Leaf of the Day: More Mr Catesby

The essay is just about finished but, of course, I keep finding more fascinating bits of information. When you think about what he achieved in the times he lived in, you really have to admire him.

His massive work “The Natural History of Carolina Florida and the Bahamas.” had 220 plates of birds, plants, trees insects, snakes and mammals with accompanying written observations. It took approximately 20 years to create and was finished in 1747. Being very concerned that his drawings and paintings were translated accurately into print, and to save money too, Catesby went to the trouble of learning the highly skilled art of engraving his own copper plates, from which the black and white prints would be taken. These were then hand coloured, which accounts for the variation in the images you may see on the Internet, although Catesby took great pains to ensure that the colouring was accurate.

It is hard to conceive of such a project now being so carefully and slowly produced. The work was issued in sections of 20 prints which were produced every 4 months and sold by subscription which was a common way to finance a large project in those days. It would be almost impossible now to publish a “scientific” book over a period of 20 years without the information becoming obsolete, even within just a few months, such is the speed, not only of change and discovery but also of the dissemination of information.

This is a first edition copy. “It has the signature on the first title leaf of John Custis of Williamsburg, with whom Catesby stayed briefly while doing the field work on which the book is based, and from whom the book passed to Martha Custis Washington. Bound (or perhaps rebound) at Georgetown College in full calf in the mid-19th century. Gift of George Washington Parke Custis on the occasion of his addressing a Georgetown College commencement, July 4, 1833.”
from the Lauinger Library Collection, Georgetown. here

However, despite some mealy mouthed critics, Catesby’s great work was rightly acclaimed. With its big colourful plates and lively text it remained the most important illustrated record of the fauna and flora of North America until Audubon came along a century later. It was the sole reference for 38 of the 100 entries for North American birds detailed by Linnaeus in his 1748 edition of Systema Naturae. In 1790 Richard Poulteney the 18th Century biographer of botanists thought it “the most splendid of its kind that England ever produced.” The more of Catesby’s work I see, and the more I read about this engaging man, the more I enjoy and appreciate his work. His fondness, delight and wonder for all he saw shines out from every beautiful and fascinating plate and text. I am sure I will be returning, his observations about snakes are particularly interesting, meanwhile here is one complete entry from the book for the Ladies Slipper and the Bullfrog, which was renamed in his honour in 1810. It is now known as Rana catesbeiana. It is a long entry but is lovely example of his writing and observation.

Rana maxima Americana Aquatica: The Bull Frog.
The Figure here exhibited is smaller than many of these Frogs I have seen: The Eyes were oval, very large and prominent, the Pupils having yellow Circles round them: The Irides of a dusky red, encompassed with a yellow Circle behind, and a little below the Eyes appear the Ears, of a circular Form, and covered with a thin transparent Membrane, which is the Membrana Tympani itself, which in this Species of Animals lies quite bare, and exposed, being even with the Surface of the rest of the Skin, having no Meatus Auditorius, or Passage leading to it, nor any Thing like an outward Ear to guard it.
The Colour of the upper Part of this Frog, was dusky brown, thick set with large irregular limped Spot, of a dark brown Colour, the whole being blended with a yellowish Green, particularly the fore-part of the Head and Chaps; the Belly dusky white, with a Mixture of Yellow, and faintly spotted.

These Frogs are less numerous than any other of the Frog kind, and frequent Springs, only, which in Virginia abound in the Sides of every little Hill, where by the continual running of the Water, a small Pond or Hole is usually made before the Mouth of the Spring, which is rarely without being possessed by a Pair of these Frogs: They are usually sitting on the Verge of the Hole, and when surprized, with a long Leap or two enter the Mouth of the Spring, where they are secure. It is the general Belief of the People in Virginia, that they keep the Springs clean, and purify the Water, wherefore they never kill, or molest then, but superstitiously believe it bode them ill so to do.

The Noise they make has caused their Name; for at a few Yards Distance their Bellowing sounds very much like that of a Bull a quarter of a Mile off, and what adds to the Force of the Sound, is their sitting within the hollow Mouth of the Spring. Tho’ the imaginary Usefulness of these Frogs is frequently a Means of their Preservation, yet their voracious Appetites often causes their Destruction, they being great Devourers of young Ducks and Goslins, which they swallow whole; this provokes the good Wives to destroy them, but as they are not very numerous, this Mischief is the easier prevented.

