In the last post, I discussed the University of South Carolina’s Mark Catesby Centre and its work to bring Catesby’s legacy into the 21st century. Now I want to dig a little more deeply into that legacy and how it developed. Every discussion of Catesby begins with the disclaimer that not much is known about his life, and to a certain extent this is true. There is little information about his early years with somewhat more his life after he returned to England. However, the more historians have studied existing records about him and put these together with what they can glean from others’ correspondence and journals, Catesby has, in a sense, has come more to life. One expert is the botanist E. Charles Nelson (2018), a member of the Centre’s affiliated faculty, who has delved into what books were in Catesby’s library. Nelson also researched Catesby’s relationship with his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll who was a gardener and was friendly with John Ray and with Samuel Dale, a supporter of Catesby’s travels. This is likely where Catesby developed his interest in plants and learned the basics. However, there is no record of his having any formal education, though he came from a family that was comfortable if not wealthy.
The next phase of Catesby’s life was his first trip to North America from 1712 to 1719. He accompanied his sister to get her safely settled with her husband, a physician serving the governor of Virginia at Williamsburg. It’s assumed Catesby spent much of his time working on his brother-in-law’s farm, but he also developed a friendship with two men who had a serious interest in plants, William Byrd II and John Custis. Byrd had a large library and a greenhouse, Custis a variety of exotic plants growing in his garden. Catesby traveled up the James River toward the Appalachian Mountains and also made other trips closer to home. He gathered seeds and various plant materials, sending them to Dale who was impressed with them and with Catesby’s knowledge (Nelson & Elliott, 2015).
When Catesby returned to England, Dale put him in touch with other botanists of the day such as William Sherard and Hans Sloane. They encouraged Catesby to return to North America and more systematically collect specimens, seeds, and seedlings. They also encouraged his artistic talent and his ability to write vividly on natural history. These three men, along with 9 others, sponsored his second trip which was focused further south. Many were members of the Royal Society, and Catesby later presented a report on his travels at an RS meeting. After he visited with the botanical minded in Charleston, he began to explore the area, particularly north of Charleston where there were several large plantations as well as much wild country.
Catesby had brought supplies for painting watercolors of the organisms he found and also for making collections, particularly of plants, though he did collect shells, skins of birds and other animals, and insects as well. He wrote of Native Americans he encountered and their uses for plants, especially for medicinal purposes. He traveled down the coast of Carolina and then inland, perhaps as far as Clemson probably using Native American trails (Brown, 2022). He also visited Fort Moore, across the river from what is now Augusta, Georgia on three occasions, and explored central Carolina. Georgia was then considered part of Florida. Finally, Catesby sailed to the Bahama Islands where he remained for a year before traveling back to England. This is a hurried travelogue, but I want to get to his artistic work after his return because without that there would probably not be a Catesby Centre.
Catesby presented his sponsors with the fruits of his voyage in terms of plant material and correspondence, but he did not want to relinquish his drawings until he had used them to create the illustrations for the book he was planning. He quickly discovered that to publish a work on the scale he envisioned would be very costly. He couldn’t afford to have an expert create etched plates, so he learned from a master of the art Joseph Goupy and made his own, as well as writing the text in both English and French and advertising for subscribers. He even hand-colored some of the prints in the first volume himself. This volume was completed in 1731 and the second in 1743. Each volume had 100 spectacular etchings, and there was an additional 20 in an Appendix to the second volume that was published four years later.
While working on this opus, Catesby collaborated with nurserymen who were cultivating a number of the plants he brought back. At times, the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands reads almost like a catalogue where he extols the virtues of a North American tree or shrub now grown by one of his associates. After the second volume was published he began work on something of a spin-off, Hortus Europae Americanus, with plates based on portions of the original plates. Published posthumously, It focused on trees and shrubs and was much closer to a nurserymen’s publication in that it included practical information on growth habits and conditions for the pictured species. This is a much less spectacular work, but I find It very pleasing to look at, with each plate divided into four sectors picturing four species.
Brown, H. (2022). Catesby in Carolina. South Carolina Wildlife, January/February, 4–11.
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.