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Original Issue


More than 200 years ago an unknown artist tramped the American wilderness painting birds, animals, fish, shrubs, flowers, and creating one of the rarest of rare books. This, the first extended account of his life, and illustrated with Catesby's own paintings, is the result of four years' work in English and American archives. It reveals a naturalist of epochal importance who has long been only a legend

On a typicalsunday near the end of September in the year 1712, William Byrd, the greatestVirginia landowner, went to church as usual, ate roast beef for his Sundaydinner as usual and in the evening, as usual, settled down in his library torecord in his diary the events of the day.

Also as usual, hehad nothing to say. He had carefully worked out a cipher—it was so good thatmore than 200 years passed before it was decoded—so he could write down themost private matters, and when the plantation slept he was free to relate thedeepest secrets of its life. But secrets were few and far between, and Byrd,for the most part, found himself recording in code such facts as that he hadeaten mutton, beef or veal for dinner or that he had a cold in his head.

On this pleasantSunday evening, however, Byrd was interrupted in his library by a guestshouting that he had seen a bear. The guest was a newcomer to Virginia, a30-year-old Englishman named Mark Catesby, of whom little was known except thathe was an artist with an unparalleled interest in all sorts of everydaymatters—buffaloes, wild flowers, weeds, plants, anything and everything thatwas native to the American continent. To William Byrd a bear was about ascommonplace as a woodchuck, but he was a courteous host, so he got a gun, andin company with a man named Tom Something (the diary could not be decoded atthis point) went out to hunt bear. Byrd's estate, Westover, lay near the JamesRiver, 20-odd miles from Williamsburg. It had a vast lawn, trimmed gardens,exotic fruit trees on the grounds, and ornamental ironwork, imported the yearbefore from England, that is still regarded as a world masterpiece of its kind.Beyond these expensive gates the cleared ground ended suddenly in dark swampsand woodlands. There, indeed, was the bear, just where Catesby had seen it.Byrd gave the visitor his gun, Catesby fired, the bear fell dead and the partywent back to the house. And Byrd recorded in his diary (in cipher): "It wasonly a cub, and he sat in a tree and ate grapes."

Presently itdawned on William Byrd that whenever Mark Catesby came to the plantation healways had something of interest to write down in his diary. Like all the greatplanters of his time, Byrd was trying to import the old English architecture,traditions, customs and social habits intact into the New World, but Catesbyinsisted it should be the other way around—the products of the New World oughtto be transplanted to the Old. He was constantly stuffing his pockets withfeathers, roots, seeds, berries, acorns and cuttings, packing barrels withcommon American weeds and wasting his time painting commonplace subjects likethe delicate purple flowers that bloomed on sweet potato vines.

On one occasionCatesby insisted on showing Byrd a hummingbird nest at the edge of theplantation. Preoccupied with his effort to live like a dignified Englishnobleman on a country estate, Byrd was uncertain as to why he should payattention to such matters—hummingbirds in Virginia were as common as wrens inEurope. But when he examined the nest through Catesby's eyes, he found it to bequite extraordinary, the most remarkable creation of the architecture of birds,made of a kind of lichen pressed to the softness of felt and bound togetherwith cobwebs. On another occasion, "We walked about the garden all theevening," Byrd wrote, "and Mr. Catesby directed how I should mend mygarden and put it into better shape than it is at present." Byrd was awealthy and powerful man; he was converting his plantation home into the finestmansion in the colonies, modeled strictly on an English manor house; and hemust have felt that it was presumptuous of his unknown English visitor to tellhim what to do.

But Mark Catesbyhad seen a vision that carried him away, and he was haunted by the thought ofconverting American wild flowers and shrubs and trees into garden plants—greatavenues of live oaks and banks of begonias and azaleas that would make thegardens of the New World the most beautiful in existence. Byrd was a bewigged,stiff and pompous gentleman, but Catesby's enthusiasm was such that Byrd beganplanting tulip poplar trees and other wild growths on his lawns. Almost 250years have passed since the night Catesby popped into the library with wordthat a bear was outside, but the trees Catesby persuaded Byrd to plant atWestover are still growing there.