Helleborine: The Lady’s Slipper of Pensilvania.
This Plant from a fiberous Root rises with two or three single Stems, to the Height of ten or twelve Inches, with long ribbed Leaves, growing alternately, the Flower as it is longer resembles more a Slipper than any other of this Tribe that I have seen: It differs also from others of this Kind, in having a Slit from the Top to the Bottom of the Slipper; over the Hollow of which is fixed two small oval Bodies or Knobs, over which hangs a thin Membrane or Lappet, of a pale Red or Rose Colour, and under these Knobs is another Membrane of the like Form, but of a green Colour: The Four exterior Petals that compleat the Flower are placed cross-ways, and are of a yellowish Green, ribbed and stained with Red. The Slipper is of a greenish Yellow, with a Tincture of Red. This curious Helleborine was sent from Pensilvania by Mr. John Bertram, who by his Industry and Inclination to the Searches into Nature, has discovered and sent over a great many new Productions both Animal and Vegetable. This Plant flowered in Mr. Collinson’s Garden in April, 1738.

A film has been made about Catesby, which in today’s terms took almost as long as his book to produce and needed sponsors too. It was started in 2005 and premiered in 2008, to very good reviews. It is due for some TV showings and there is a DVD ..my credit card is by my side! Read more from the Catesby Trust here. .

Leaf of the Day: It had to be Mark Catesby

I hummed and haa -ed for a few more hours today..who to write about? I inevitably found other artists and spent more hours looking and reading but eventually decided on Mark Catesby.
Typically I love the research and get terribly and wonderfully side tracked but hate the writing up, the pulling it all together, into a coherent whole. The floor around my desk is knee deep in a big muddle of paper. My reluctance to get on with it is not helped either by my inability to type. Oh if only I had listened to my mother extolling the virtues of a secretarial training, scornfully rejected of course by her artschool intent daughter. Writing this blog is often an excruciatingly slow task which is my just punishment I suppose. So my mini opus is not yet finished…tomorrow I hope

But why Catesby?
It’s sometimes hard to describe exactly what it is in someone’s work that appeals to you but with Catesby it was a mixture of reading about him.. you instantly like this happy, inquisitive and dedicated man, looking at what he achieved and of course the quality of his work. I can respond to his discoveries so directly because in a very small way my time here mirrors his. He came from England to North Carolina, not a million miles from here. I, the newcomer even from roughly the same area in England as Catesby, also stand open mouthed at the birds, the trees and sheer variety of plant life, colour and form. I delight in discovering all the various uses and customs of these plants and trees. I am in awe and some fear of the snake that slithers into the twisted banyan roots. I marvel at the colours of the beautiful big butterflies and size of the huge magnolias, I cannot believe the noise of the frogs. I see it all as a whole experience.

Catesby’s intent I am sure was to try to convey to his eager audience, though his prints and texts, the experience of being here, not with a single specimen study but by combining things together on one page, just as he saw them in nature, interacting with each other and part of something bigger. He has been, and still is, criticised by the joyless ones who misunderstand completely his desire to record just what he saw and who try to judge his work by purely scientific standards.
One bone of contention is, not only his mixing of sometime quite unrelated plants and animals but the discrepancies between their sizes. One extreme example is the wonderful bison scratching against an acacia stump out of which sprouts an enormous flowering branch. So obviously out of proportion that some critics said he had “failed” to make a proper image.

There are some fancy theories about symbolism and iconography etc in his use of disproportionate sizes and combinations of subjects, but, if you read his comments, he had seen the bison and the acacia in the same particular place and wanted to show them together. He observed of the trees,
I never saw seen any of these trees but at one place near the Appalachian mountains where the buffellos had left their dung and some of the trees had their branches pulled down, whereby I conjectured they had been browsing on the leaves.”

His dilemma then would be size, which would be the size of the printed page (i.e. folio, approx 14 x 20 inches), so in order to show both the bison and the acacia in some detail, the flowers have to be bigger. Here the image makes the best possible use of the space on the page and makes a pleasing design too, expressing something of the “buffello’s” character, which he calls an “aweful creature” and the tree. It seems quite logical to me and it should not be forgotten that the prints were to be shown in a book opposite text which would in turn explain more about the images.

Here again there is a huge seaweed which will grow to only 2 ft high in reality. It sits behind the flamingo who would really be a full 5ft high. Audubon was also to have similar problems with flamingos which accounts here for the strange angle of the neck.

He distorted the natural poses of these long necked birds to get them to fit the page format but also to be able to show the detail of the body and featheres too.. Audubon came a good 100 years after Catesby and was very influenced by his work especially by the inclusion of naturalistic habitat details, for which he too was criticised… the joyless ones are everywhere..

