The Life & Works of Mark Catesby, America’s First Naturalist/Illustrator

By Terry Wright

(to go to the Catesby Galleries, click HERE)

Before Alexander Wilson (1766-1813) and before John James Audubon (1785-1851), there was Mark Catesby (1683-1749), the first American naturalist/illustrator. Beginning in 1712, he chronicled and drew American flora and fauna, to the delight of his sponsors and audience, in England and Europe. Though perhaps (temporarily) overshadowed by the renown of Audubon, Mark Catesby’s contribution to American natural history, The Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, should not be underestimated for the monumental achievement that is represents. As the first colored plate book of American flora/fauna, it represented a dramatic first in American natural history and a serious contribution to the natural sciences of the eighteenth century.

Mark Catesby was born the fifth son of gentry in the village of Castle Hedingham, Essex, March 24, 1682/83. His parents were John Catesby, who practiced law, and Elizabeth Jekyll, of a prosperous local family of lawyers and antiquarians. Nonetheless, his formal education was limited. During his youth, Catesby was acquainted with the pre-eminent naturalist John Ray, who lived close by, perhaps inspiring his “early Inclination…to search after Plants, and other productions of nature”, and kindling his “passionate Desire” to see the native Flora and Fauna of the new American colonies.

In 1705, John Catesby died, leaving Mark with a small inheritance and limited prospects in England. This combination of factors and circumstances may have indirectly led to Catesby’s resolve to visit the American colonies.

In 1712, Mark Catesby made his first voyage to the American colonies, to visit his sister Elizabeth Cocke, in Northumberland, Virginia. She was married to the secretary to the Governor of Virginia, Dr. William Cocke, who provided Catesby introductions to prominent Americans of the time. During this visit he shipped specimens to Samuel Dale and Thomas Fairchild, which efforts gained him later entre to important English sponsors. Except for a visit to the West Indies in 1714 (probably inspired by Sir Hans Sloane’s (1660-1753) volume I of A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados Nieves, St. Christopher’s and Jamaica… aka “The Natural History of Jamaica”, first published in 1707), Catesby confined his travels to Virginia between the tidewaters and the Appalachian Mountains. He returned to England in 1719. Those intervening 7 years left Catesby with an enduring appreciation for the unique and wonderful plants and wildlife of the new world. While Catesby collected and sketched specimens during this visit, he did so without any grand design or publication in mind. He writes “I thought so little of prosecuting a Design of the Nature of the Work, that in the Seven Years I resided in that Country (I am ashamed to own it) I chiefly gratified my inclination in observing and admiring the various Productions of those Countries….” Upon his return to England, the intrigue of the New World, fueled by his judicious submission of samples to Dale and Fairchild, opened doors of sponsorship and encouragement for a second voyage to the Americas, with the express goal of chronicling the natural history of the New World.

Upon his return to the Americas in 1722, he bore the sponsorship of Sir Hans Sloane, benefactor of the British Museum, William Sherard, chairman of Botany at Oxford, East India Company merchant Charles Dubois, and other notables of the time. Colonel Francis Nicholson, Governor of South Carolina previously had pledged a pension, for Catesby’s benefit, amounting to 20 pounds per annum. These sponsors expected new world samples of flora and fauna to be forwarded to them for their own collections. (A list of these sponsors is included in the preface to volume I of his Natural History). Further, Nicholson expected Catesby to follow in the footsteps of (prematurely deceased) John Lawson, whose, New Voyage to Carolina was published in 1709. Unlike his first visit, Catesby set out at this time to illustrate all the plants, animals, birds, fish and reptiles of the American Colonies, creating a collection of drawings and watercolor paintings upon which his future endeavors would be based. During this interlude, Catesby visited the populated and unpopulated regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida relying upon the aid of Indian guides. By 1725, Catesby had visited the Bahamas as guest of Governor Charles Phinney and spent nine months there. In 1726, he returned to England once again.

Upon his return to England, Catesby embarked upon a single-handed effort to document his observations in the New World. This work was to consume the next 20 years of his life. By 1729, Catesby was able to approach the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Science to present an initial segment of his work along with plans for its completion. His plans included issuance of 220 plates. They were to be published in eleven issues of 20 plates each, to be sold by subscription, and later bound into volumes. Despite the inscribed dates (1731+), Catesby began subscriptions in 1729.

Without large sums at his command, and to produce this volume, Catesby studied with the watercolorist Joseph Goupy, from whom he learned the technique of etching copper plates. Catesby personally produced the scientific analysis, description and illustrations for his works. Between 1729-32, he published parts I-V (to becomeVolume I) of his monumental Natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands: Containing the FIGURES of BIRDS, BEASTS, FISHES, SERPENTS, INSECTS, and PLANTS: Particularly, the FOREST-TREES, SHRUBS, and other PLANTS, not hitherto described, Or very incorrectly figured by the Authors. Together with their DESCRIPTIONS in English and French. To which, are added OBSERVATIONS on the AIR, SOIL and WATERS: With Remarks upon AGRICULTURE, GRAIN, PULSE, ROOTS, &c. To the whole, Is Perfixed a new and correct Map of the Countries Treated of. Volume I was dedicated to what was, perhaps, Catesby’s fondest vocation, ornithology, or the birds of the American Colonies. This volume represented 100 species of bird, picturing males of the species preferentially, noting “As the Males of the Feather’d Kind, (except a very few) are more elegantly coloured than the females, I have throughout exhibited the Cocks only, except two or three; and have added a short description of the Hens, wherein they differ in colour from the Cocks.” Catesby posed his American colonial birds in conjunction with botanical specimens, often in exaggerated or unnatural relation to each other. Despite the inaccuracies of scale and the lack of perspective in his drawings, Catesby’s work was applauded. By 1732, Catesby’s reputation was secured and he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.)

