A century before John James Audubon illustrated The Birds of America, English naturalist Mark Catesby journeyed across the Atlantic to systematically study the animals and plants of the “New World.” Original watercolors by Catesby for the 18th-century Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands are now on view at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Of the 44 paintings on loan from the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle in England, 35 have not been displayed in the United States.
“So many of the works that Catesby created in 1722 relate to the flora and fauna of this region,” Angela Mack, executive director of the Gibbes, told Hyperallergic. On his first American voyage in 1712, Catesby arrived in Virginia; when he returned in 1722, he docked in Charleston (then called Charles Town), and spent four years in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas. Among the watercolor creatures in Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas are a wide-eyed porgy fish, a coiled ribbon-snake resting near branches of winter’s bark, and a sprightly blue jay captured in mid-caw, every feather seemingly visible on its animated body.
As the loan required approval from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, it took some time to arrange the travel of the watercolors from England, but as soon as the Gibbes got the green light last year they started to put together an exhibition that highlighted the art and science connection of South Carolina. While some of the birds painted by Catesby can still be spotted in the state, others have vanished. The Carolina parakeet was declared extinct in 1939, a disappearance attributed to deforestation and hunting; the ivory-billed woodpecker is critically endangered and may be extinct due to habitat loss. Like his patron George II viewing the distant ecology through Catesby’s art, we can now glimpse the unreachable past through the work.
“Here you have a man who out of necessity became a strong artist in order to illustrate what he was seeing,” Mack said. Sometimes what he observed was radically different from accepted knowledge, such as his descriptions of migration when some naturalists still believed birds dug holes and stayed underground in winter. The Gibbes is also displaying 1733 watercolors by Catesby’s friend and naturalist George Edwards. Recently conserved, the Edwards paintings show a similar attention to scientific observation, a focus that would endure in nature illustration through the following centuries.
“Catesby had numerous descriptions of these exotic animals and plants and reptiles, and the descriptions along with the images provide the full picture,” Mack explained. “That’s why it’s so compelling, and that’s why these images informed so many people abroad for such a long time up until Audubon.”
And why isn’t Catesby as famous in the United States as Audubon? “The reason is because he was a Brit and Audubon was an American,” Mack stated. “In the world of art history, there are scholars that study American art and scholars that study European art, and these crossovers are sometimes lost in the mix.”
Artist, Scientist, Explorer: Mark Catesby in the Carolinas continues through September 24 at the Gibbes Museum of Art (135 Meeting Street, Charleston, South Carolina).