In two voyages in the early 1700s, Catesby (1683-1749), self-taught artist, naturalist, and explorer, spent 11 years roaming the wilderness of present-day Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas, and the Bahamas. today. Incorporating knowledge from Native Americans, slaves, and settlers, he wrote and drew about the plants, animals, and environments he encountered. Published by subscription in several installments from 1729 to 1747, Catesby produced the first scientific account of the flora and fauna of North America.
The two massive volumes contained 220 illustrations, which were groundbreaking in style and quality, and influenced later artist-naturalists such as John James Audubon.
“Catesby not only wrote about what he saw; he drew what he saw. And unlike other scientists of the time who wanted someone else to illustrate their work, he learned to engrave so he could do it himself,” says Michael Weisenburg, Associate Director of the Department of Rare Books and from Irvin’s Special Collections. “He also hand-colored all of his illustrations with the help of his wife and children.”
Christian Cicimurri, Curator of Collections at the McKissick Museum, adds that instead of an engraver’s typical hatching to illustrate texture, Catesby individually etched each feather for his bird prints.
“It was a lot more labor intensive, but it was more realistic from his perspective,” she says.
Cicimurri also points out that although Audubon is probably more recognized, Catesby collected his observations and illustrations 100 years earlier. Catesby also drew on his memory of living animals and plants unlike Audubon who worked from dead specimens.
“Catesby’s memory has not always been perfect. Sometimes we come across a plant or animal that we cannot identify,” she says.
For example, Herrick Brown, curator of the AC Moore Herbarium, remembers one of Catesby’s illustrations of a long-nosed gar or Florida gar depicted with a sort of two-pronged branch. Catesby offers a long explanation of the plant and where it can be found in pond margins from Carolina to Virginia.
“He obviously remembers something from memory, but we had no idea what the plant was,” Brown says. “Some people just gave up, but (botanist) James Reveal was determined.”
He noticed that one of the branches matches quite closely with coastal doghobble, a shrubby plant commonly found around (what are now called) Carolina berries. But there’s another branch in the illustration that isn’t identifiable, and Brown says we can only assume that Catesby just remembered things incorrectly or that the plant no longer exists.
On the other hand, Catesby is incredibly accurate in his descriptions of certain habitats such as Carolina Bays, a unique geological feature found in coastal areas.
“Catesby describes the whole suite of species in that if I were walking through the woods as a botanist and came upon the margin of one of these isolated wetlands, I would experience exactly the species he’s talking about – even 300 years later,” Brown says.