Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was the first natural history of American flora and fauna. First issued between 1731 and 1743, this work would eventually include 220 prints, which for the first time systematically illustrated American birds, animals and plants. In 1712 Mark Catesby made his first trip to America to visit his sister who lived in Virginia, returning to England in 1719. On this trip Catesby became intrigued with the strangeness and variety of American plants, birds and animals, and decided to return again to the New World for another extended trip. For this second visit he acquired a number of sponsors for whom he was to collect and sketch botanical samples. Among his sponsors were William Sherard and Sir Hans Sloane, the founder of the British Museum. Catesby returned to America in 1722, moving on to Bermuda in 1725 as the guest of Governor Phenny. On this trip he did collect the botanical samples for his sponsors, but he also took to sketching the birds, plants and animals that he saw on his wanderings throughout rural southeastern America.
Upon his return to England his friends and sponsors encouraged him to publish a book of his drawings and notes, which he did beginning in 1731. Catesby’s Natural History was almost completely a one man show. Not only did he do his own field research and sketches, in his self-taught style, but since he could not afford a professional engraver, Catesby took etching lessons from Joseph Coupy and did his own etching of all the plates but two. His intense personal involvement in the work did not stop there, for he even supervised the coloring for the first edition prints, though for the second edition his good friend George Edwards, an important natural scientist in his own right, did the coloring. Besides being the first to produce an American natural history, Catesby was first in a number of other items. He was the first to place his birds and animals in their natural habitats, a style of natural history representation that was later used by such artists as Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. He was the first to abandon the Indian names for his subjects, trying to establish scientific names based on generic relationships. It is interesting to note that the great Linnaeus, working on his Systema Naturae at this time, used Catesby’s work as the basis of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species. For all these and many other reasons, these are magnificent prints both for their beauty and significance. As Elsa G. Allen has said, the quality of the work was so superior to foregoing accounts that Mark Catesby ranks as the first real naturalist in America. (American Ornithology Before Audubon, p.465)