Mark Catesby’s Art

In this post on the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre, I want to discuss a recent presentation sponsored by the Centre in the Hollings Special Collections Library.  The art historian Henrietta McBurney (2021) spoke about her new book, Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby.  McBurney has been doing research on Catesby for decades.  In 1997 she published Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle.  This was written when she was a curator at the Royal Library, where she worked on the natural history watercolors in the collection including those of Catesby, Alexander Marshal, Maria Merian, and material from Cassiano Dal Pozzo’s Paper Museum with works by a number of artists.  The treasures of this collection feature in a great online exhibit.  I was lucky to be included in an after-lecture discussion with McBurney.  She said that it wasn’t until the 1980s that curators began to examine these collections; before then they were little studied or appreciated.  McBurney (1997) was involved in examination of the ornithology portions of the Pozzo collection, which served her well in working with the Catesby drawings since birds are probably the focus of the most interest in his work.  However he did a masterful job with everything he drew, including fish, shells, snakes, and of course, plants.

As McBurney noted, Catesby was most interested in botany, but like many naturalists of his time, he had a broad knowledge base that deepened on his North American trips.  As an art historian, she is concerned with how he presented his subjects and how he achieved such mastery.  She has done a thorough study of the Royal Library watercolors and compared them to the completed etchings.  For most but not all the art, the organisms pictured in the drawings seem to form the bases of the prints.  In some cases, they are very similar.  In other instances, there are additions or deletions made, such as adding a fruit to a plant or a background to a bird image. 

There is also the question of how many of these drawings were made during Catesby’s trip.  Some are not derived from observing a live specimen, though many of them are.  After his return, Catesby had access not only to the collector Hans Sloane’s herbarium and library, but also to the drawings done by Everhard Kick for Sloane’s Natural History of Jamaica.  McBurney presented several cases where the two artists’ works are similar.  Catesby also knew the great botanical artist Georg Ehret, and McBurney pointed to the case of a magnolia that both artists may have been drawn from the same specimen, with slightly different results.  In addition, Catesby had purchased several watercolors by Claude Aubriet, a French botanical artist who illustrated the work of Joseph Pitton de Tournefort.  Obviously, Catesby had an eye for the best, and portions of a few of his etchings are based on Aubriet. 

Like any good artist, Catesby used a number of sources, but most of his works are based on direct observation.  McBurney and others have noted the few cases where he got things wrong, and I have been at Catesby Centre meetings were experts tried to figure out precisely what snake or fish or plant Catesby was attempting to portray.  But these instances are few and far between, especially considering the conditions under which he worked.  If he decided to include a particular plant or animal after he was back in England, he either had to rely on his memory or preparatory sketches, or seek out the same species in the work of others.  Even when he did paint from “life,” a dead bird’s plumage would usually keep its color but tropical fish’s scales would not. 

McBurney is an art historian, not a botanist, and it is interesting to listen to her interpret not only Catesby’s art but his specimens as well.  These too served as models for a number of his etchings, and she considers some of them artworks in their own right.  She notes that “The layout and design of many of his drawings owe a debt to the techniques of preserving plant specimens in herbaria.  It is not accidental that Catesby used paper of the same sheet size and quality for both drawing and mounting specimens.  The manual techniques of fitting truncated and flattened specimens on to the herbarium sheets become tropes of many of the drawing and etched images, such as broken and bent stems and folded over leaves” (p. 112).  For someone like myself who is interested in the relationship between art and herbaria, this could almost count as exhibit A.  Stephen Harris, the curator of the Oxford University Herbaria which holds the William Sherard and Charles Dubois specimens received from Catesby, notes that Catesby never saw these again once he sent them off to his sponsors.  Sloane was generous in allowing experts access to his collections, and he and Catesby were both based in London, an important consideration for someone like Catesby who had a complex life with little free time.  He was not only attempting to publish, he was also tending plants and raising a young family.  He and his partner Elizabeth Rowland had six children, though they only married two years before Catesby’s death.  Here again is a part of his life we know little about. 


McBurney, H. (1997). Mark Catesby’s Natural History of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle. Houston: Museum of Fine Arts.

McBurney, H. (2021). Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

One thought on “Mark Catesby’s Art

  1. Pingback: Mark Catesby at 300 | Herbarium World

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