Mark Catesby

Both Audubon and Linnaeus were indebted to this intrepid British limner of the New World

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Early in the 18th century — between 1712 and 1726 — a single-minded and curious British naturalist named Mark Catesby made two extended trips to America. Back in England, his wealthy patrons were eager to receive his shipments of the exotic birds, reptiles, insects and other animals and plants he found on the East Coast of America and in the Bahamas. But Catesby had a far more ambitious project in mind than simply sending specimens back home. His aim was nothing less than an exhaustive record — in watercolor, and later in printed form — of the flora and fauna of the New World.

With the completion in 1747 of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, Catesby accomplished his monumental task. Europeans were fascinated by the strange creatures — the scarlet ibis, the red hind, the flame box crab — that he showed in vivid detail, often paired with plants that made up their usual habitat. Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark were among those in America who sought out The Natural History.

Now, 52 of the 263 watercolors on which The Natural History was based are touring the United States, on loan from the Royal Library at Windsor Castle. The exhibition is presently at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (through November 9), and will stop at Colonial Williamsburg's DeWitt Wallace Gallery and the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia.

Writer Doug Stewart brings into high relief the enterprising and adventurous 18th-century world in which Catesby operated, and he travels to Windsor Castle to see Catesby's watercolors before they go on tour. Stewart also examines the reasons why Catesby's considerable accomplishments were eclipsed — and why this exhibition should go a long way toward restoring his reputation.

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