As a matter offact, the catalpa trees that Catesby planted in the Chelsea Physic Garden inLondon are still growing there, too. Precisely who first introduced what plantinto another country is invariably a matter of dispute, but Mark Catesby eitherfirst raised in England or played a part in introducing dogwood, sassafras,locust and other trees, as well as laurels, acacias, lady's-slippers, lilies,skunk cabbage, and other flowers, weeds and shrubs. If others imported theAmerican products it was largely because they had been inspired to do so byreading Mark Catesby's books.

Part of WilliamByrd's trouble in dealing with Catesby was that he did not really know who hewas. Catesby was present at Westover only because he was the brother-in-law ofthe Secretary of State of Virginia, not because he possessed any standing ofhis own. In this respect, Byrd shares a contemporary puzzlement—people today donot know who Catesby was, either. In a few reference works on natural history,or in a biographical dictionary of painters if it is unusually exhaustive,there may be 10 lines:

Catesby, Mark(1679?-1749?), author The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the BahamaIslands, 1731-1743; and Hortus Britanno-Americanus, or A Collection of 85Curious Trees and Shrubs, the Production of North America, adapted to theClimate and Soil of Great Britain...

and so on, hardlythe sort of thing likely to send readers running to find out more about MarkCatesby, or to buy his books (they cost quite a bit now—about $2,500). Evenauthorities on natural history who say that Catesby's work was of epochalimportance admit they know little about him. There has never been a biographyof Mark Catesby. No portrait is known to exist. There has never before been anextended magazine article. The most complete is a 10-page study by ElsaGuerdrum Allen of Cornell, published in 1951 in the Transactions of theAmerican Philosophical Society, a remarkable work of scholarly pioneering, butone that deals only with Catesby's work as an ornithologist.

It was Dr. Allenwho discovered the record of Mark Catesby's birth. He was born on March 24,1682 and lived in the home of his grandfather at Castle Hedingham in Essex,about 40 miles from London. His father was the mayor of the town of Sudbury.His mother was born Elizabeth Jekyll; she was the granddaughter of a famoushistorian of Essex. Eight miles south of Castle Hedingham was the home of JohnRay, a founder of modern scientific botany, who was then classifying allEnglish and European animals, birds, fishes and plants. In some fashion notknown, the boy came to the attention of Ray, then in his old age, and the greatnaturalist, according to a contemporary, "inspired Catesby with a geniusfor natural history."

Mark was theyoungest in a family of seven children. The oldest girl, Elizabeth, defied herfather and married Dr. William Cocke, a recent graduate of CambridgeUniversity. Elizabeth was "a pretty sort of woman," as Byrd describedher in his diary; it is on record that she was marrying without her father'sconsent and against his wishes. Dr. Cocke was a friend of AlexanderSpotswood's, the new Governor of Virginia Colony, and it was not long beforeDr. Cocke arrived in Williamsburg. That was in 1710, and Dr. Cocke left hiswife and children in England in Mark Catesby's care while he establishedhimself in the colony.

He accomplishedthis with phenomenal speed. While Dr. Cocke ostensibly was practicing medicine,he was really Spotswood's aide and adviser, and the Governor appointed himSecretary of State, judge of the admiralty court and a member of the VirginiaCouncil. All the other members of the council, which was directly responsibleto the crown, were men in Byrd's station of life, and in begging Queen Anne toapprove his appointment of Dr. Cocke the Governor explained that the landownerslived so far from Williamsburg that it might be difficult to assemble them inan emergency. Byrd would certainly have been incensed if he had known this, forhe never missed a meeting of the Virginia Council, but he had so littleknowledge of what was going on that he thought Spotswood had promised him theappointment of Secretary of State. He did not know that Dr. Cocke had beenappointed until a letter from England told him the news. It arrived on the sameship that brought Mark Catesby, who was taking care of his sister and herchildren on the voyage.

