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Catesby, Mark

Catesby, Mark

(b. Castle Hedingham, Essex, England, 3 April 1683; d. London, England, 23 December 1749),

natural history.

His father, John, was a lawyer and landowner and four-term mayor of Sudbury, Suffolk; his mother, Anne Jekyll, came from a family of Essex antiquaries and lawyers. Catesby may have attended Sudbury Grammar, School or, more likely, received some schooling in Castle Hedingham. His correspondence demonstrates a high degree of English literacy and a knowledge of Latin. Through his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll, Catesby as a young man came to know the premier English naturalist of his lime, John Ray, and Ray’s friend and collaborator, the apothecary Samuel Dale of Braintree, Essex.

The real beginning of Catesby’s career as a naturalist came in 1712 when he joined the family of his sister Elizabeth in Virginia. Through her husband, the physician William Cocke, Catesby met the botanizing and gardening gentlemen of the province who would later supply him with materials and information. During this stay in the New World, he explored Virginia as far west as the Blue Ridge and also visited Bermuda and Jamaica. While Catesby later remembered these years as being barren, the plants he sent back to Samuel Dale and to the gardener Thomas Fairchild brought him to the attention of the English natural history circle. When Catesby returned toEngland in the fall of 1719, Dale began to enlist the support of William Sherard—whose will established the Oxford chair in botany which bears his name and who was then at work on an attempt to revise the Pinax of Gaspard Bauhin, for which he wanted additional collections. Sherard secured subscribers, notably Sir Hans Sloane, to send Catesby to South Carolina in 1722 on the journey which would result in the Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Catesby spent the next three years collecting and sketching in the Carolina low country and Piedmont (the “Florida” of the title would soon be called Georgia) and then spent parts of 1725 and 1726 in the Bahamas.

Catesby’s career as a field naturalist was ended; he would spend most of the rest of his life in the production of his Natural History. From Joseph Goupy, the French-born watercolorist and etcher, Catesby learned to etch his own plates and produced all save two of the 220 illustrations in the work, in addition to which he wrote the accompanying text and oversaw the coloring of all the plates. Ultimately he was able to earn a meager living from the sale of the book partly because Peter Collinson, the Quaker patron of American science, lent him money to keep the Natural History out of the hands of booksellers. Finally, his widow, Elizabeth Rowland, whom he married on 2 October 1747, and his children, Mark and Anne, were able to live on the proceeds of the sale of the plates and drawings until her death in 1753. Catesby himself seems to have maintained good health until late in life. In July 1749 he seemed near death from dropsy, although he survived for another five months and then died after a fall in the street.

Although Catesby was primarily a botanist, his major contribution was in ornithology and in bird illustration. Compared with his contemporaries, his drawings excelled the stiff profiles of Eleazer Albin and, although they lacked the precision and decorative quality of George Edward’s figures, Catesby’s botanical backgrounds, which were often ecologically correct, were superior to Edward’s stylized settings. Catesby’s work was saved from the neglect accorded many pre-Linnaean studies by the fact that Linnaeus made use of it as the source for many designations of American birds. Fewer of Catesby’s plants and animals other than birds were the bases of binomials, although designations based on the Natural History were made well into the nineteenth century. As a descriptive and theoretical naturalist, Catesby was traditional in using deluvial explanations, in advocating climatic uniformity by latitude, and in his use of three of the four elements to organize his “Account of Carolina.” He was nonetheless critical of tall tales, as in his “Of Birds of Passage,” which he read to the Royal Society, to which he was admitted a fellow in 1732. There he posited cold and lack of food as causes of migration and denied that swallows hibernated in ponds.


I. Original Works. The Natural History (London, 1731–1743, 1729–1747) went through new eds. in London in 1754 and 1771, European copies of the work are dis-cussed in Frick and Stearns, p. 110. “Of Birds of Passage” was printed in Philosophical Transactions, 44 (1747), 435–444, and was extracted in Gentleman’s Magazine, 17 447–448. The posthumous Hortus Britanno-Americanus (London, 1763) was reissued as Hortus Europae Americanus (London, 1767). Its figures are derived largely from the Natural History.

II. Secondary Literature. George F. Frick and Raymond P. Stearns, Mark Catesby (Urbana, Illinois, 1961)—which should also be consulted for additional bibliography—and Elsa G. Allen, “History of American Ornithology Before Audubon,” in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 41 (Philadelphia, 1951), deal with Catesby’s life and science. J. E. Dandy, The Shane Herbarium (London, 1958), pp. 110–113, adds botanical material.

Catesby’s family is treated in Anthony R, Wagner, English Genealogy (Oxford, 1960); and Paul H. Hulton and David B. Quinn, The American Drawings of John White (London, 1964), cover Catesby’s borrowings from White.

George F. Frick

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