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Cover for Illuminating Natural History

Illuminating Natural History

The Art and Science of Mark Catesby

Henrietta McBurney


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The life and art of the 18th-century naturalist Mark Catesby, and his pioneering work depicting the flora and fauna of North America, are explored in vibrant detail

This book explores the life and work of the celebrated eighteenth-century English naturalist, explorer, artist and author Mark Catesby (1683–1749). During Catesby’s lifetime, science was poised to shift from a world of amateur virtuosi to one of professional experts. Working against a backdrop of global travel that incorporated collecting and direct observation of nature, Catesby spent two prolonged periods in the New World – in Virginia (1712–19) and South Carolina and the Bahamas (1722–6). In his majestic two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–43), esteemed by his contemporary John Bartram as ‘an ornament for the finest library in the world’, he reflected the excitement, drama and beauty of the natural world. Interweaving elements of art history, history of science, natural history illustration, painting materials, book history, paper studies, garden history and colonial history, this meticulously researched volume brings together a wealth of unpublished images as well as newly discovered letters by Catesby, which, with their first-hand accounts of his collecting and encounters in the wild, bring the story of this extraordinary pioneer naturalist vividly to life.

Praise For Illuminating Natural History: The Art and Science of Mark Catesby

“[The] definitive study of Catesby’s life and art. . . . Gorgeous. . . . Accessible. . . . Ms. McBurney’s book perfectly matches its multifaceted subject, offering us nothing less than a natural history of Catesby’s remarkable imagination.”—Christoph Irmscher, Wall Street Journal

“In the early 18th century Mark Catesby, an amateur naturalist from East Anglia, vividly documented the flora and fauna of America from the tiniest “tumble-turd” beetle to the flowering umbrella tree. His watercolours, beautifully reproduced (often in full-size plates) speak of an early modern world in which distinctions between amateur and professional, art and science were decidedly blurry.”—Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times ‘Books of the Year: Art'

Paul Mellon Centre, 9781913107192, 384pp.

Publication Date: August 3, 2021

About the Author

Henrietta McBurney is a freelance curator and art historian. She was previously curator in the Royal Library, Windsor Castle. Her publications include studies on the florilegium of Alexander Marshal and the natural history drawings for Cassiano dal Pozzo’s Paper Museum.