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The Gibbes displays centuries-old illustrations by an English naturalist

The Curious Mr. Catesby

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Those who are familiar with famed 18th century English naturalist Mark Catesby know he was responsible for impressive and precedent-setting documentation of the wildlife native to parts of the East Coast and the Bahamas. They may also know that Mr. Catesby was admired by Thomas Jefferson — the founding father encouraged Lewis and Clark to use Catesby's book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands when planning their trip — and served as a trailblazer for John James Audubon. Even Charles Darwin referred to Catesby's book. But they probably don't realize that Catesby had nine lives.

When Catesby arrived in South Carolina in 1722 he was considered an old man at the age of 39 — the life expectancy at the time was 43. Then there was malaria. The explorer, not used to the climes of the sticky southeastern United States, was quite sick for the first four months of his stay, bedridden for three months. Catesby survived this debilitating disease only to come face to face with a rattlesnake, hiding beneath his sheets, when he was staying at an inn in what is now Summerville. When recording this nearly fatal interaction, Catesby writes, "for how long I had the company of this charming bedfellow I did not know."

There are no surviving portraits of Mr. Catesby, and we can only glean snippets of his humor from the vicissitudes he decided to record. We're lucky, in fact, to have his original watercolors at all: In the 1830s the Royal Library was transferred from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle. As part of this process surplus books were sent to auction, including a copy of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Fortunately the watercolors (packaged to look rather like the book) were retained.

Catesby Commemorative Trust executive director David J. Elliott says the Gibbes exhibit is only the third time the watercolors have been allowed out of the Royal premises since 1768. "A contemporary of Catesby, Cromwell Mortimer, Secretary of the Royal Society, said 'his is the most magnificent work I know since the art of printing has been discovered,'" says Elliott, "and the more I learn about Catesby the more that stands up."

It seems, though, that there could hardly be anything left to learn — the Catesby Commemorative Trust (CCT) was founded 15 years ago for the sole purpose of inspiring respect for early naturalists (namely, Catesby); encouraging preservation for their works; and advocating for present-day preservation of the plants, animals, and environment they studied. The CCT produced an overwhelmingly successful documentary, The Curious Mr. Catesby, in 2007 that was broadcast on PBS more than 1,300 times over three years, and that still plays locally on ETV today. In 2015 the CCT, after gathering an elite panel of "everyone who knew anything about Catesby," published a hardback book The Curious Mister Catesby: A "Truly Ingenious" Naturalist Explores New Worlds (University of Georgia Press).

44 of Catesby's watercolors will be at the Gibbes through September - IMAGES BY MARK CATESBY/COURTESY GIBBES MUSEUM OF ART
  • Images by Mark Catesby/courtesy Gibbes Museum of Art
  • 44 of Catesby's watercolors will be at the Gibbes through September

Talking with Elliott, one would think Catesby might still be alive, perhaps hunkering down in the Bahamas, surreptitiously releasing material through a super secret pen pal. "We're still learning new things about Catesby," says Elliott. "Just a few years ago we learned about Catesby's time in Virginia from William Byrd's diary." Byrd was a wealthy Virginia planter and surveyor and apparently a bit suspicious, for his diary was written entirely in code. After Byrd's entries were translated, Elliott says we learn that Catesby, the first English-speaking naturalist to combine his research with art, was also a bit of a lush when the occasion called for it; there are descriptions of Catesby and Byrd sharing bottles of wine and Catesby being "so merry he sang."

Local schools are even finding new ways to incorporate Catesby's research and methods into lesson plans: CCT has forged a partnership with the College of Charleston, the Charleston County School District, and SC Educational Television to create Catesby materials for the classroom. This past year, elementary school students participated in art-based studies, practicing perspectives and patterns; middle school students analyzed primary documents and created "scientist notebooks"; a CofC faculty member used Catesby materials in a dance class at North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary; and CofC's Dr. William Veal used Catesby etchings to supplement lesson plans on avian characteristics and habitats.

How is Catesby still so relevant? Elliott says that for locals, at least, "it's something new and exciting they may not have known anything about ... they can relate to the material given the quality of the illustrations, they're able to relate to it as part of their history." A history dotted with porgy, summer ducks, red birds, ribbon snakes, Carolina parakeets — all beautifully captured in watercolor in an ecologically appropriate way (no dead bird on stick renderings for the talented Mr. Catesby).

Catesby lived 20 years past the average lifespan. He had a wife and five children, and was fairly well-off, having the luxury of being able to interact comfortably with those from all levels of society, from Native American traders in the states to some of the most powerful nobility in England. But there's still more to discover about the naturalist, Elliott assures us. To this day Catesby continues to have a way of piquing curiosity.

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