When John James Audubon published The Birds of America, South Carolina College subscribed to its first edition for professors and students to use. University of South Carolina librarian Michael Weisenburg, Ph.D., says, “Now we think about it as this big, expensive, rare book. But it was just a text book back then. A lot of the early South Carolina College library holdings are practical chemistry and natural history.”
Nearly 200 years later, USC continues its tradition of teaching natural history. Recently it has turned its attention toward extolling the work of a lesser known naturalist, Englishman Mark Catesby (1683-1739), whose work predates Audubon’s by a century. Catesby’s stunning two-volume masterpiece, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, the first heavily illustrated account of the flora and fauna of North America, includes 220 engraved and hand-colored plates of birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, mammals, and plants, many from South Carolina.
Catesby greatly influenced not only Audubon (1785-1851) but also Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), the Swedish physician and biologist who invented the system of binomial nomenclature still used today. Catesby’s work formed the basis of 119 Linnaean names and descriptions of North American plants and animals. Among the many species named after Catesby are the lily thorn, Catesbaea spinosa; American bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus; the bashful wakerobin, Trillium catesbaci; and, the fringed campion, Silene catesbaei. Catesby was the first to depict birds together with ecologically appropriate plants, demonstrating his concern for environmental conservation of animal habitats. His observation of migration was also a new concept in the 18th century; previously, birds were thought to hibernate.
David J. Elliott and Cynthia P. Neal founded the Catesby Commemorative Trust in 2002 to promote the preservation of natural history and to share knowledge about Catesby’s important research. This year, the trust (formerly an independent 501c3) is undergoing a transition and is being absorbed by the Mark Catesby Centre, which was created by and makes its home at USC; the centre will continue to maintain close ties with a group of researchers and naturalists in England. David, who was awarded South Carolina’s Order of the Palmetto in 2019 for his efforts in environmental conservation and education, serves as the Catesby Centre’s director.
“The materials are all owned by USC and antedate both the trust and the centre; i.e. the university has a long history of collecting Catesby and other figures of natural history,” Michael explains. “As a public institution, people may register to be readers with the Rare Books Department in the Hollings Library and access the materials in our reading room.”
Having studied history before embarking on a 37-year career with Procter & Gamble and a stint with the U.S. Department of Commerce, David was delighted to discover Catesby’s work after retiring to Charleston with his wife, Sallie. David remembers, “When I came to the museum house at Middleton Place in Charleston, I saw this great big book open to this great big bird, a red bird. I’ve been interested in bird-watching since childhood in England, and it said it was a red curlew. I said, ‘There’s no such bird.’” It was the name Catesby gave to the magnificent South American bird now known as the scarlet ibis.
In 2007, in both London and Charleston, the Mark Catesby Trust premiered an insightful documentary, The Curious Mister Catesby, a lush depiction of the flora and fauna Catesby encountered when exploring the New World in 1722. Following in Catesby’s footsteps, the film focuses on the beautiful wilderness of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, amidst pluff mud, mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators. Then it travels to London’s Royal Society and Kew Gardens, with stops at the Natural History Museum and The Smithsonian Institute. The film subsequently aired on PBS stations more than 1,300 times and is now available for viewing on University Libraries’ Mark Catesby Centre website.
“After the documentary,” David recalls, “the question was, ‘Do we do anything else, or do we just fold it?’ We were coming up on the tercentennial of Catesby’s first arrival in North America when he escorted his sister here to Virginia.”
They decided to hold a symposium on Catesby, with presentations in Richmond, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and Charleston, South Carolina. “It lasted a week, and we were fortunate to get an incredible array of outstanding scholars to present papers,” David says. The papers inspired the creation of a 22-chapter book, also called The Curious Mister Catesby (edited by E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott, University of Georgia Press, 2015). The volume, featuring much of Catesby’s art, won the 2016 Annual Literature Award of the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. And in May 2016, representatives of the Catesby Commemorative Trust addressed the Linnaean Society during its first-ever North American meeting at Harvard University.
Details about Catesby’s life are limited, and no known portrait of him exists, yet his work as an artist and naturalist is eternally significant. Having escorted his married older sister, Elizabeth Cocke, to join her husband in Virginia in 1712, Catesby returned to England seven years later with paintings of plants and animals he had studied along with cuttings and seeds. Fellows of the Royal Society in London agreed to sponsor his return to the North American colonies, and thus he arrived in Charleston in 1722. He spent four years in the Carolinas, Georgia, and the Bahama islands, relying upon Native American guides to accompany him through forests and marshes, where he painted images of plants and animals and collected specimens to send to England.
Catesby’s original watercolors were purchased by King George III in 1768. They remain in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II loaned several to the Gibbes Museum in Charleston for a rare exhibit in 2017, prompted, in part, by the publication of the book The Curious Mister Catesby. When President Donald Trump made a state visit to England, David notes, the queen made a point to show him the paintings because they were early images from North America brought back to England.
Michael, who is the reference and instruction librarian at Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections for University Libraries, points out that the term naturalist in the 1700s meant that Catesby simply went out in the wilderness to observe and report on what he saw. Not many people were coming to the New World. “It was the more intrepid adventurers, the people who had nothing to lose and everything to gain,” he says. “That’s the American narrative. Those are the people who were coming over here in the 18th century — to explore.”