Byrd wasbeginning to smolder about Spotswood's double-dealing when Dr. Cocke, his wifeand Mark Catesby arrived at Westover. They exerted themselves to charm him outof his irritation with such effect that they were asked to remain for a week,and then in the fall came back for a month's visit. The summer ended in amellow glow of golden days, and the vision began to form in Mark Catesby's mindof the great work that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. "Thedeclining of the heat begins to be perceived by the coolness of thenights," he wrote quaintly. The weather grew so moderate and the air soserene that it reminded him of southern Europe. The tempo of southern lifechanged subtly, a hidden animation coming with fall. It was on September 18that Byrd first lit a fire in the great hall of Westover. Game began to beserved more frequently (a favorite dish was fricassee of oppossum). Greatflights of bluewing teal swept in from the north. They were beautiful birdswith black heads, glossed green and violet, flying fast and descendingsuddenly, a native American bird which Catesby was the first to paint. Theywere preferred to all others by Virginians, and after Byrd had served himbluewings, Catesby wrote, "All who have eat of them give them thepreference of all of the Duck kind for delicacy of taste."

Behind thebluewing came what Catesby called the white-faced teal, the subject of one ofhis finest paintings. Then came vast flights of Canada geese, the most commonspecies of all, in heavy, straggling V-shaped formations, led by an old gander,hoarsely honking. Summer duck could be found on Virginia ponds, moving in smallflights of three or four birds and nesting, as Catesby was the first to pointout, in hollows in tall trees, often in holes made by woodpeckers. The mostbeautiful of all ducks, they were unforgettable for the wild crowing sound thatthe sentinel bird gave at the first sign of danger. Then there was thebaffler-headed duck, sometimes called the butterball, with black wings and backand a glossy green velvety head with a rounded crest, remarkable for thevelocity of its flight.

None of thesecreatures had previously been painted. Few had been described. The generalimpression prevailed in England that the American climate was stormy and cold,the forests gloomy and dank, the wild creatures savage and dangerous. WhenCatesby arrived in Virginia he had no fortune, no trade or profession and notraining for the work he wanted to undertake, but he was childlike and direct,with the unstudied perception of obvious wonders that often escapes informedand sophisticated people. He wrote that the air was fresh and clear, the skiescloudless, and all around lay "the most delightful Prospectsimaginable." The southern woods, dense with their luxuriant summer foliage,became more beautiful as the leaves dropped. Masses of shining black berriesformed on the sassafras trees, attracting multitudes of birds. The berries ofthe yapon turned bright red, a shade they would retain all winter. Catesbycombined flowers, animals, seeds and berries into brilliant and spectacularpatterns, with wilting flower petals expiring like the melting watches ofDali's early surrealistic paintings. The laurel tree brightened with purple andscarlet seeds and pods. The red oval berries of the dogwood and the darkglistening berries of the tupelo were as brilliant as flowers. On thebay-leafed smilax, against the pale green background of the leaves, clusters ofblack berries ripened in October, a favorite food for the crested jay, or the"blew jay," as he called it.

For three days ina row a single flight of passenger pigeons passed overhead, the birds flyingsouthward with great speed and steadiness, the sky full of them from onehorizon to the other. Under the full moon the sounds of the wilderness changed:the blue herons, nocturnal feeders, grew fat and silent; the whippoorwill criedits name, accenting the last syllable and making a chucking sound after eachcry; the bellowing of bullfrogs, some of which grew 16 inches long, was audiblea quarter of a mile away. And wolves were numerous. "They go in droves bynight," Catesby wrote, "and hunt deer like hounds, with dismal yellingcries." In the luminous shadows people sat on the lawn at Westover,enjoying the cool air, the men teasing ground frogs with the bright coals oftheir cigars, which the frogs confused with fireflies. The night birds movedoverhead with vagrant wild sounds; owls hooted in the swamps; and there grewslowly in the mind of the artist the conception of an immense unspoiledwilderness, stretching away north, south and west, thousands of miles underthis benign sky, adorned and enriched with unknown wild plants and animals, andsurely "no contemptible Scene of the Glorious Works of theCreator."

