Mark Catesby was born in Essex in 1683, the son of John Catesby, a lawyer and a gentleman farmer. Catesby developed an interest in natural history after meeting naturalist John Ray. The Catesby family were of medium wealth and the inheritance Mark received upon the death of his father allowed him to pursue his love for natural history.
Catesby spent some time studying in London before voyaging to America in 1710 to stay with his sister in Williamsburg, Virginia. During this time he collected botanical specimens and seeds and sent them back to Thomas Fairchild, a nurseryman in Hoxton. This time spent in America advanced Catesby’s knowledge of plants and animals, gained him more experience of collecting and improved his drawing skills.
Above: Cancer terrestris Land crab plate 32 from 'Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas', Vol 2 by Mark Catesby NHM Image number: 022694
Whilst away his profile amongst the science community had grown. Eminent scientists Sir Hans Sloane and Dr William Sherrard had identified Catesby’s potential as a naturalist, even purchasing specimens from him themselves.
In 1722 Sloane and the Royal Society financed a trip for Catesby to Carolina. Whilst based in Charlestown, he collected plants, birds and shells, sending many back to Sloane in London. At this point Catesby would have regarded himself predominantly as a botanist. However, Sloane’s demands for other specimens increased his knowledge and interest in ornithology.
Catesby travelled from Carolina to the eastern coast of North America, taking in Florida and later moving on to the West Indies, returning to England in 1726.
Upon his return he was encouraged to publish the illustrations made during his trip. This became a labour of love for Catesby. Despite having financial backing, he still had to oversee the entire production of his book Natural History of Carolina, Florida and Bahamas Islands. He even learnt how to etch copper plates, taking lessons from Joseph Goupy a French painter and engraver who resided in London. Not only did Catesby engrave the plates, he also hand coloured them until he could afford to employ help.
Left: Title page from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands (1731-43) Vol. 1 by Mark Catesby. NHM Image number 014700
The Natural History of Carolina was eventually published in three parts; Volume 1 in 1731, Volume 2 in 1743 and finally a Supplement in 1746. The book covered birds, animals, fish, snakes, insects, plants, forest trees and shrubs. His book was the first to use folio-sized plates for natural history subjects. This allowed Catesby to draw many of his birds their actual size.
Throughout this tome are many wonderful and fascinating drawings. One of particular importance is that of the Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). This bird once lived in huge flocks and it was reported that in 1866 one flock in southern Ontario was one mile wide and three hundred miles long, taking fourteen hours to pass over. It is estimated to have held in excess of 3.5 billion birds. They remained in such enormous numbers until the early 20th century, when hunting and habitat destruction led to the Passenger Pigeon’s eventual extinction. They were hunted for food, for their feathers to make beds and it was also believed the pigeon had medicinal properties. Martha, reportedly the last surviving Passenger Pigeon, died at the Cincinnati zoo in September 1914.
Catesby’s book was well received and remained in demand for a long period, primarily because it was the only book on North American natural history at the time. Catesby died in 1749 leaving all his works to his wife, who sold them on for £400. They were purchased by King George III and are now in the Royal Library at Windsor.
Above: Ectopistes migratorius, passenger pigeon Plate 23, hand coloured etching from The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands (1731-43) Vol. 1 by Mark Catesby. NHM Image number 014723
by Sarah Sworder, Reader Services Information Assistant