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Painting in a New World

Like the Huntington itself, the Catesby exhibition of 18th century watercolors merges art, natural science and literature.

May 04, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

In its day--in the mid-18th century, when America was still regarded by the English as a mysterious New World and its plants and animals as exotic curiosities--Mark Catesby's masterpiece "The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands" was hailed as a fantastic landmark.

"The most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered," Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society, declared in 1747 when he first saw the compendium of 220 etchings. Indeed, the publication was the first major study of the flora and fauna of the British colonies of North America, and its impact was enormous.

Today the illustrations appear to be a sparkling mixture of fact and artistry, occasionally laced with humor and social commentary. Next Sunday, when "Mark Catesby's Natural History of America: The Watercolours From the Royal Library, Windsor Castle" opens at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, visitors will see a group of images that take naive delight in discovery.

Among other wonders recorded by the wide-eyed observer is a watercolor depicting the only sole he ever saw. "Whether they are eatable I know not, nor could I be informed, they being very rarely caught," Catesby wrote of the fish, whose brown scales are sprinkled with bright blue rings. In another work, he judged the buffalo an "awful creature" with a nasty mop of hair that impeded its vision and movement, but portrayed it as a rather sweet beast with wispy fur and a quizzical expression.

The 52 watercolors on view--which served as preparatory drawings for etchings in Catesby's publication--portray an assortment of birds, fish, turtles, reptiles, mammals, insects and plants. There's a perfectly groomed white-bill woodpecker "in the erect posture," a greedy bald eagle snatching a fish dropped by a hawk and a chameleon-like lizard imitating a branch of a sweet gum tree. In one striking work, a red curlew seems to know it looks peculiar when it lifts its long, curved beak and looks over its shoulder.

"Catesby had a wonderful sense of humor," said Amy R.W. Meyers, the Huntington's curator of American art, who is a Catesby scholar and author of the introductory essay in the exhibition's catalog.

Catesby (1682-1749) was a British horticulturist who traveled to the colonies to send back specimens and seeds to England. The plates in his "Natural History" were made from drawings executed on expeditions to Virginia, Jamaica, Carolina and the Bahama Islands from 1712 to 1726, and after he returned to England.

Although little is known of his formal education as either a naturalist or an artist, Catesby was a gentleman who found a suitable--and useful--occupation. While pursuing his passion for plants and developing his artistic talent, he adopted the Enlightenment's notion of order and classification as the way to knowledge and served the marketplace by providing information about the colonies' natural resources.

As Meyers points out in her essay, Catesby believed illustration was the most effective vehicle for understanding the natural world. "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 Description without them," he wrote in the preface to his publication. Although he provided text for the "Natural History," he considered it secondary to the pictures.

Appreciated as art, his 263 original watercolors have been housed in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle since 1768, when George III purchased them. Among the earliest of a long line of artists who were also scientists and explorers, Catesby provided a model for artist John James Audubon, who worked a century later, and a reference for Lewis and Clark during their expedition in 1804-1806.

Despite this impressive history, Catesby's work is little known outside scholarly circles--for an obvious reason. The upcoming traveling show marks the first time the Royal Library has put the watercolors on public view. Furthermore, the illustrated catalog--written by Henrietta McBurney, deputy curator of the Royal Library's Print Room--is the first publication to reproduce the watercolors.

The show is making its debut in San Marino. Taking an expansive view of the occasion, the Huntington is supplementing the selection of 52 watercolors from the Royal Library with its own first edition of Catesby's "Natural History," books that he consulted in preparing his work and related publications, prints and drawings on loan from Colonial Williamsburg and private collections.

After the Southern California engagement, the watercolors will appear at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the DeWitt Wallace Gallery at Colonial Williamsburg, the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah and, finally, at the Queen's Gallery in London.

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