Why, thoughtCatesby, should he not be the first to picture it in all its infinite color andvariety? He would show to good Queen Anne the beauty of her American dominions,heretofore either concealed from her, as from all her royal predecessors, orthe subject of evil reports. So it came about that Mark Catesby became thefirst of many gifted people to be moved by the enchantment of the AmericanSouth, to present its magic and to spend a happy life in its behalf.

For 10 years hehiked through the forest, carrying his portfolio and his box of colors,painting acacias and buffaloes, wild ducks, alligators, game fish, flyingsquirrels, bullfrogs, rattlesnakes, butterflies, sweet potatoes, live oaks,hickory trees, blackberry bushes, turtles, crabs, honeysuckles and hundreds ofthen unknown American products. He usually stayed in plantation houses. We knowa little of what his life in them was like, from the account in Byrd's diary.(It was decoded in 1941; a librarian at the Huntington Library in Californiadiscovered some of Byrd's jottings on the margin of a law book that gave thekey to his cipher.) Catesby was in high spirits, in Byrd's account, interestedin everything and constantly bursting into song. He was interested in the kindof wood that Indians used in their bows, in the chinkapin nuts that ripened inthe fall and tasted better than chestnuts, in the acorns of live oaks that theIndians used for thickening venison soup, in the grain of the rosebay tree, themost beautiful he had ever seen, resembling watered satin when worked intocabinets. He was fascinated by the ivory-billed woodpecker (now extinct or onthe verge of extinction), a majestic bird, as large as a domestic rooster, witha curious trumpet call, and so powerful it could cut a bushel of chips in anhour. He was disappointed to find that the American fox was no different fromthe fox in England, but he appreciated the raccoon because of all creatures itwas most like the fox in subtlety.

The boredom ofByrd in his library was incomprehensible to Catesby. He was interested in thesweet gum tree because it exuded a fragrant resin "which by the heat of thesun congeals into transparent resinous drops, which the Indians chew, esteemingit a preservative of their teeth." He was equally interested in thepellitory, or "tooth-ach" tree, the subject of another fine painting:its leaves, he wrote, "are aromatic, very hot and astringent." He notedthat they smelled like oranges and were used as a remedy for toothache. Thefirst time he saw a flying squirrel he thought it was a dead leaf blown amongthe trees by the wind, but in the fall woods he found them gliding almost inflocks.

When the poorerpeople of Virginia went to the coast in the fall to make their wonderful"candle-berry" myrtle candles, Catesby went along. "A man with hisfamily will remove from his home to some island or sand banks near the seawhere these trees most abound, taking with him kettles to boil the berries in.He builds a hut of palmetto leaves, for the shelter of himself and his familywhile they stay, which is commonly three or four weeks. The man cuts down thetrees, while the children strip off the berries into a porridge pot; and havingput water on them, they boil them until the oil floats; which is skimmed offinto another vessel. This, when cold, hardens to the consistency of wax, and isof a dirty green color. Then they boil it again, to clarify it in brasskettles, which gives it a transparent greenness. These candles burn a long timeand yield a grateful smell."

He was interestedin learning that dogs reacted in different ways to the scent of the skunk,which he called the "pol-cat." Some were so stricken after beingsprayed that they could not hunt for a long time. Others dug their noses intothe earth and soon recovered their powers of scent. No end of folklore andgenuine knowledge had accumulated around American animals, but had not beenwritten down. Like many a later observer, Catesby came to believe that the songof the mockingbird was the loveliest in nature; he was interested in learningthat the Indian name for the "mock-bird," as he called it, was thecencontlatolly, which means "400 tongues." (Since it is now known thatthere are about 400 species of birds in the area where the mockingbird ranges,the Indian name was surprisingly apt.)

