2 volumes in 3, folio (20 1/2 x 13 3/4 in.; 520 x 348). 220 fine handcolored etched plates after and by Catesby and mostly signed with his cipher apart from 3 plates in vol. 2 by G. D. Ehret (2 signed), plate 11 in supplement (dung beetle) heightened with gold, full-sheet handcolored engraved map, adapted by Catesby from Henry Popple, in vol. 2, title-pages printed in red and black in English and French, text in parallel columns of English and French, with the scarce list of "encouragers" (subscribers), dedication leaf in each vol., "An Account of Carolina, and the Bahama Islands" bound following plates and descriptive text of vol. 2, three-leaf index bound at end of vol. 2, single-leaf index bound in vol. 3 with supplemental text and plates (as well as duplicates of "An Account," the map, and the three-leaf index), elaborate etched headpiece by Catesby to "An Account," numerous historiated and decorative woodcut initials, first 20 text pages of vol. 2 with page numerals altered to 1-20 from 120-140 (as in the Martin and other copies), text and plates on various undated stocks of Dutch paper; some scattered foxing throughout vol. 1, very occasional foxing only in vols. 2 and 3, occasional trace of dampstaining at fore-edges of vol. 1, repaired marginal tears, all outside of platemark, to six plates (1.3, 1.14, 1.22, 1.23, 2.40, 2.79), repaired marginal tears to text leaves F1-2, signature Rr and accompanying plates bound after Ss. Vols. 1 and 2 in fine contemporary diced russet russia, covers with wide gilt-tooled frames, spines gilt in eight compartments with olive morocco lettering-pieces, all board edges gilt-tooled, plain endpapers and edges; extremities rubbed. Vol. 3 (supplement) in contemporary calf, covers with gilt-ruled frames; rebacked to style, preserving lettering-pieces en suite with first two vols., other repairs to extremities, rubbed.
First edition. An exceptional copy¿with the rare broadside prospectus¿of "the most famous colorplate book of American plant and animal life. ... It is a delightful and amusing book [and] a fundamental and original work for the study of American species" (Hunt). Trained as a botanist, Catesby travelled to Virginia in 1712. He lodged in Williamsburg with his sister and brother-in-law, who had emigrated to the New World in 1712, and began to fulfill his "passionate desire of viewing as well the Animals as Vegetable Productions in their Native Countries; which were Strangers to England" (preface). He remained in British America for seven years, sending back to England collections of plants and seeds, as well as beginning to make natural history drawings.
With the encouragement of Sir Hans Sloane, William Sherard, and others to whom he had supplied botanical specimens¿and who had seen his first drawings (now in the Royal Collection, Windsor Castle)¿Catesby returned to America in 1722, to continue work on his Natural History, and the next four years he travelled extensively in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas. 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.
Catesby also makes clear that he considered his illustrations, rather than his equally significant field observations, to be his most important achievement: "The Illuminating [of] Natural History is so particularly Essential to the perfect understanding of it, that I may aver a clearer Idea may be conceiv'd from the Figures of Animals and Plants in their proper Colours, than from the most exact Description without them: Wherefore I have been less prolix in the Discription, judging it unnecessary to tire the Reader with describing every Feather, yet I hope sufficient to distinguish them without Confussion" (preface).
Catesby's Natural History was an immediate sensation; in a contemporary review in Philosophical Transactions, Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society, called it "the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered." Unusually for a work of this size and expense, two further eighteenth-century editions were called for, and Catesby's illustrations were pirated and copied across Europe.
"Mark Catesby made a valuable and important contribution to ornithological illustration. He was confident enough to break new ground¿to portray his birds more naturally than before, with foliage backgrounds, and to adopt the folio format. He depicted the natural history of one area in its entirety, and often drew from living models. He was the first in a long line of ornithologists to teach himself to translate his drawings into a medium that produced multiple copies. As his was the earliest published natural history of a part of the New World, he has been called 'the father of American ornithology'" (Jackson).