Catesby’s Natural History

Catesby's Natural History1st Ed., Vol. 1 (1731)

Mark Catesby was an English naturalist, scientist, and scientific artist whose multi-volume series, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was the first scientific work documenting the flora and fauna of North America. Volume 1 from the first edition was created over the period of 1729 to 1732, and this particular volume was digitized by Smithsonian Libraries for inclusion in Biodiversity Heritage Library. This volume covers many of the birds and plants that Catesby saw, including the now extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) with a Swamp Cypress (Taxodium distichum) shown below.

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Carolina Parakeet with a Swamp Cypress

The header illustration features a Blue Grosbeak (Passerina caerulea) with a Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). Read more about digitizing Catesby’s remarkable works on Biodiversity Heritage Library’s blog, as well as another post about the taxonomy additions to BHL’s Flickr albums. I was able to add taxonomy to these images with the published research found in The Curious Mister Catesby (2015). You can also read about Catesby’s SciArt Methodology here.

Mark Catesby on SciArt

screen-shot-2017-02-15-at-1-18-38-pmThe Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1729-1771) by Mark Catesby, a self-taught artist and naturalist, was first publication to describe scientifically the flora and fauna of North America. The first edition, published between 1729-1731, was written and illustrated by Catesby, with the exception of a few plates done by Georg Dionysius Ehret.

Catesby arrived May 23, 1722 in Charlestown in the colony of Carolina. A passionate explorer without formal scientific training, he taught himself scientific observation, illustration, and engraving. He describes his scientific and artistic methodology with much humility.

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Catesby’s explanation of how he illustrated his plates shows how intent he was to recreate accurate representations so that his work would be part of the legitimate endeavors of the burgeoning scientific community. His attention to detail even extended to his description of how he painted greens in his illustrations.

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Even with his efforts at accurate representation, one interesting feature of Catesby’s plates with multiple species is a varying perspective that doesn’t accurately account for size. For example, on Plate 20 of the Appendix, Catesby illustrated a Buffalo (Bison bison) with a Rose Locust (Robinia hispida).

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Biodiversity Heritage Library has a wonderful post about Catesby and the realization of his lifelong dream to catalog the life of the new world in the North American British colonies of the south. All of Catesby’s illustrations from the three editions, along with links to those editions, can be found here with thanks to BHL.

As part of my research for BHL, I had the pleasure of adding taxonomy to each of these illustrations, with gratitude for the invaluable resource, The Curious Mister Catesby (2015), edited by E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliot for the Catesby Commemorative Trust.