Catesby paintedmore than a hundred different species of American birds, most of which hadnever been pictured before and for the most part were not known to exist.During his first trip to Virginia he sent back to England 70 different speciesof plants, most of them unfamiliar and 85 of them altogether unknown. Hepainted about 40 fish, a dozen animals, 87 plants and shrubs.

There is a verycurious gentleman here," Governor Spotswood wrote uneasily to London. If heregarded Dr. Cocke's brother-in-law with caution, it probably was because hefelt Catesby might have powerful friends at home. It seemed likely, couldhardly be determined and is still a puzzle. For instance, when Catesby and Byrdvisited the English fleet, they were received with honor, 120 guns being firedin the course of the day as they went from ship to ship—balm to Byrd's spiritand something really memorable to put down in his diary. Catesby was poor, andhe had none of the usual signs of connections with rank and authority—yet whenhis first volume came to be printed he had 12 sponsors, or backers, who met thecost. The most prominent was Robert Harley—a friend of Swift and Pope, thefirst employer of Daniel Defoe, head of the ministry and Queen Anne's favorite.The second most prominent of Catesby's backers was James Brydges, the Duke ofChandos, the patron of Handel. The third was Dr. Richard Mead, who attendedQueen Anne on her deathbed and became physician to George I. Mead was anauthority on poison, the owner of a garden of rare plants, for whom Catesbynamed a newly discovered shrub and to whom he sent American species. The othersgenerally were scientific figures, like Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of theBritish Museum, and William Sherard, who started the study of botany atOxford.

Had they been thegreatest figures in the kingdom they could not have offered Catesby what hefound in the American wilderness. There he lived in peace with nature, beastand man. "To the Hospitality and assistance of friendly Indians I am muchindebted," he wrote to the Queen, adding, "The first act of the Indiansat signs of an approaching storm was to erect a shelter for the protection ofmy brushes, paintings, paper and material." He declared that the blossomingwoods, adorned with elegant plants and fragrant as perfume, were bright,beautiful and a solace to the agitated spirit of man. True, there wererattlesnakes, but he argued that even the poisonous snakes of the New Worldwere superior to the poisonous snakes in other British colonies, as theyinvariably gave warning before striking.

So Mark ambledcheerily westward, to look into the headwaters of the James. Thirty milesupriver from Westover he passed the last civilized outpost, where Byrd waslater to establish Richmond. There were a great plenty of wild geese, groves ofmajestic oaks and black walnut trees, and in the foothills small forests ofchestnuts and chinkapins, on whose acorns many bears were feeding. He amusedhimself chasing them, running and waving his arms, in order to watch theirponderous, nimble grace as they ambled away. It may have been on this trip thathe saw buffalo, watching them as they fed in the open plains in the morningand—as the day grew sultry—slipped silently into the thickets of tall canebeside the streams. At the same time that he saw them, he discovered theacacia, and when he came to paint the buffalo years later he put the plant andthe animal on the same plate.

After thiswilderness trip in the fall of 1714, Catesby's footprints become hard tofollow. His niece Anne Cocke had grown up and married Major William Woodward,the founder of the famous Virginia family, and Catesby spent some time at theirplantation on the Rappahannock. He traveled up and down the coast, for hementioned the extreme northern point at which certain plants were found. He wasconvinced that the wealth of the New World was such that the colonial policy ofEngland should be directed away from the old conflicts of Europe and toward theinfinite promise of America. Even more than this, he came to believe that therewas a natural affinity between England and America. When he had startedAmerican plants growing in Britain, he said that within a single lifetime"a small spot of land in America has furnished England with a greatervariety of tree than has been procured from all the other parts of the worldfor more than a thousand years past."

