Why is this son of Sudbury, Mark Catesby celebrated in Essex, but not in Suffolk?

MARK CATESBY FRS 1682 – 1749

Mark Catesby lived in Sudbury and was a man of many parts – naturalist, a self taught artist, scientist, explorer, craftsman and above all publisher of the first natural history of America or rather of the colonies then on the map in the early 18th century. He brought back from the New World images of creatures, plants and trees never before seen in Europe and published his work by almost super human effort spread over 20 years.

He played a significant role in the great age of discovery in the first half the 18th century mixing with men who names are now history; the Royal Society with Sir Isaac Newton as president encouraged his second expedition. Among his sponsors was Sir Hans Sloane, the royal physician who succeeded Newton as president and whose collection was to form the basis of the British Museum. Catesby himself was also elected a fellow of the Society.

So how did Mark Catesby of Sudbury achieve so much? We know very little of his early life. He was born in 1692 as the youngest son of Mayor John Catesby. He wrote Latin so might have been a pupil at Sudbury Grammar School but the records have been lost.

His mother was a member of the Jekyll family of Castle Hedingham and his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll, kept a botanic garden. Uncle Nicholas exchanged ideas and information with like-minded contemporaries including John Ray who lived near Braintree and has been called ‘the father of the natural history’.

It is not too fanciful to think that this family link might well have engendered Mark’s passionate interest in the natural world.

Another Jekyll was Gertrude Jekyll, the Victorian garden designer and plants woman. She and Mark were born 250 years apart but are both descended from Thomas Jekyll a 16th century lawyer who lived at Bocking, near Braintree. It is a long way for genes to jump but they were both certainly passionate about plants.

But what led to our small town Sudbury boy producing the first natural history of America an achievement that won him Royal patronage and an honoured place among the scientific movers and shakers of the 18th century?

And why was he virtually forgotten, most of all in Sudbury, and how is it that 16 of his paintings are now in an exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace at a time when a television documentary about our man’s exploits was launched in 2008 in the USA?

Mark Catesby’s great adventure began in 1712 when he sailed for Virginia, an expedition he financed by selling property in Sudbury inherited from his father Mayor John Catesby. Mark travelled with his sister Elizabeth and her children. She was going to Virginia to join her husband Dr William Cocke. He had gone to the thriving colony two years earlier to as personal physician to the new resident Governor.

The doors of a governor’s residence in Williamsburg were open and welcoming for Mark Catesby when he arrived. He was 30 and had spent some years pursuing his interest in botany by working in London in horticulture that was thriving on the passion for the new exotics from overseas. For Mark, the opportunity to explore what the New World could offer in flora and fauna was perfectly timed.

The USA documentary launched for their television audiences follows his two expeditions to the Colonies over a period of 11 years. After returning from the second trip he was urged to publish, he taught himself to etch to cut the costs, and even hand coloured his first two-volume set. They were said to be the most expensive books published in the 18th century.

Producing his great work in parts was to take 20 years, most of the rest of his life. He completed the appendix to the two volumes only two years before his death at the age of 57.

His wife kept his original water-colours and after her death they were sold to George III forming part of the Royal Collection. The volumes are dedicated to his wife, Queen Caroline, and one of their daughters. These remain in the Royal collection today and can be viewed at: – www.royalcollection.org.uk/microsites/amazingrarethings/maker.asp?exhibs=ARTcatesby

Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Georgia and The Bahamas went into some of the great libraries including those of his leading sponsors the Duke of Chandos and the Earl of Oxford and later editions were published both in England and in Germany. It was acknowledge as pioneering work in the field of scientific illustration for much of the century.

So how after such achievement did Mark Catesby come to be virtually forgotten for 200 years including in the town where he spent his youth. In short, his work was eclipsed by later publications particularly by John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Catesby’s scientific achievements were largely obscured later by Linnaeus’s Latin classification of living things in which others were given credit for naming species that Catesby had been the first to describe.

Sudbury and Suffolk have both failed to give him the recognition he deserves. There are difficulties as so far it has not proved possible to identify any existing building as a Catesby home, foiling the idea of a blue plaque. Catesby’s mother didn’t help. For some reason she gave birth to him not in Sudbury but at her parents’ house in Castle Hedingham and that is where you will find his blue plaque put there by Essex County Council.

Any hope of recognition in his hometown has so far been eclipsed by the success of a certain Thomas Gainsborough who was born here. Although it could be argued that it is possible to celebrate a second notable son.

Catesby’s paintings and volumes remained in the Royal Library for more than 200 years before it was noted that they were badly in need of conservation. A Japanese benefactor funded that and in the 1990s an exhibition of his water-colours toured America and Japan. It aroused huge interest and the Catesby story has been gathering momentum ever since.

The Catesby Commemorative Trust has done much to raise his profile in America. Books about the man and his work now include Catesby’s Birds of Colonial America, and Empire’s Nature – Mark Catesby’s New World Vision, and a chapter in ‘Amazing Rare Things’, which accompanied last year’s exhibition of that name at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace.

So far in Sudbury, the Sudbury Society has achieved the naming of Catesby Meadow which is just off Quay Lane, for which we have to thank the enthusiasm of John Knight, the chairman of Knight Developments, and the help of Sudbury Town and Babergh Councils.

The trustees of Sudbury’s Museum and Heritage Centre would like to redress that in some way by having reproductions of his work permanently on public display so that that they can be enjoyed here. In the meantime enjoy a small selection in our slide show.

If you know any more about where Mark Catesby lived & worked his early life before going to America, we would like to hear from you.

You can contact the society by email at info@sudburyhistorysociety.co.uk .

This article has been adapted from a presentation given in August 2008 by Valerie Herbert, who is a trustee of Sudbury’s Museum and Heritage Centre.

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