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Shepard Krech III

Abstract

Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands was one of the most expensive publications of the eighteenth century: lauded by many, and celebrated for its 220 hand-coloured etchings, it brought instant renown to its author. The 150-plus copies found homes in the libraries and cabinets of subscribers, and the original watercolours were eventually acquired by George III (today in the Royal Library at Windsor). The etchings illustrate flora and fauna in a broad sense, but Catesby’s birds – which occupy fully one-half of the illustrations – have always held centre stage, and Catesby has been called the “founder of American ornithology”. Here we concentrate on the birds and seek to understand why Catesby focused on certain species and not others; why he “collected” certain birds for “illumination”, which he regarded as the prerequisite to “perfect understanding”; why he pictured certain birds with certain plants; what sense he made of birds in a text whose structure can be traced in part to John Ray’s Ornithology of Francis Willughby, and whose content reflects the Baconian principle of “ocular testimony”; and how text and image together reflect considerations variously linked to geography, habitat, diet, ecology, the commodification of flora, and patrons or subscribers – all of which influenced what he thought about and selected in order to illustrate and discuss natural history.