Back in Englandin 1719, Catesby showed his paintings to Caroline, the future queen. She was noQueen Anne, but she was kindly and intelligent, and placed Catesby's projectunder her royal patronage. In his dedication of his work to her, Catesby saidthat he was happy to be able to show her a little of what the New World wasreally like, despite the limitations of his training and skill. An arrangementwas made for him to study botany, finances were taken care of by Sir HansSloane and William Sherard, who agreed to pay for specimens Catesby would sendthem, and by subscribers for the book he would publish and he again set out,reaching Charleston on May 23, 1722. Spring was far advanced, and he wasastonished to find an even more glowing world than the spring of Virginia. Thedogwood, magnolia, sassafras, persimmon and wild cherry trees were in bloom,great masses of white, rose-colored and delicate yellow blossoms. The shinygreen leaves of the rosebay tree were now a background for fragrant whiteflowers, and every day new buds burst into blossom—or "blew," as hephrased it—like the loblolly bay, whose white blossoms "blew" in May.Then the begonia bloomed, still an unknown plant, growing on the shady banks ofstreams, on vines 20 or 30 feet high, bearing great cinnamon-colored flowers,bright yellow within. There was also a shrub five or six feet high, with stiffleaves of glistening green, that bore delicate white and red flowers. "Asall plants have their peculiar beauties, it is difficult to assign to any onean excellence excelling all others," he wrote, "yet I know of no shrubthat had a better claim to it." This was a plant he called the Chamaedaphnefol√ºs Tini, floribus bullatis umbellatis; it appears to have been laurel, andin July 1741 he succeeded in getting one to blossom in his garden inEngland.

Mark Catesby isbelieved to have planted the magnificent avenue of live oaks before Ashley Hallin Charleston. He certainly spent a lot of time at the plantation of ColonelBull on the Ashley River, for he found the dahoon holly there, "in a bogmuch frequented by alligators." He discovered the purple-berried bay treefarther up the Ashley in the curious little town of Dorchester, a settlement ofwealthy refugees from Puritan New England. And he spent a lot of time atNewington Plantation outside Charleston. He wrote that there, as the servantwas making his bed one winter morning, she found a rattlesnake between thesheets. The snake had sought warmth during the night, and "how long I hadthe company of this charming Bedfellow," Catesby commented, "I amunable to say."

The demands ofSloane and Sherard for specimens grew onerous. Catesby was now 40, and findingit less easy to get through the woods alone. He wanted to buy a slave to helpcarry his supplies, but Sloane would not advance the money. Catesby againheaded into the interior, to the headwaters of the Savannah, probably almost tothe border of present-day Tennessee, unquestionably to be out of reach of hissubscribers. He lived for some time at Fort Moore, far up the Savannah, and ata trading post on the river, now Silver Bluff, Ga.

His work nowlacked something of the spontaneity of his earlier period; almost half of hissecond volume was made up of pictures of fish, for which he had no liking andthe result was dutiful and conscientious rather than inspired. An opportunitycame to him to go to Mexico with a physician, and he was eager to leave;Sloane, however, insisted that he go to the Bahama Islands, where Sloanehimself had worked in his youth, and complete the catalogue of natural historythere that Sloane had not finished. Catesby spent several months there, but hisdissatisfaction was evident in the rather perfunctory paintings of crabs,seaweed and tropical fish.

When he returnedto London he faced ruin. He had contracted to give his subscribers coloredplates of his work, and in making arrangements with artisans in Amsterdam foundthat he would be liable for far greater costs than his subscribers had paid. Hemanaged, with incredible labor, to produce his work otherwise: a refugee Frenchartist, Joseph Goupy, was a pioneer in making inexpensive reproductions of oldmasters, and he taught Catesby to engrave his own plates. The two volumes werelarge, almost two feet long, with 100 plates in the first volume and 120 in thesecond. Catesby colored each plate by hand. Since there were 156 subscribers,it meant that he had to color 156 copies of 220 engravings, or 34,320 plates.The work took 20 years.

