Mark Catesby (1683-1749) first came to the Americas in 1712, at the age of 29, and returned for a second extended stay in 1722. He was based out of Charleston, South Carolina, during his second sojourn and collected specimens of plants and animals for further study back in the colonial metropolis. In this respect, Catesby was among a number of transatlantic British naturalists who labored to describe the new world for an avid and curious European readership. His initial work was firmly rooted in the empiricist convictions of Enlightenment science and, like his contemporaries John Lawson and William Bartram, he was devoted to making direct observations of nature from the field. He was among the earliest English naturalists to systematically describe and catalog the indigenous plants, birds, and reptiles of the southern colonies of British North America. However, Catesby’s ambition proved to be more aesthetically inclined than his contemporaries. His monumental Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-1747) set a new precedent for the mass depiction of the natural world in print. That work helped usher in a new aesthetically inclined epistemology of Romantic science that would influence and inspire later artist-naturalists, such as John Abbot, Alexander Wilson, James John Audubon, and Robert Thornton.
The University of South Carolina is well poised to contextualize the importance of Mark Catesby within the History of Natural History. The Irvin Department has strong collections in natural history and science. Ranging from Ptolemy’s geographies and astronomical texts, the medieval hortuses of early European botanists, and moving through the early modern scientific revolution ushered in by the Royal Society, the paradigm shifting works of Charles Darwin, the broader holdings of the rare books department help to contextualize Catesby’s position as a scientists as well as artist. The regionally focused collections of southern botanists, such as A. C. Moore and Henry William Ravenel, whose works are housed in the University’s Herbarium and the South Caroliniana Library, as well as the McKissick Museum’s geological and mineralogical collections offer a regional and historical context for the world in which Catesby worked. This exhibit highlights key elements of Catesby’s work and focuses our attention on both well-known images and nuanced aspects of Catesby’s intellectual and visual achievement.