Figure 1. ‘The Largest White-bill Woodpecker’
(Ivory-billed Woodpecker) and Willow Oak, Natural
History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands,
Volume I, plate 16.

Cateby’s mark is printed on his works.

Figure 2. Catesby’s printed mark,
from a 1 st edition copy of “Brown

Parts VI-X (to becomeVolume II), comprising a further 100 plates of the plants, insects, amphibians, marine animals, mammals and reptiles, was issued between 1734-43, with an Appendix to Volume II, containing 20 plates, (including 9 more birds) being issued in 1747. Catesby produced 218 of the 220 plates in the three publications, himself overseeing the hand coloring, and providing English, Indian and Latin names (with help from botanist William Sherard). Later analysis has shown that at least eleven of his paintings for the original work were copies of paintings by George Ehret and others. Volume II was also notable for the inclusion of an updated map of eastern North America, after Henry Popple’s Map of the British Empire in America with French and Spanish Settlements Adjacent Thereto (London, 1733). This publication bears the distinction of being the very first book devoted to the illustrated natural history of the American colonies. One hundred fifty four subscribers to the work, were recorded.

Figure 3. “The Sea Hermit-Crab”, Natural

History of Carolina, Florida and the

Bahama Islands, Volume II, Plate 34.

One marked achievement represented by this work was the abandonment of Indian names of Flora and Fauna in favor of scientific names. Indeed, the taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus adopted Catesby’s scientific naming of 38 of the 100 birds in Natural History, for his Magnum Opus “Systema Naturea”. As recorded in a review in The Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, by secretary Cromwell Mortimer, Catesby’s work was heralded as “the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered”. Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands remains today as the first significant illustrated record of the flora and fauna of North America. In 1747, Catesby contributed a paper to the Royal Society, entitled “Birds of Passage”, in which he notably first expounds the migration of birds, based on his own experiences. (Previously, birds were thought to hibernate in caves or under bodies of water.)

Beginning in 1749, the widespread popularity of Catesby’s Natural History spawned further editions and reprints. Johann Seligmann (1720-1762), an artist and engraver from Nuremburg, Germany, began publishing a volume of Catesby’s birds, in parts, in 1749, entitled Sammlung Verschiedener Auslandischer und Seltener Vogel ( Nuremberg, 1749-70.) Seligmann re-etched the Catesby birds, often adding scenes of his own, giving credit to both Catesby and George Edwards (see below). Of the three volumes in this work, volumes 1 & 2 contain birds from volume 1 of Natural History, with translations by George Leonard Huth. These prints are readily discernable for their crown or post folio size (approximately half the original size), with plate marks at approximately 8-1/2 x 11-1/2 inches on laid paper sheets approximately 9-1/2 x 15-1/2 inches (others report various sheet sizes of 7-3/4 x 10-1/2 inches, 9/11-16 x 15-1/2, 10-5/16 x 13/11/16 inches and etc.). They also bear text in German, French and Latin, which further distinguishes them from the other editions. A French version of Seligmann’s work was published in 1768-76.

Figure 4. ‘The Laurel Tree of Carolina’ (Magnolia),

Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the

Bahama Islands, Vol. II, Plate 61.

In 1750, following the success of Seligmann, two Nuremburg engravers, Nicholaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteiger issued a copy of Volume II of Catesby’s work as Piscium, Serpentum, Insectorum, aliorumque nonullorum Animalium. This volume, unlike the Seligmann edition, was published in the original imperial folio size of approximately 14 x 20 inches. The success of this edition led to a reprint in 1777, which further included updates from Catesby’s Appendix to volume 2 of Natural history.

In 1754, and posthumously, Catesby’s friend George Edwards (1694-1773), revised and reissued both volumes of the Natural History. This edition is known as the second edition.

“Hortus Europae Americanus: or A Collection of 85 Curious Trees and Shrub, the Produce of North America; Adapted to the Climates and Soils of Great Britain, Ireland and Most Parts of Europe, &c….” attributed to Catesby, was published posthumously in 1767 by J. Millan.

King Goerge III purchased Catesby’s original watercolors for the Natural History, in 1768. He paid the handsome sum of 120 pounds for three bound volumes, in leather. The original watercolors have remained in the Royal Collection ever since that time.

In 1771, the publisher Benjamin White (London) issued a third edition of Natural History. White added an index containing Linnaean names for all plants and animals.

