Mark Catesby (1683-1749) is generally credited as producing the first published work with illustrations and descriptions of North American flora and fauna, The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. From 1722-1726 Catesby, an English naturalist, ranged over South Carolina, Georgia and the Bahamas sketching and collecting specimens of native plants and animals.
Little is known of Catesby’s early life. He was born in eastern England in 1683. Although Catesby does not appear to have attended university or studied for the Bar, he was sufficiently educated to write clear English and Latin. His interest in and knowledge of plants may have derived from his uncle, who maintained a botanical garden. Catesby also appears to have benefited from an acquaintance with John Ray, a leading English naturalist of the 17th century and the co-author of an early classic study of birds. It is unclear when or how Catesby developed his skills as an artist.
Catesby’s first visit to North America occurred in 1712 when he traveled to Williamsburg, Virginia, to live with his sister and her husband, who had settled there. During his seven-year stay, he explored the length of the James River sketching plants and collecting botanical samples.
Upon Catesby’s return to England in 1719, his work in Virginia drew the attention of several influential members of the Royal Society. And with their financial backing, Catesby returned to North America three years later, arriving in Charleston in May 1722. During his four-year stay, he traveled throughout South Carolina, coastal Georgia and to the Bahamas.
The sketches and specimens Catesby gathered during his second North American trip formed the basis for The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Although most often found as a two-volume set, Catesby’s Natural History was published in 11 discrete sections from 1734-1747 and sold by subscription. Although Catesby died in 1749, his work was republished in 1754 and again in 1771. Catesby’s work predated the classification system developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus. However, the 1771 edition, from which these prints are produced, includes a catalog of the Linnean names for the plants and animals Catesby featured in Natural History.