Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The “odd” illustrations by Mark Catesby

I’m amazed by the industry of the Natural Historians of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Without the aid of any of the rapid and accurate illustrative techniques with which we are familiar today, they had either to describe their findings in prose, or use a combination of written description and illustration by herbarium specimens, by nature printing, or by paintings and drawings. Of the Natural Historians using paintings as illustrations, one of the best known was Mark Catesby (1683-1749), an Englishman who travelled to Virginia in 1712 to visit his aunt [1]. He spent his time in the Carolinas before returning to England with his herbarium collections and these were much admired by members of the scientific establishment. Catesby returned to the Carolinas and southern North America in 1722 to collect more material, also visiting the Bahamas in 1725 [1] and his observations and collections formed the basis of two volumes of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands [2,3] that were self-published. It is from these two volumes that we have the illustrations that I describe in this post.

Some of his illustrations seem odd to the contemporary viewer and I am grateful to Alex Seltzer for sending me a copy of his detailed, and scholarly, essay [2] that describes attitudes to Natural History that were prevalent when Catesby was active. I cannot paraphrase Seltzer’s developed thesis in a blog post, but would like to quote some passages:

The answer .. for these so-called aberrations is that modern viewers must first consider the underlying social function of natural history in the early 18th-century. What else, one may well wonder, would an illustrated natural history be for if not to represent plants and animals accompanied by their physical descriptions in an adjoining text? But framing Catesby’s imagery strictly in terms of literal visual description entirely elides an important aspect of early 18th century natural history: the ‘book of nature’ – living proof, as Catesby put it, ‘of the Glorious Works of the Creator’.. ..By looking at Catesby’s odd couplings in the light of contemporary theological attitudes towards nature, many of these irrational combinations start to make metaphorical sense, imparting an unsuspected (or unarticulated) layer of meaning to his work. The seemingly incoherent illustrations in his Natural History offer an alternative reading of nature according to the prevailing attitudes known as ‘physico-theology..

Physico-theology promoted ‘argument from design’: the notion that the natural world was far too complex to have occurred by mere chance and therefore could only have been the result of a divine Intelligent Designer.

It is against this background that we must look at Catesby’s illustrations and, especially, some of the odd associations that he appears to suggest. Let’s look at some of them, with notes appended, including comments by Catesby:

A hummingbird with wings like “the blade of a Turkish Cymiter [scimitar].. ..receives its Food from Flowers, after the Manner of Bees.” [3] The plant is the trumpet flower (Bignonia) – “Humming Birds delight to feed on these Flowers” and the nectar they contain [2].

A fox-coloured thrush “called in Virginia the French Mockbird” [3] is feeding on a clustered black cherry (Cerafi), the fruits of which “are much coveted by Birds, particularly of the Thrush-kind.” [3]

A green turtle (described by Catesby as being prized for their value as food for humans) is swimming against a background of a rooted plant that “grows in shallow Water; several grassy narrow Blades shoot from a stringy fibrose Socket, which arises from the Root, fixed at the Bottom of the Sea.” [4] As Catesby points out, these seagrasses (terrestrial flowering plants that have invaded shallow marine habitats) are often referred to as “turtle grasses” [4].

It is easy to see the association between the pairs of organisms and, allowing for some inaccuracies of scale, this is a form of illustration that we would find logical and easily understandable today. The next three illustrations are less straightforward and may contain elements of physico-theology:

A flamingo is shown against an unidentified plant [?] that Catesby describes as Keratophyton Dichotomum fuscum that is much-branched. He writes “They are in great Plenty at the Bottom of the shallow Seas and Channels of the Bahama Islands, the Water there being exceeding clear.” [3] We know that flamingos feed by sieving suspended organisms and particles from the water column, so this is clearly not a food plant. Why the association? Is it to make us think about two elongated forms that inhabit shallow water?

A green spotted snake climbs through Apocynum Scandens that “trails upon, and is supported by Trees and Shrubs to the Height of ten, and sometimes twenty Feet..” [4] Catesby is thus drawing parallels between the creeping habit of both the snake and the plant, each needing a support. 

A bone-fish is seen against a sea-feather (Corallina), described by Catesby [4] as having “..Stalks of an Horny transparent Substance of a light brown Colour.” The association of the fish and the alga is likely to occur in nature, but Catesby may also be drawing our attention to the spikiness of the plant and the spines along the dorsal fin of the fish.

The final examples of Catesby’s pairings in illustrations provide us with more of a challenge.

A fieldfare is shown against a background of the Snake-Root of Virginia (Aristolochia) that flowers “close to the ground” [3]. The roots of the plant are used as a herbal cure for snakebite, amongst other things, and perhaps that is why we are shown the fieldfare apparently dead? However, the seeds do not have the same properties and the fieldfare would be unlikely to eat the root.

A pilchard is shown in front of a shrub, with a fruit “somewhat in the Shape of a Kidney” [4] and leaves like those of the black poplar. Although Catesby remarks that these plants are found near the sea, what can be the association with pilchards - fish that from large shoals while feeding on plankton?

A globe fish, known to inflate its stomach with water (or air, if caught out of water)  is shown against two plants: a type of dogwood with small white flowers and berries and a creeper that is “supported by Trees” and has pods that contain “usually seven or eight small round brown Pease.” [4] What is the association between the three, bearing in mind that Catesby’s illustrations of fish do not usually have an accompanying plant?

Catesby provides us with examples that make us think about solutions in the “design” of plants and animals that are similar, but what of the fieldfare or the globefish? Would an eighteenth-century reader easily make the connection or were they, like us, left in a state of puzzlement by some of the illustrations?

[1] F. Nigel Hepper (2004-16) Catesby, Mark (1683-1749), naturalist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] Alex Seltzer (2015/6) Catesby’s conundrums: mixing representation with metaphor. The British Art Journal 16: 82-92.

[3] Mark Catesby (1731) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume I. London, Self-published.

[4] Mark Catesby (1743) The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Volume II. London, Self-published.

This blog post was inspired by Alex Seltzer’s essay in The British Art Journal and readers are recommended to get a copy of that paper to allow a much more developed understanding of the oddness of Catesby’ illustrations.

For a populist view of Mark Catesby see: http://www.catesbytrust.org

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