Naturalist Mark Catesby reveals a foreign landscape to a curious world. Interpreter Robb Warren talks about the man and his art.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
During the Enlightenment, scientific observation was the pastime of many gentlemen. For Mark Catesby, it was more than a polite hobby. It was his life's work, and his contributions to the study of native plants and animals influenced many who would follow.
Robb Warren, coordinator of Basset Hall, who interprets Catesby at Colonial Williamsburg is here to tell us more about the man.
One of my curiosities in reading about his life was, he was not a colonist. That is, he didn't emigrate here. He came here to visit his sister and brother-in-law, and did all this fantastic stuff with birds and mammals and reptiles. What was his interest? Other than coming to see his sister, he must have had some.
Robb Warren: He actually accompanied his sister, Elizabeth, over here to be with her husband, to be with her husband, Dr. Cocke. His interest was botany. He was born at Castle Hedingham, which was his grandfather's house, and worked in the gardens with his grandfather. It's been acclaimed as one of the finest botanical gardens in England. That was his original interest in coming here. He wanted to find the native American plants that could be cultivated for economic purposes and decorative purposes in England.
Once he got here and saw the size of mammals, the size and color of the birds, he began looking at them in an environmental way: putting plants and animals together on the same page in a symbiotic relationship.
Lloyd: I got to wondering, the bird man that everyone knows is Audubon. Do we think Audubon may have been influenced by some of Catesby's work?
Robb: We know he was.
Lloyd: Oh, then we don't guess. We know.
Robb: That's right. He blatantly copied some of Catesby's plates. There were no copyright laws, so it was legal. In fact, Catesby's often, I think insultingly, called "the colonial Audubon." When it really should be the other way around. He should be the 19th-century Catesby.
Lloyd: Because he started it. I have never seen – it's not drawings, I guess it's watercolors – that look quite like his, with the relationship of the plant. It's not just birds. I've seen a couple of snakes, and some mammals, and some other things. But he was really very interested in that. Did he get started painting birds so he could also paint the foliage that they ate or hid behind? Or, as a botanist, did he get started with the foliage and then painted the bird to go with it?
Robb: As a botanist, it was the foliage that he started out with.
Lloyd: But he's remembered for the birds and the mammals.
Robb: Especially the birds.
Lloyd: When you walk around Basset Hall, as Mark Catesby, do you talk about his work as a watercolorist?
Robb: I do. In fact, I have a portfolio with copies of Catesby's work. I will use those to relate to whatever might be blooming at the time in the woods, or even just talking about various things. That's what carries the tour.
I talk about why he started. Before arriving, he read several natural histories of North America. He thought they were great in their descriptive parts, but there were very few sketches, and absolutely no colored plates. So you were really left to use the imagination to decipher what it was you were reading about. He set out to remedy that.
Lloyd: The birds of North America are not like the birds of Europe. Is that correct?
Robb: That is true.
Lloyd: So, whatever he drew, painted, was different than most people were used to seeing. Was that his intent, or is that just the way it happened because he wanted to illustrate other things?
Robb: There might have been some shock value in it. Really, he wanted to show how things were in North America. The best way to do that was to teach himself how to do watercoloring and sketching to convey his ideas.
Lloyd: He taught himself?
Robb: He taught himself. Colonel William Byrd II, who was a good friend of Catesby's, had watercolor lessons. He helped Catseby out. Didn't train him, but gave him pointers and things. Rather than using pure watercolor, Catesby used gouaches, which is thicker. It's more opaque and doesn't run quite as much, depending on how much water you add to it. He felt that that gave it a truer color than the translucence of the actual watercolors.
Lloyd: So do we know how many plates he published in his lifetime?
Robb: There's estimates. The two volumes of the natural history – off the top of my head – each had 220 plates. He taught himself how to etch on copper plate. Then he printed and hand-colored just about every plate for every volume sold. He had 100 subscribers for the first volume.
Lloyd: So that turns out to be two plates per subscriber.
Lloyd: Which is kind of difficult. That's a lot of color work. Even if the subscribers were quite generous, he couldn't have made terribly much money.
Robb: Right, but he was a gentleman. He wasn't really in this for the money.
Lloyd: If he wasn't in it for the money, and I take it that he wasn't, was it pure scientific interest?
Robb: Yes. It was a passion that he had for nature and living things, and discovering things, that drove him to do what he did.
Lloyd: This guy, unless I've missed something terribly important, was not what you call a wealthy man.
Robb: He wasn't poor. He didn't have to work for a living.
Lloyd: That makes it a little easier.
Robb: Yeah. He owned farms that he inherited from his father. He had a home on Fleet Street in England. And he was worthy of being a member of the Royal Society. Poor people didn't get invited to join the Royal Society of Scientific Study.
Lloyd: Funny how that happens.
Robb: Yes. But he had the leisure time to do what he was doing. The entire time he was in America the first time, he wasn't paid at all. He was just going out and losing himself in the woods.
Lloyd: Doing what he wanted to do.
Robb: Right. The second time he comes back, he goes to Charleston with sir Francis Nicholson. Nicholson actually starts paying him to study the flora and fauna of Carolina.
Lloyd: How far did he get with that -- the second trip?
Robb: The second trip? He went 300 miles up the Savannah River. He went down through – there were two Floridas at the time – East and West Florida, and then the Bahama Islands on the way back. His natural history is a natural history of the Carolinas, Florida, and Bahama Islands.
Lloyd: So actually, he's quite extensively traveled. So, he has learned to watercolor. Now he has learned to engrave?
Lloyd: Etch. I sometimes get rather confused on what actually that is.
Robb: You put a resin on the copper, carve into the resin, not onto the copper, and then pour acid onto it. So the longer the acid sits, the deeper the grooves and things like that.
He thought it was just much more graceful.
Lloyd: When he first started, when he came over with Elizabeth and first started, did he plan a book?
Robb: I don't think there's any evidence of that. That was something that occurred after he got back from the second trip. I think he was encouraged to. It might not have been his idea, per se, but members of the Royal Society, like Peter Collinson, Samuel Dale, they were saying, "You should do a natural history."
Lloyd: That's really quite a large undertaking.
Robb: It is.
Lloyd: Did he change the way nature was studied in that period?
Robb: I think so, because he started looking at things in a symbiotic relationship: how plants and animals were reacting to each other. An example: when he draws the bison, he doesn't just put a bison on there, he puts an acacia tree, or a locust tree. The reason being is that he saw the bison were scratching themselves on the thorny bark of the acacia, dropping dung. The acacia seeds were taking root in the dung, and growing more acacia trees. He sees this relationship. He was trying to educate people, and it was a different way of looking at nature. He wasn't just looking at plants or animals, but the two of them together.