Test Your Knowledge: Who is Mark Catesby?

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I’d like to think most people are at least familiar with John James Audubon, America’s most popular wildlife artist, and Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist accredited with binomial nomenclature. But what about Mark Catesby, the English explorer, naturalist and artist whose work informed and inspired them both?


Yeah, I don’t blame you. Catesby’s not exactly a household name. In fact, very little is known about the man himself other than that he was born in Essex in 1683 and made several trips to America–Virginia, then the Carolinas, Spanish Florida and the Bahamas – before returning to England. But his book, Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, chock full of the first depictions of the plants and animals of the colonies begs the question, why? With 220 hand-colored etchings detailed down to the scales of a catfish and wisps of hair on a bison, Catesby could dethrone Audubon as the founding father of nature illustration. In fact, Catesby (1683-1749) makes Audubon, who came more than a century after him, look like a downright copycat. Their styles are remarkably similar–birds propped on tree limbs with sterile white backdrops. And Linnaeus, too, stood on Catesby’s shoulders, infusing his moniker in to Latin species names in his honor. FYI: The Linnaean name for the North American bullfrog is Rana catesbeiana.

For Catesby’s long list of firsts–first to portray the flora and fauna of America, first to draw sketches from life as opposed to dead, posed specimens, first to give viewers a sense of environmental relationships by picturing plants and animals with the wildlife that surrounded them in their habitats, first to discover that birds migrate (nixing the thought that they hibernate in caves, hollow trees or at the beds of ponds) and likely the first to recognize how natural and man-made destruction of a species’ habitat leads to extinction–he’s been unduly forgotten. Finally, some fans of his are taking it upon themselves to yank him out of the folds of history.

David Elliot, founder of the Kiawah Island Natural Habitat Conservancy in South Carolina and executive director of the Catesby Commemorative Trust, and Cynthia Neal, an award-winning documentary producer–fueled by Elliot’s interest in history, especially that of Kiawah Island where Catesby once tramped, and Neal’s passion for wildlife conservation–teamed up to create The Curious Mister Catesby, a film about the one and only. A writer for London’sThe Times called the endeavor "more a labour of love than a hard-headed commercial venture," a sentiment that if kept in mind should let you get past the hokey, over-articulate narrator. And, so far, over 1,000 people have seen the film at London, Washington, DC, Charleston and Kiawah Island screenings. Its producers are working towards public television broadcasts across the country.

The Curious Mister Catesby from David Elliott on Vimeo

Smithsonian Institution Libraries, which has two of the roughly 80 remaining originals of Natural History, is doing its part to bring the rare book to the everyman’s living room. The text will be digitized for inclusion in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, a digital portal for literature on biodiversity of which the Smithsonian libraries are a part of, and made accessible through the Encyclopedia of Life, an online project aiming to create a Web site for every known species that calls up relevant material. The idea is that researchers–tikes to adults–will be able to call up a site on a Rana catesbeiana and get Catesby’s painting of one, along with other interesting sources. Smithsonian Institution Libraries will also have an all-Catesby Web site up and running by the end of the year with a selection of illustrations and essays on his influence on art, natural history and scientific observation.

Join in the Catesby revival! If you’ve heard of him or learn something about him, post a comment.

(Photograph Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries)