decided to augment it by donating over 120 Catesby prints to the university and also why the independent Catesby Commemorative Trust found a new home there as the Catesby Centre.
David Elliott founded the Trust 20 years ago and was pleased to have it become part of the university so it can continue its already significant achievements in making Mark Catesby’s legacy better known today. I first learned about its work when the Trust sponsored a six-day tour of Catesby-related sites from Washington, DC to Charleston in 2012. It was a unique opportunity to travel with a group of participants and presenters that included the botanists James Reveal and Ghillean Prance who spoke of the plants Catesby encountered. Charlie Jarvis (2007), who wrote the definitive work on Carl Linnaeus’s type specimens, discussed the plants that Carl Linnaeus named based on Catesby specimens and prints. The two even exchanged letters and met when Linnaeus was in London early in his career. Stephen Harris presented via video on the Catesby specimens at the Oxford University Herbaria. They are part of the collections of Charles Dubois and William Sherard who were among those sponsoring his trip. In return, they received specimens and seeds.
At the Smithsonian, we saw its copies of Catesby’s books and heard from Leslie Overstreet who has done extensive work on the extant copies, including how they vary across the editions and even within an edition. One cause of variations is that the volumes were not sold bound, but sent to subscribers in fascicles of 20 prints each along with a page of text for each print. The copy that is now in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle was purchased by King George III and includes an original Georg Ehret painting. This was among the interesting information provided by Henrietta McBurney who had been a curator at the Royal Library and had written a book on the 240 original Catesby watercolors also purchased by the George III. They had not been given much attention over the years until McBurney and others on the staff examined them along with several other important natural history art collections.
Besides tours of a number of historic homes in Richmond, Virginia and Charleston that held original Catesby prints, we also took a boat trip along the Kiawah River in areas that Catesby visited. This was a wonderful experience because we went through a large nature preserve that is a sanctuary for sea birds. We saw not only many species, but large populations of them. It really gave at least some sense of what South Carolina was like when Catesby visited. I would like to reminisce more about this wonderful tour, but I want to mention other contributions made by the Catesby Commemorative Trust including the publication of the award winning book, The Curious Mister Catesby (Nelson & Elliott, 2015). It includes chapters based on presentations given during the tour as well as other essays covering everything from Catesby’s biography, to his relationship to the horticulture trade between Britain and the colonies and his activities during the year he spent in the Bahama Islands. The book was edited by David Elliott and E. Charles Nelson, an Irish botanist, writer, and editor who has been an integral part of the work of the Trust and now of the Catesby Centre. He and Elliott are putting together a new book that will include a catalog of the Catesby prints donated by Fitzgerald as well as essays on the plants, birds, insects, and fishes pictured in Natural History. These include those mentioned in Catesby’s introductory essay, “An Account of Carolina and the Bahama Islands,” but not pictured in any of the prints. Since established within the University Libraries, the Centre has also overseen the digitization of the first edition Catesby as well as the Fitzgerald prints.
I am fortunate to have been invited to be part of the Catesby Centre’s work as affiliate faculty along with Herrick Brown the director of the A.C. Moore Herbarium in the university’s biology department, Christian Cicimurri curator of collections at the McKissick Museum, Rudy Mancke the university’s natural in residence, and Michael Weisenberg associate director of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University Libraries. The entire list of those contributing to this effort are listed here. I have learned a great deal from this project, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it. I consider myself lucky to have landed at the university shortly before the Centre did. In the following posts, I’ll discuss some of the latest discoveries about Catesby’s life and art, and end with a recap of the symposium held in May.
McBurney, H. (1997). Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts.
Nelson, E. C., & Elliott, D. J. (Eds.). (2015). The Curious Mister Catesby: A Truly Ingenious Naturalist Explores New Worlds. Athens, GA. University of Georgia Press.
7 thoughts on “Mark Catesby in South Carolina”
Maura, this article explains so much about Catesby and all that fascinating work you are part of at The Centre!
Thanks. I am very lucky to be connected with the Centre.
Maura, this is just wonderful, and he did Florida too. That’s where I grew up! I’m now jonesing to come to SC and visit the museum. Also my old boarding school, Ashley Hall!
XO Faith >
I never seem to tire of learning of early Colonial naturalist and Catesby is among my favorites. I look forward to hearing more.
Thanks, hope you enjoy the rest of the posts.
Actually, he was geographically in Georgia, which was called Florida at the time he traveled!!
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