Catesby chose to return to North America, Michael believes, out of a genuine interest in what he had seen in Virginia on his first visit. “I think Catesby engraved plants and animals because he enjoyed them. He was fascinated by them in the same way that Audubon, several generations later, was fascinated by these creatures. He made sure that everyone appreciated them. It’s a world without photography. You can explain in words what these things are, but he also wanted to show people what they looked like. It’s more charming. There’s a certain aesthetic to it.”
In 1726, Catesby returned to London, which he considered “the center of all science,” to spend the next two decades engraving on copper plates the images that he had drawn during his exploration of the New World as well as write text based on copious notes he had taken in the field. Catesby depicted most animals in their natural environment, setting the precedent for Audubon’s work. Prior to that, most artistic renderings of animals were made from viewing taxidermied specimens or copying other artists’ work. Catesby sketched and painted most of his subjects in the field with some exceptions, including a borrowed image of the nocturnal Southern flying squirrel from a drawing by Edward Kickius.
Catesby sold between 160 and 180 copies of the book to subscribers in installments. The number of copies was impressive, considering that it was one of the most expensive books of his era. Scholars estimate that approximately 80 first-edition copies remain, the rest having been lost or split apart for their coveted engravings. In addition to private collections and USC, copies of The Natural History are found at places like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.; The Royal Society in London; and, Middleton Place Plantation in Charleston. Michael painstakingly supervises the care of one first edition, two second editions, and one third edition of The Natural History, plus a posthumous edition of Catesby’s Hortus Europae Americanus. “The idea behind the Hortus,” Michael says, “is that they were trying to think about what kind of native or aboriginal plants in the New World might be interesting or useful in Britain.”
Michael holds a flashlight up to a page of The Natural History to expose its watermark — a Strasbourg lily indicates a first-edition page. Catesby’s engraved, hand-colored images of animals in their natural environment appear opposite his detailed descriptions in both English and a French translation. Watermarks indicate approximately when paper was made, and because early printers tended not to have a lot of paper in stock, sometimes first-edition plates ended up in later editions of The Natural History.
The university libraries’ pristine first-edition volumes were a gift from the Gibbes-Robinson family of Charleston in 2008, and Claudia Phelps of the Columbia Garden Society donated one of the other sets in the 1950s, Michael says. The university also holds a collection of Catesby prints donated by Herbert Fitzgerald, a recent gift inspired by the Catesby Centre’s founding. Michael is grateful that some South Carolinians with an interest in natural history and art chose to share these important collections with the university. Not only will professional researchers be able to access the materials, but the public will benefit from both an electronic database and opportunities to learn from scholars about Catesby’s work.
The rare books and art are kept in a climate-controlled vault at 60 degrees F with 40 percent humidity. Working with digital collections librarian Mēgan Oliver to scan one page at a time, staff person Kendall Hallberg gently lays an open, hefty volume of Catesby’s Natural History onto a brand new Qidanis scanner. The Austrian machine takes DSL photographs of each page, enabling the libraries to provide digital copies for public access.
The digitizing team is working with USC’s naturalist, Rudy Mancke; A.C. Moore Herbarium’s curator, Herrick Brown; and, McKissick Museum curator Christian Cicimurri to gather historic data. The goal is to have not only images but text searchable by scientific name and historical name. However, Catesby’s original text is, in part, historiated (an initial letter in an illuminated manuscript). Michael explains, “If you look carefully at the large capitals, you’ll see that there are illustrations within the typefaces.” That precludes the computer’s being able to interpret it, so not all text will be searchable.
David notes, “The point to realize in dealing with a book like this is that each copy is an individual piece of art. So, you’d have the engravings, and the plates were used for three different editions from 1729. The last printing was in 1816, but the coloration would differ not just from edition to edition but from copy to copy.” Later editions were all posthumous, so Catesby would not have been involved with the coloration of the pages, which were each printed from the original plates and colored by hand.
Researchers at the Catesby Centre have set a goal to publish a new book in 2022 that will compare the plants and animals in Catesby’s book to species recognizable currently. “Catesby in writing his natural history illustrated many, many bird species,” David says, “but a number are listed in a section he called ‘An Account’ that he didn’t actually illustrate. In some instances, he thought a lot of the birds were the same species as he knew in England, but you dig a little deeper, and you find that that’s not true.”
To celebrate the 300th anniversary of Catesby’s arrival in the Carolinas, The Mark Catesby Centre is hoping to increase its existing educational outreach with a symposium. USC hopes to invite Sir Ghillean Prance, patron of the Catesby Centre and former director of Kew Gardens, to be the keynote speaker.
This year, David says, the Catesby Centre has been working on a design for a memorial window to be installed in Catesby’s parish church in London, St. Giles Cripplegate. The group’s artistic director, Sylvia Bacon, and its senior research director, E. Charles Nelson, Ph.D., are collaborating with a glass artist in London. “It will be installed on the second of June in conjunction with the annual Fairchild lecture of the 1345 Worshipful Company of Gardeners, which was a guild founded in 1345 that controlled the gardening/horticulture profession in London. It’s now a charity and has been for a few years. Thomas Fairchild, who was a friend of Catesby’s — Catesby was an executor of his will — was the very first to hybridize a plant.”
Inviting international scholars to the university to share their knowledge is one goal of the Catesby Centre, but the university also welcomes naturalists and historians to visit the libraries to further their own research. “We’re a public institution,” Michael says. “We’re curating these things for people to be exposed to them. It’s an opportunity for people who are interested in natural history to come and see and enjoy and learn more.”
For more information about The Mark Catesby Centre, or to watch the documentary The Curious Mister Catesby, visit https://digital.library.sc.edu/markcatesbycentre.