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For the Library: the inextinguishable spirit of 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby

Henrietta McBurney’s new book on Mark Catesby explores his boundary-breaking identity as a naturalist, scientist and artist

For the Library: the inextinguishable spirit of 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby

This is “a book about a book”, writes Henrietta McBurney in Illuminating Natural History, her in-depth exploration of the making of English naturalist Mark Catesby’s magnum opus, his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–43). Catesby’s hugely influential book was the first comprehensive survey of the flora and fauna of southeastern North America and parts of the British colonies.

Working during a period of transition when the world of science was on the cusp of change, Catesby was not only a naturalist, but an artist and a researcher whose work has remained unsurpassed as a point of scientific reference for many years. Nevertheless, McBurney’s book takes a new angle, examining the intricate beauty of his natural drawings, interweaving elements of art history, colonial history and the history of science.

We not only see Catesby’s etchings of plants in meticulous detail, replicating the pore of each plant; we also see his most enduringly profound images which evade absolute verisimilitude in favour of somewhat surreal images: a flamingo’s impossibly red feathers set against baby-pink coral reefs; a spotted fish swimming between two floating terrestrial plants with branches raised upwards to the sky. It’s clear that his artistic process produced images of nature that were at once an imprint of reality and a profoundly complex composition.

Mark Catesby’s inextinguishable spirit of adventure and curiosity for the sublime beauty of nature led him to sail from his home in London to South Carolina. Arriving in Virginia in 1712, he spent the next seven years sketching and observing the natural resources, gathering plant samples and “many birds, shells, snakes and other specimens” to send back to England. He then travelled to South Carolina and the Bahamas (1722-26) to collect more specimens.

Catesby’s odyssey led him to discover plants and animals completely unknown to his homeland: birds with vivid green spots, magnificent wild lilies, frogs striped with yellow and red. Significantly, his etchings preserve the vision of species that have long been extinct, including the Carolina parakeet and the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Not only does McBurney’s volume reveal the artistry of Catesby, it also preserves
Catesby’s extant letters. These detail his findings with the greatest wonder, alternating between professional recounts to his sense of irrepressible excitement about his discoveries. Published this month, McBurney’s book is a tribute to Catesby’s determination and endurance. Taking the reader on a journey through Catesby’s identity in chapters titled ‘Naturalist’, ‘Artist’ and ‘Horticulturalist’, McBurney offers a multifaceted examination of an extraordinary man filled with perennial wonder at the world, continually discovering the beauties it has to offer.

Further reading

Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby, by Henrietta McBurney is available to purchase via Yale Books

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