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Mark Catesby Volume I

Plates from Volume I of Mark Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands

CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.I, Tab. 27, The Mock-Bird and The Dogwood Tree

CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.I, Tab. 27, The Mock-Bird and The Dogwood Tree

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 14 x 19 inches
From Volume I, Part 2 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1730 - 1771

Currently known as the northern mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos and eastern flowering doogwood, Cornus florida*, Catesby described these subjects as follows:

TURDUS MINOR CINEREO-ALBUS NON MACULATUS.

Hist. Jam. p. 306. Tab. 26. Fig. 3

The Mock- Bird

This Bird is about as big or rather less than a Blackbird, and of a slenderer Make. The Bill is black; the Iris of the Eye of a brownish yellow; the Back and Tail dark-brown; the Breast and Belly light-gray; the Wings brown, except that the upper part of the Quill-feathers have their exterior Vanes white; and some of the small feathers, near the shoulder of the Wing, are verged with white. The Cocks and Hens are so like that they are not easily distinguished by the colour of their feathers.

Herandez justly calls it the Queen of all singing Birds. The Indians, by way of eminence or admiration, call it Cencontlatolly, or four hundred tongues; and we call it (tho' not by so elevated a name, yet very properly) the Mock-bird, from its wonderful mocking and imitating the notes of all Birds, from the Humming Bird to the Eagle. From March till August it sings incessantly day and night with the greatest variety of Notes; and, to compleat his compositions, borrows from the whole Choir, and repeats tho them their own Tunes with such artful Melody, that it is equally pleasing and surprising. They may be said not only to sing but dance, by grandually raising themselves from the place where they stand, with their Wings extended, and falling with their Head down to the same place; then turning round, with their Wings continuing spread, have many pretty antic Gesticulations with their Melody.

They are familiar and sociable Birds, usually pearching on the tops of Chimneys or Trees, amongst, the Inhabitans, who are diverted with their tuneful Airs most part of the Summer. Their food are Haws, Berries and Insects. In winter, when there is less variety and plenty, they will eat the berries of Dogwood.

Cornus mas Virginiana fiofculis in corymbo digeftis perianthio tetrapetalo albo radiatim cinttis.
Pluk. Almag. 120.

THE DOGWOOD TREE.

This is a small Tree, the Trunc being seldom above eight or ten Inches thick. The Leaves resemble our common Dogwood, but are fairer and larger, standing opposite to each other on foot-stalks of about an Inch long, from among which branch forth many Flowers in the fallowing manner. In the beginning of March the blossoms break forth; and though perfectly formed and wide open, are not so wide as a Six-pence; increasing gradually to the breadth of a Man's hand, being not at their full bigness till about six Weeks after they began to open. Each Flower consists of four greenish white Leaves, every leaf having a deep indenture at the end. From the bottom of the Flower rises a tuft of yellow Stamina; every one of which opens a-top into four small Leaves or Petals: The Wood is white, has a close grain, and very hard like that of Boxe. The Flowers are succeded by clusters of Berries, having from two to six in a cluster, closely joyned, and set on food-stalks an inch long. These berries are red, of an oval form, and of the size of large Haws, containing a hard stone. As the Flowers are a great Ornament to the Woods in Summer, so are the Berries in Winter, they remaining full on the Trees usually till the approach of Spring: and being very bitter are little coveted by Birds, except in time of Dearth. I have observed Mock-birds and other kinds of Thrushes to feed on them. In Virginia I found one of these Dogwood Trees with Flowers of a rose-colour, which was luckily blown down, and many of its Branches had taken Root, which I transplanted into a Garden. That with the white flower Mr. Fairchild has in his Garden.

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

*From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of Mark Catesby available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com

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