Mark Catesby (1682–1749) exhibited a keen interest in natural history growing up in Suffolk, England. An opportunity to visit his sister in Virginia in 1712 brought the young man into contact with the rich flora and fauna of the New World.
Returning to England in 1719, Catesby acquired patronage and support, and was persuaded to take on a natural history of America that had been started by John Lawson before his death in 1711. Catesby returned to South Carolina in 1722 and for the next three years made notes and drawings and assembled an enormous collection of plants and animals from the Southeast.
Returning to England in 1726, Catesby set about assembling and publishing the results of his travels, the first volume being published in 1731. When finished, Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands included 220 plates illustrating 109 birds, 33 amphibians and reptiles, 46 fishes, 31 insects, 9 quadrupeds, and 171 plants.
Catesby’s Natural History is a pioneering work in scientific illustration, and until the time of Audubon a hundred years later, was the best illustrative treatment of the flora and fauna of North America. The exhibition focuses on a selection of Catesby’s hand-colored engravings of flora and fauna that occur in Tennessee, and places his work in perspective with examples of natural history illustrations by earlier and later artists.