I will make one more post about Catesby tomorrow. I really think he is worth it, right now I have much more essay to do.

Leaf of the Day: Artist Research Day

Today was just devoted to research, so no drawing. I have to write a short essay about a botanical artist but being the sort of person I am, I have had to look at every natural history artist from the year dot. At the end of the day I am no further forward with the essay or the decision about which artist, but have a head full of the adventures and exploits of the various people I have encountered. Here are a few possibles:

The wonderful Margaret Mee 1909 – 1988, whose beautiful paintings of the Amazon did much to promote interest in saving the rainforests. These plates are from “The Flowering Amazon”.

Aechmea Rodgriguesiana

Gustavia augusta

I particularly like these for the inclusion of the forest background, so much more atmospheric than the single specimen on a page disunited from its environment. Many of her paintings were executed in gouache, so using white paint instead of leaving the paper white. It’s a tricky medium.

Ellis Rowan (1848–1922)
The self opinionated, obsessive and tireless self publicist Ellis Rowan painted more species of Australian and international flora than any other artist of her time. The great explorer painter Marianne North, who Rowan styled herself on to a certain extent, observed . . I admired her for her genius and prettiness; she was like a charming spoiled child.” and was curiously an early candidate for a face lift which she had done in 1898..”This ‘face-lift’, a new American fad, gave her what one reporter described as ‘the look of a sad monkey in a small childish face’”
Despite her vanity,or maybe because of it, her work is wonderful. I am endlessly fascinated by the gritty characters of these tough women, who trekked into jungles and up mountains, with all their painting gear, to record these new and exotic specimens.


Ferdinand Bauer 1760 –1826 had a very busy and adventurous life. His work quite is exquisite and considered amongst the most beautiful ever produced.
He accompanied Captain Flinders on the voyage of “the Investigator” to Terra Australis from 1801-1805. and endured much hardship and many annoyances such as his paper getting damp and mouldy on board the leaky ship. I sympathise, even here the fluctuating humidity is a problem with my drawing paper. I wonder they managed to do any drawing or painting in such circumstances.

These delightful things are weedy sea dragons!


Mark Catesby 1682-1749 whose life’s work was The Natural History of “Carolina and Florida and the Bahamas” The plates of this magnificent book incorporate both animals and plants in a natural and charming way. He understood so well the importance of the role of illustration.
The Illuminating of Natural History is so particularly Essential to the perfect understanding of it that I may aver a clearer Idea may be conceiv’d from the Figures of Animals and Plants in their proper colours than from the most exact descriptions without them.
I am very fond of his work and of course I am seeing many of these species here, just as he did..


Or shall I go back to Elizabeth Blackwell 1700 – 1758 and her Herbal.
She was one of the first women to achieve fame as a botanical illustrator with” A Curious Herbal,” containing the first illustrations of many previously, unknown plants from the New World which was designed for physicians as a reference to medicinal plants. She drew and engraved her own work and undertook this job to try to earn enough money to free her self styled “Doctor” husband from a debtor’s jail.
Elizabeth must have been desperate at this point: husband in jail, no source of income, a household to support, and now a child to care for. Fortunately, she learned that a new herbal was needed to depict and describe exotic plants from the New World. She decided that she could illustrate it, and Alexander, given his medical background, could write the descriptions of the plants. As she completed drawings, Elizabeth would take them to her husband’s cell where he supplied the correct names in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. “
…read more about this interesting lady here

So who will I choose? They are all incredible people producing an amazing quality and quantity of work, in sometimes very difficult conditions, which makes my occasional whinging about a mosquito bite or two seem so trivial. I am as engaged with their stories as I am with their work. Whoever I decide upon, I hope to get the work completed tomorrow.

Leaf of the Day: Bald Cypress Cone and the Carolina Parakeet Part 1

Today I went to look for the bald cypress tree in Leu Gardens as I had picked up a little cone to draw a few days ago and wanted to make sure it was what I thought it was. The day was humid, dull and very still, one of those swampy listless days that make you feel that everything is too much effort. The snakes though seemed to be in their element. I don’t usually see many but today I saw four, 3 black racers and this beautiful harmless Garter Snake. I have read that if a snake has longitudinal stripes as opposed to bands they are harmless. If they have diamonds or bands get out of their way. I treat them all with great respect.

Down by the lake, which like everything else today, was torpid and still, I found a nice big bald cypress. These are lofty trees and normally the leaves are well out of my reach but a low growing branch enabled me to take a photo of some new cones and leaves with odd little yellow flower like things on them which I think are a sort of gall, (but after hours of research I am none the wiser.)

