CATESBY, Mark (1683-1749); after Georg Dionysius EHRET (1708-1770)
[Magnolia altissima, fore ingenti candido ... The Laurel-Tree of Carolina ... Laurier de Caroline]
London: printed for Benjamin White, 1771. Hand coloured engraving after Ehret, on a large sheet of laid paper (watermarked J. Whatman). Image size: 19 x 13 1/2 inches. Sheet size: 28 1/2 x 20 inches.
The most famous image from Catesby's The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands.
Georg Ehret was the dominant influence in botanical art during the middle years of the 18th century, his greatest merit is that he succeeded as few other botanical artists have succeeded; in being at once both botanist and artist. (Great Flower Books, p. 331). Rightly his work is highly prized today both for its botanical accuracy and aesthetic appeal.
His career as a botanical artist began while working as a gardener for the Margrave of Baden Durlach at Karlsruhe, Ehret assisted the botanical watercolourist August Wilhelm Sievert in preparing his paints. This inspired Ehret to execute his own plant portraits which he presented to his employer. Ehret decided to pursue his talent for botanical painting and in 1733 he arrived in Nuremberg where he met Dr. Christoph Jakob Trew (1695-1769), who was to become his life-long friend and most influential patron.
In 1736 he settled in England remaining there for the rest of this life as a botanical artist and drawing master. His reputation was extended by the publication of various flower books based on his drawings. Dr. Trew's Plantae Selectae, and Hortus Nitidissimus are the two florilegia for which he is best remembered. However, Gerta Calmann maintains that his original drawings "were the true expression of his genius" (Calmann, Ehret Flower Painter Extraordinary, p. 99). Among his English patrons were John Fothergill, Dr. Richard Mead, Taylor White, Robert More, Ralph Willett, Lord Fairhaven, the Earl of Derby and Joseph Banks.
"With his botanical training, intuitive sense of design, and virtuoso skills as a painter -- he had been trained in Paris to paint on vellum -- Ehret was to become the most outstanding botanical artist of the eighteenth century to work in England ... Catesby, who probably met Ehret through Sloane, was clearly impressed by his work and began an association with him. During his period of working with Catesby, Ehret produced ten watercolors that were etched by Catesby for The Natural HIstory" (McBurney, p. 152). Most notable of these is the present image of the Magnolia.
Trained as a botanist, Catesby travelled to Virginia in 1712 and remained there for seven years, sending back to England collections of plants and seeds. With the encouragement of Sir Hans Sloane and others, Catesby returned to America in 1722 to seek materials for his Natural History; he travelled extensively in Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas, sending back further specimens. His preface provides a lengthy account of the development of this work, including his decision to study with Joseph Goupy in order to learn to etch his plates himself to ensure accuracy and economy. The end result is encyclopaedic: Catesby provides information not only on the botany and ornithology of the area, but also on its history, climate, geology and anthropology.
Catesby writes in the preface of his method of working: "As I was not bred a Painter, I hope some faults in Perspective, and other niceties, may be more readily excused: for I humbly conceive that Plants, and other Things done in a Flat, if an exact manner, may serve the Purpose of Natural History, better in some Measure, than in a mere bold and Painter-like Way. In designing the Plants, I always did them while fresh and just gathered: and the Animals, particularly the Birds, I painted while alive (except a very few) and gave them their Gestures peculiar to every kind of Birds, and where it could be admitted, I have adapted the Birds to those Plants on which they fed, or have any relation to. Fish, which do not retain their colours when out of their Element, I painted at different times, having a succession of them procured while the former lost their colours ... Reptiles will live for many months ... so that I had no difficulty in painting them while living" (Vol.I, p.vi).
First issued in parts between 1730 and 1747, this engraving is from the 1771 third edition, which appeared in at least two issues. The first was produced in 1771, and was printed throughout on laid paper, watermarked J. Whatman.
Gerta Calmann, Ehret: Flower Painter Extraordinary (Oxford:1977); E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott, The Curious Mister Catesby (University of Georgia Press, 2015).