Mark Catesby and the Royal Society

Henrietta McBurney Ryan, University of Cambridge

During the early years of the 18th century, the Royal Society provided a focus for intellectual exchange between scientists, artists and antiquarians. The naturalist-artist, Mark Catesby (1682-1749), described by a contemporary as ‘pretty well skilled in natural history who designs and paints to perfection’, was elected a member in 1733, following publication of volume I of his Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1732-1747). Catesby took an active part in the Society’s activities, attending meetings, acting as official draughtsman, sitting on the Repository committee, presenting papers, reviewing publications, and backing other natural scientists for membership.

Evidence of Catesby’s activities are preserved in the Society’s library and archives. In addition to a copy of the Natural History coloured by himself, they include entries in the Journal, Record, Register and Account books, and an important corpus of his letters to the botanist William Sherard, written from South Carolina between 1722-5. The paper will highlight some of these documents as well as flag up several missing items to show the role the Royal Society played as the backdrop to Catesby’s work.

Mark Catesby, Polecat (striped skunk Mephitis mephitis), watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum arabic, c. 1722-5. © Royal Collection Trust (RL 26013)