Illuminating Natural History – the art and science of Mark Catesby || Henrietta McBurney

There was John Tradescant, there was Joseph Banks, there was Robert Hooke and there was John James Audubon.

They are all names to conjure with and they are all broadly familiar. Mark Catesby is perhaps less so, but he belongs in the same canon. His working period (his dates are 1684-1749) coincides with the development of the scientific method and from amateurship to professionalism in natural philosophy.

Catesby was widely travelled (at a time when this was difficult, dangerous and expensive) and spent two extended periods in the New World at a time when it was just being opened up, producing the two volumes of the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands – the scope of the title alone gives an idea of his achievement.

The significance of this, apart from the scientific work, is the role of the artist. Two things had happened. Firstly, descriptions of distant lands were now first rather than second or third hand, with fantasy having no further place in travellers’ tales. Secondly, printing had advanced sufficiently that detail was possible and the idea of the illustrated book became a possibility (as opposed to the woodcuts that prevailed only a short while before). Colour had to be inserted manually, of course, meaning that books such as this were anything but mass-market, but we should perhaps see publications from this period as distributable reports rather than marketable books.

Henrietta McBurney is thorough. Her account tells the story of Catesby’s life and work, of course, but also deals with the history of science as well as the techniques and materials of illustration and the development of books and printing. All of these are integral to the development of the scientific method and the transmission of discovery and information. Although this is nominally a book about a figure most people will not have heard of, it is also, as it should be, a comprehensive history of the development of ideas that has echoes to this day.

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