Monday, November 12, 2012
300 Years of Mark Catesby
My recent trip to Washington DC was triggered by an interesting day of free lectures. Mark Catesby was a scientist and an artist who published one of the first books about plants and animals of North America, Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, starting in 1729. As it turns out, he was heavily influenced by another favorite illustrator of mine, Maria Sybilla Merian--no wonder I like his work so much.
I met up with my wonderful friend Ikumi Kayama for the day of lectures at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The topics included techniques for drawing, printing, bookbinding, and self-publishing in the 18th century, as well as the science behind the plants and animals depicted in Catesby's amazing two-volume work.
It was eye-opening to learn that after 4 years of gathering research, the book itself took 20 years for Catesby to produce. He didn't have funds to hire a professional engraver, so he engraved all the plates and hand-painted them each afterwards.
We were entertained by some of the strange myths that other science books of the time were publishing about wildlife in North America: the idea that turtles can hunt by slamming shut their carapaces on neck of a snake to chop its head off; or the idea that rattlesnakes can hypnotize a squirrel and make it run down a tree right into the snake's mouth, for example.
We were thrilled to look at an actual copy of one of the original books after the lectures wrapped up. A very exciting day for me, all told!