FOLLOW YOUR ART Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas at the Gibbes

Gibbes Museumby Susan Pidgeon

Have you ever wandered around the forest amazed by it’s beauty and curious about the wonderful new sights and sounds of things you have never seen before? Well, way back in 1722 a man by the name of Mark Catesby did exactly that.

Seed pods and leaves and diary entries paid the bills

About a hundred years prior to Audubon, Mark Catesby traveled from England to America and recorded the things he saw while exploring the various natural areas around him for four years. It was not an easy task as there were few settlements, no roads and most of the travel was done by foot or river.

In return for his expenses, he sent seed pods and leaves and diary entries back to his sponsors, who became increasingly demanding and unsatisfied with these contributions. Catesby held tightly to his coveted drawings of the wondrous animals, flowers and fauna never seen before that were found abundantly in America, particularly in the Carolinas and Bahamas. These drawings would become the basis of his life’s work.

Gibbes MuseumThe Curious Mr. Catesby

Back in May, I attended the Catesby opening at The Gibbes. I was not familiar with his work and I wish I had seen the movie The Curious Mr. Catesby prior to the opening as I feel I would have appreciated the work more having known the history behind it.

A friend commented on one story I saw in the movie which involved Catesby having unknowingly shared a bed with a rattlesnake that was a lot less snuggly with the maid making the bed. Catesby not only documented the local animals, fish and reptiles, he drew and wrote diary entries about the birds and put them beside the flowers and fauna that would have been their natural habitat.

He employed Native Americans to take him deep into the wilderness in canoes to feast his eyes upon the various plants and animals never before seen by the people in England. The Native Americans shot things for him to eat, carried his box filled with animals skins, leaves, seed pods, horns, shells, eggs, and various other dried specimens. They made sure to build a hut so rain would not disturb the ever increasing collection that needed to slowly dry to be preserved.

A labor of love

Catesby truly was ahead of his time. His work went on to influence and be used as a guide for Lewis and Clark, James John Audubon, Thomas Jefferson and Sir Isaac Newton among others.  Catesby is also credited with being the first man to figure out bird migration. Prior to that, birds were thought to burrow in the mud under water all winter. I rolled my eyes at that theory.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Willow Oak by Mark Catesby
Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Willow Oak by Mark Catesby

Catesby’s journey started off strong but by the end turned into a labor of love. He had various wealthy sponsors who were not pleased with his findings, many of which disappeared between America and Europe. One tale involves pirates drinking the rum, which was preserving rattlesnakes and toads that were headed back to his sponsors. (Eww. I hope to never be that desperate for a drink.)

Over the course of 4 years the sponsorships dried up, and he reluctantly returned home from his journeys in Virginia, the Carolinas, the Bahamas and Florida. Catesby returned to England hoping to gain more sponsorship but was denied this luxury. His drawings were enjoyed for many years, the cumulation of which was that he was finally allowed into the much acclaimed Royal Society, of which Sir Isaac Newton was the president.

Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas

Mark Catesby did all he could to promote his work and even ended up presenting a copy of his book to Queen Caroline at one point later in life. But alas, it truly became a labor of love, and he worked tirelessly for 20 years on Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas.

There was no more money from wealthy patrons yet he continued on, doing most of the work himself. He did so after working all day as a horticulturist and having four children. (That is enough to wear any person out.) Catesby was not stupid however, and he released the books in installments every four months, using the payments toward the purchase to pay for the next batch.

According to Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Rare Natural History Books at The Smithsonian, publishing houses were not abundant and it was very expensive to print things, so Catesby learned how to etch, paint watercolors, and set type himself. Not to mention that paper had to be made by hand at that point in time. It ended up costing a clergy’s yearly wage by the time the first copy came out. Yet passion for the things he had seen in America and his determination spurred him on.

Carolina Parakeet by Catesby
The Parrot of Carolina and the Cypress of America by Mark Catesby
From “flat drawing” to profiles

Later on, Catesby did hire a few colorists to help him with various editions to speed up production and he also would put two species on one page to save money. Another expert on Catesby from England, Judith McGee of the Natural History Museum in London said that Catesby had a way of drawing which he called “flat drawing” which he did so you could see the item in it’s entirety. It truly looked like some of the species were smashed in the pages of a book.

Later Catesby clued in that each side would be the same in a symmetrical animal and so he switched to doing only profiles, which proved to be a much better approach artistically. Catesby, according to McGee, did not consider himself an artist, but rather a scientist trying to draw to aid other scientists with classification and identification of various species.

One thing that Catesby did that was unusual for the time was draw from living specimens. It gave his work a more lively quality rather than the wooden images previously drawn by natural historians at the time.

Much of his work is gone

Sadly, Catesby’s widow stated her copy disappeared after his death. Elsewhere, only half of Catesby’s original 180 copies remain, and one of these was purchased by the King of England after Catesby’s death. Shortly prior to the United States leaving England the work was preserved in the Royal Library after its purchase by King George III in 1768.

The work at the Gibbes is specific to the Carolinas and includes Eastern Bison, the Ivory Woodpecker, the Carolina Parakeet and the Passenger Pigeon, all of which are now extinct. This particular collection of original watercolors at the Gibbes was lent by Queen Elizabeth II and the British Royal Collection and has only been seen twice in the United States. The prior show was in 1997 and was the first time the works were in America since Catesby drew them.

Passenger Pidgeon and Turkey Oak by Mark Catesby
Passenger Pidgeon and Turkey Oak by Mark Catesby
Check out the show at the Gibbes

Mark Catesby was an incredible artist, scientist, horticulturalist and explorer but most importantly he held fast to his appreciation of America and the dream of having his life’s work published. I would encourage you to attend the July 20th viewing at 1pm of Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas at The Gibbes Museum to learn more about his life. Afterwards Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, will discuss the work in the gallery at 2:30pm.

If you cannot attend, you can view the Curious Mr. Cateby video online. The original watercolors that date back to 1722 will be on exhibit at The Gibbes until Sept 24th. I may go down there and reexamine them myself now that I can appreciate all that the curious and determined Mr. Catesby went through to have them published.

Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)202-5394 or You can find her at or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.