Catesby married,fathered two sons, was elected to the Royal Society and was also a member ofthe Gentlemen's Society, to which people like Sir Isaac Newton belonged. Thelist of subscribers to his second volume was astounding: Lord Baltimore, theEarl of Derby, the Queen of Sweden, the envoy of Her Imperial Majesty ofRussia, the Prince of Liechtenstein, the Princess of Wales, the Earl of Bute(for whom Catesby named a beautiful flower, the Stuartia, which he discovered),and a hundred more as eminent. Only a few copies came to America: to ThomasPenn, to William Byrd, to Oglethorpe, to Catesby's sister and to John Bartram,the Quaker botanist. This volume remained in Bartram's Garden, and whenAlexander Wilson, the ornithologist, was teaching school nearby, it became oneof the sources of inspiration for his own great work on American birds (SI,Dec. 24, 1956).

In his old ageCatesby became a sort of elder statesman of natural history, consulted bypeople who wanted to know about America. When the Swedish botanist Peter Kalm,for whom the kalmia, or mountain laurel, is named, journeyed to the Americancolonies he first visited Catesby at his home in London. Kalm left a pleasantpicture of the old man with his honesty and lack of affectation. They fell totalking about mixed drinks—were the mixed drinks that people drank in Americabaneful or beneficial? "Mr. Catesby said that his experience had been asfollows. At one time they drank punch made of strong brandy, or rum and waterwith much sugar in it, but only a little lemon juice. The effect was that aftera time they got a kind of paralysis, which was such that they could not holdanything in their fingers. They began to reduce the quantity of brandy andsugar, and put lemon juice in it, after which they did not get such troublesomeparalysis."

All of theseglimpses of Catesby add up to a picture of a nearly blameless character, richlydeserving posterity's esteem. At his death in 1749 Gentleman's Magazine wrotein its obituary that he was greatly lamented as "the truly honest,ingenious, and modest Mr. Mark Catesby." Why, then, did his measure of famedisappear so quickly and completely? First, of course, by the time of his deaththe conflicts of the colonies and the mother country were reaching seriousproportions; it no longer made sense to talk of a fusion of their societies.There was something toxic in the English attempt to transplant their waysintact into the New World, symbolized by the ailing Byrd in his library,translating Sallust and recording in cipher in his diary that his digestion wastroubled. Catesby might have been an antidote to the poison, with his interestin a life of variety and promise, but he could only attempt to persuade—hecould not impose his vision on the English.

There was anotherfactor, too: his name. Mark Catesby could never have got a respectful hearingfrom the mass of Englishmen, no matter what he said. He had the misfortune tobe descended from the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot. It was Robert Catesbywho is credited with the lurid scheme to load the Houses of Parliament withgunpowder, kill the king and found a new order based on a few carefullypreserved Catholic peers. When the plot was discovered, Catesby was shotresisting arrest, Guy Fawkes confessed under torture, and the hostility betweenEnglish Catholics and Protestants was deepened still more. Since Robert Catesbywas a traitor, his great estates near Daventry were seized and distributedamong royal favorites, and the Catesby name virtually disappeared.

It happened thatRobert Catesby's widow had a little property in her own name, left to her byher father. By Mark Catesby's time, 80 years after the Gunpowder Plot, thefamily had come back a little. Mark Catesby, however, knew he could neverbecome a popular figure. He wrote his books hoping for just one reader, theQueen herself, and with just one hope: that she might share his dream ofturning England away from the decaying past toward the bright-bloomingfuture.


Exquisite detail in Mark Catesby's paintings, subtle colors and childlike designs freely linking beasts and flowers startled the Old World with the freshness of the New


The crested jay was a New World wonder


...and the rattlesnake was a gentleman


Herons added color to Carolina swamps


Catesby's designs of fox and flower...


...were vivid as his butterflies and weeds


In spite of bad habits, the "pol-cat" intrigued Catesby


Bluewing teal was Catesby's favorite among American ducks


CATESBY'S CATALPAS, brought with wild plants to Britain, are still growing in Chelsea Garden.