Exhibition | Mark Catesby: Watercolours from the Royal Collection

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on July 28, 2013

From the Royal Collection:

Mark Catesby: Watercolours from the Royal Collection
Gainsborough’s House, Sudbury, Suffolk, 6 July — 12 October 2013


Mark Catesby, The Bald Eagle, watercolour and bodycolour heightened with gum arabic over pen and ink, ca.1722-26
(Royal Collection 924814)

Watercolours of birds, fish and exotic flora painted by British naturalist Mark Catesby (1682–1749) go on display at Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury, Suffolk, from 6 July. The 27 works lent by Her Majesty The Queen from the Royal Collection were acquired by George III in 1768, when the King purchased Catesby’s original illustrations for Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands.

Catesby, who was raised and educated in Sudbury, showed a passion for natural history from a young age.  After his father died, leaving him a sufficient income, Catesby made extended trips to the east coast of North America from 1712, travelling to Virginia, Carolina, Florida and also to the West Indies.

At the time, there was a burgeoning garden culture in Britain, fuelled by the introduction of plant species from the Near East. This ignited Catesby’s desire to produce a comprehensive study of the flora and fauna native to the eastern seaboard of North America. He collected seeds, animals and botanical specimens during his travels and made detailed drawings along the way. Catesby returned to England in 1726 and began work preparing the plates and text for his Natural History of Florida, Carolina and the Bahama Islands, the first major publication on the subject. The Natural History was issued in parts between 1729 and 1747.

In 1768, George III purchased Catesby’s original watercolours for the Natural History and had them bound into a three-volume set of the publication (rather than the usual two), in the place of the printed illustrations. In more recent times, the watercolours were removed from the volumes for conservation reasons and individually mounted.

Among the studies on display at Gainsborough’s House is The Bald Eagle, which Catesby placed at the beginning of the first volume of Natural History. It was rare for the artist to introduce drama into his compositions, but in this work the eagle is shown swooping to catch a fish which has been dropped by an osprey above.

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