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Treasures of the Rare Books Room: Mark Catesby

By Sarah Finn on Nov 19, 2021 12:00 AM

English naturalist, explorer, and artist Mark Catesby was born in Essex in 1683. Catesby first came to North America in 1712 to visit his sister who had settled in Virginia, and was enthralled with the plants and animals he saw there. Catesby stayed in North America until 1719 and collected botanical specimens to send back to Britain. In 1722, he returned to Virginia with funding from the Royal Society of London to document the flora and fauna of the region. Catesby traveled extensively along the east coast of North America doing fieldwork and making observations about plants and animals.

Upon returning to England, Catesby set to work on publishing his seminal work The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Catesby taught himself to make the engravings for the book, based on his original drawings from out in the field. He created 263 original watercolors as preparatory studies which he later turned into 220 engraved plates, which were then colored by hand, often by Catesby himself. The first volume was completed in 1732 and the second volume was completed in 1743. It was highly successful and three editions were printed, the last being the one printed in 1771, which is the edition Milwaukee Public Library holds in the Rare Books Room. After the success of Catesby’s book, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society where he contributed to the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

The illustrations Mark Catesby produced were based on his direct observations but they also have a very whimsical quality because of his inventive compositions. The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands remained one of the most comprehensive guides to North American natural history for over 100 years after it was first published.

Access to materials in the Rare Books Room is currently unavailable, but we hope to be available by appointment soon. Please check our website for updates. There is a completely digitized version of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands available to browse online through the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

There are several books in Milwaukee Public Library’s circulating collection related to Mark Catesby that include beautiful reproductions of the art in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. Here are some recommendations:

The Curious Mister Catesby: A "Truly Ingenious" Naturalist Explores New Worlds published by the University of Georgia Press in 2015.


The Great Naturalists published by Thames & Hudson in 2007.





Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery by David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton, and Rea Alexandratos, published by the Yale University Press in 2007.

View more Treasures of the Rare Books Room blog posts.

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