The original editions (through 1771) of Mark Catesby’s work were produced on imperial folio sized hand-laid papers (approximately 14-1/2 x 20-1/2 inches) with various plate mark dimensions (approximately 9-5/8 x 13-3/8 to at least 10-1/4 x 13-7/8 inches). Chain lines on the paper appear to be uniformly spaced at 1 inch. Various watermarks are known in these editions, including:

  • “WR” and “HONIG” (William Rittenhouse (?) and Dutch papermaking family Honig)
  • “4+” and “IV” (IV representing Frenchman Jean Villedary, Jr.)
  • “IV” representing papers of the Frenchman, Jean Villedary (II), of Angouleme.
  • “+” over “IHS” over “I. VILLEDARY”, representing the Jesuits and Jean Villedary.
  • “HONIG” representing the Honig family papers.
  • A Crown over Strassbourg Lilly over initials “LVG”, for the Dutchman Lubertus van Gerre-vink.

Later, in the early 19 th century, reprints were issued using the same typesetting as the 1771 White edition. For this reason, they are also referred to as 3d edition prints, yet they are discernable for being printed on woven paper (all previous editions were produced on hand laid papers.) These later editions are also noted for their generally brighter and more opaque coloration. And, purportedly, they are printed on papers slightly larger in size (e.g. up to 15” x 21-1/2”) with different watermarks, examples being:

  • “J Whatman” watermark with date (e.g. 1794, until at least 1815)
  • “I Taylor” with Strassbourg Lilly (probably no earlier than 1786)
  • “J RUSE 1800”

From the early nineteenth century until the late 20 th century, Catesby was largely forgotten, being overshadowed by the contributions of Wilson and most notably, Audubon. The trend towards specialization (ornithology, botany, ichthyology, herpetology, entomology) tended to relegate Catesby to the ‘old era’ of general naturalists. Whereas Catesby originally propounded to provide a complete or nearly complete listing of avifauna, his 109 species paled in comparison to the more comprehensive listing by Alexander Wilson in American Ornithology or the Natural history of the Birds of the United States (Philadelphia, 1828-29). The trend continued with the 435 bird prints of Audubon’s double elephant Birds of America (1827-1838) and Birds of America (Royal Octavo edition,1840-44, expanded to 500 species) publication. And, Audubon’s revolutionary use of natural or life-like poses eclipsed all previous forms of artistic rendering of ornithological subjects.

In the late 20 th century, however, Mark Catesby has been rediscovered. In 1974, the Beehive Press (Savannah, Georgia) issued a full-sized (14 x 20 inches) copy of Catesby’s printed work, in at least three editions: a trade edition with reduced size black and white plates plus two loosely laid color plates, a limited edition with approximately 20 bound colored plates and a limited edition of 500 copies with a special binding and distributed with 50 loose color plates each in a folio containing the text from Catesby’s Natural History.

A few years later, Alan Feduccia edited “Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America” (UNC Press, 1985) reproducing the birds and text from Volume I of Natural History.

Beginning in 1996, Alecto Historical Editions began a three-year project to recreate a limited edition (50 sets) of 263 facsimile images of Catesby’s watercolors (he used multiple watercolors to produce some for the 220 prints, thus accounting for the discrepancy in numbers.)

In 1997, McBurney published a work reproducing, in color, a number of watercolors from the Windsor collection. Because of their careful preservation, these watercolors (and reproductions of them) remain amazingly bright.

Oppenheimer Galleries now offers a limited edition (500 sets) facsimile set of digitally printed (Giclee) prints from Natural History, entitled Catesby’s ’50 Best’.

Today, Mark Catesby’s work is widely revered for its pioneering accomplishment in American Natural history. It stands as the first comprehensive illustrated natural history work delineating the American flora and fauna. The images Catesby created 270+ years ago are no less stunning and resplendent than they were at their introduction. And, Catesby has rightfully regained his place as the distinguished and pre-eminent American naturalist of his time.


Catesby, Mark with an introduction by Frick, George, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands containing two hundred and twenty figures of Birds, Beasts, Fishes, Serpents, Insects and Plants (by the late Mark Catesby, F.R.S.), Beehive Press, Savannah, Georgia, 1974.

Churchill, W. A., Watermarks in Paper in Holland, England, France, etc. in the XVII and XVIII Centuries and the Interconnection, Amsterdam, 1935 .

Feduccia, Alan, Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1985.

Meyers, Amy R.W. & Pritchard, Margaret Beck, Empire’s Nature: Mark Catesby’s New World Vision, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1998.

McBurney, Henrietta, Mark Catesby’s Natural history of America: The Watercolors from the Royal Library Windsor Castle, Merrell Holberton, London, 1997.

Sitwell, Sacheverell, Buchanan, Handasyde, and Fisher, James, Fine Bird Books, 1700-1900, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1990.

Sloane, Hans, A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados Nieves, St. Christopher’s and Jamaica, with the Natural History of the Herbs, Trees, Four-footed Beasts, Fishes, Birds, Reptiles. 2 volumes, London, 1707-1725.

© August 2005 by Terrance M. Wright - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

(to go to the Catesby Galleries, click HERE)