The Library of Virginia
Catesby's Natural History
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Mark Catesby (1683-1749). The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. London: Printed for C. Marsh et al., 1754.

Mark Catesby is regarded as the most important artist-naturalist of the American colonial era. Born and educated in England and a member of a prominent English family of historians and amateur botanists, Catesby was the first naturalist to illustrate an extensive array of American flora and fauna in which animals were combined with plants in a true-to-life relationship.

Catesby came to Virginia in 1712 because, he wrote, "my curiosity was such that I soon imbibed a passionate desire of viewing the animal and vegetable productions in their native countries. . . . Virginia was the place (as I had relations there), which suited most with my convenience to go." From Virginia he traveled southward, spending seven years compiling notes and drawings for his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, which contains numerous species indigenous to Virginia. While in Virginia on his second trip to the colonies, he assembled an enormous collection of flora and fauna for his English patrons.

Catesby considered drawing and even printmaking part of the necessary skills of a naturalist and learned the art of etching for his Natural History. Of the book's lavishly colored 220 plates, he etched all but 2 and either hand-colored or supervised the coloring of the first set of prints. Producing the first volume took twenty years. Based on his fieldwork, Catesby combined engravings with analytical and descriptive text in both English and French, a practice later artist-naturalists followed. Catesby wrote a detailed physical description of the "Hog-Fish," a species found in the waters around Florida and the Bahamas, but then noted: "The tail of this Fish being cut off before I had it, I cannot say of what form it was."