The Bald Cypress Taxodium distichum is a common tree here and likes the fringes of lakes where you can see the knobbly knees which I drew some time ago here. Also called the swamp cypress or southern cypress, it is actually a member of the giant redwood family and not a true cypress at all.
It is another ancient and beautiful tree, living it is said for up to 1500 years and attaining a height of over 100 feet, although I must say they do look pretty miserable in the winter when the needles turn red and fall, leaving it very bald indeed. At the moment they are bright green with new growth.
But they do have an atmosphere, these old tall trees. Perhaps it is because they are so associated with swamps, heat and the mysterious and eerie landscapes of South, with those huge walking mangroves, trees with lichen covered branches and impossibly convoluted root structures and these cypress trees with their huge buttressed trunks, dripping with Spanish moss keeping silent vigil beside black still waters.
Silent, that is, unless they happen to be the roost of some very noisy egrets.

Its resistance to water earned the bald cypress the name of “the eternal wood” and because it was such a useful tree the once vast stands of cypress in Florida were cleared almost to extinction. It does have a powerful regenerative streak though. In these stormy times it is interesting to note that if a bald cypress is struck by lightening it will explode, shattering into many sharp splintering pieces which are hurled into the air with huge force. Despite the destruction this sturdy tree doesn’t die but regenerates from the existing trunk. However it sounds like a tree not to be standing under unless you wish to be sliced like a cucumber in a mandolin.

Image from Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture here

While I was researching this tree I came across this lovely John Catesby print, of the Carolina Parakeet. It shows the bald cypress complete with cones and the rather perky parakeet. I had written about Catesby before in connection with his drawing of the now extinct passenger pigeon. (see post re Amazing Rare Things exhibition here)
Sadly this pretty little bird went the same way. It was Americas only indigenous parakeet. The bald cypress was its favorite nesting tree and it fed on the ripe cones in the autumn. I think if I were a bird in those days I would have politely declined any offer from Catesby to paint my portrait.The little cone I have drawn is a gorgeous thing, a tightly packed sphere, every separate scale piece fitting so perfectly together. This one was an old one, brown and cracked but I also found some new green ones.. you have to be quick to get there before the squirrels.


Bald Cypress Cone

Leaf of the Day: Amazing Rare Things Exhibition

The day of the Embassy visit for the my USA visa which after a 3 hour wait was, I am glad to say successful. London is hot and beautiful, I walked from my hotel in Gower St along the Mall and through St James’ Park and dropped into the Mall portrait exhibition and on to the Amazing Rare Things exhibition housed in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.

The exhibition was wonderful, the Leonardo drawings were especially exquisite and so tiny, and the fierce upside down sloth that I mentioned in a previous post was there too.
Mark Catesby’s work was particularly interesting to me as he drew and painted in Florida in the early 1700´s. He was another of those early and dedicated painters who recorded the natural history of America with both skill and charm. For me, again, the attraction of his work is in the combination of the study itself, with some aspect of of its surroundings or a companion plant or insect. He was a self-taught artist who travelled to America from England with the help of both a small legacy, and his sister who was married to the secretary of the Governor of Virginia. His comprehensive notes watercolours and collected specimens of the flora and fauna were the basis for his great book of engravings.
Making his watercolour studies directly in the field he later said that

‘In designing the Plants, I always did them while fresh and just gather’d: And the Animals, particularly the Birds, I painted them while alive… and gave them their Gestures peculiar to every kind of Bird…’.
He had a particular problem with fish
” which do not retain their colours when out of their element, I painted at different times, having a succession of them procur’d while the former lost their colours.”
but the resulting painting of the Great Hogfish was probably worth the sacrifice.

One very poignant drawing of his is that of the passenger pigeon, once so numerous that huge flocks containing millions of birds flocks flew over the prairies of North America, but with human settlement this once numerous bird suddenly declined and sadly the last lonely passenger pigeon name Martha died in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914..

Maria Sibylla Meriam’s work is superb..the detail incredible and the design very idiosyncratic. I will return to her in another post but the exuberant spectacled caiman tangling with the coral snake has to be one of the most arresting images in the exhibition.. wonderful.

Also, there is work by Alexander Marshall from his wonderful 30 year project, his floreligium, which again, I will get round to exploring in more depth.. but with my great affection for all long dogs this had to be my favourite drawing of his.

All the images can be seen on the excellent website for this exhibition here