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Upon publication of Volume I of the Natural History Catesby was elected to the Royal Society. It's immediate reception was overwhelmingly positive as reviews in the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions can attest. In one such review Cromwell Mortimer, the Society's secretary, called Natural History "the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered."1While Catesby's nomenclature would soon be rendered obsolete by Linneaus's simpler binomial system, the work as a whole remained relevant long after Catesby's death in 1749. In 1754 George Edwards revised and reissued both volumes and in 1771 the publisher Benjamin White reissued Edward's edition, adding Linnaean names to all Catesby's plants and animals. Linnaeus himself, never having traveled to America, relied on the Natural History as the source of thirty-eight out of his hundred names of North American birds. Nearly fifty years after the publication of the Natural History Thomas Jefferson included a table on common North American birds in his Notes on the State of Virginia. based on the work Catesby, Linnaeus and Buffon. In 1785 when Jefferson published Notes on the State of Virginia Catesby's Natural History remained the only "complete, reliable, illustrated natural history of America." 2 When Lewis and Clark pored over the Natural History before heading out West, it may have been at Jefferson's urging. 3

After the American Revolution, interest in Catesby's work, as with most things American, waned in England. And as the scientific community became increasingly specialized, made up of discrete groups of botanists, ornithologists, ichthyologists and systematists, Catesby's generalist approach fell into disfavor. By the time John James Audobon set off to paint in South Carolina nearly a century later, Catesby had been almost forgotten. Yet there has been a recent resurgence of interest in Catesby's work. In 1997 an exhibition of the watercolors he painted in America toured the States and finished at the Queen's Gallery in London. His generalist's vision discerned how the various components of nature fit together. He saw the impact of man on his environment and the adaptation of plants and animals to these changes. Catesby's ecological approach, which seemed obsolete shortly after his death, again seems relevant.

prefatory essay


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