CATESBY, Mark (1683 – 1749) Vol.II, Tab. 22, The Old Wife

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Painted and etched by Mark Catesby (1638 - 1749)
Etching with hand color, paper dimensions: approximately 14 x 19 inches
From Volume II, Part 7 of Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands
London: 1736 - 1771

Currently known as the queen trigger fish or turbot, Batistes vetula* Catesby described this subject as follows: 


The Old Wife.

The usual Size of this Fish is nearly that of the Figure, tho' some are twice as big, but I don't remember any exceeding that. It is broad and somewhat flat, tapering away gradually, both towards the Head and Tail; The Mouth is very small, armed with about twelve Teeth; The Lips of a brown colour; bordered with blue; from a little above the Nose runs a curved broad Lift of Blue towards the Throat, parallel to it from the Corner of the Mouth extends another narrower blue Line; About one third Part from the Nose towards the Back, are placed the Eyes, of a deep yellow Colour, from which are displayed irregularly nine or ten blue Rays; It had six Fins, two seemed as if they were designed for Defence only; one of which was placed on the middle of the Back, and another of the same Size opposite to it under the Belly, that on the Back had three very strong sharp Bones, the foremost largest, the Fin under the Belly had one only of these large pointed Bones; Between the upper armed Fin and the Tail was placed a large pliant Fin, widening from the Tail gradually towards the forepart and running into a tapering Whip or Flagellum; Opposite to this and under the Anus was another such like broad Fin, but without the Flagellum as that above, or possibly it might have been broken off The Tail very wide and forked, shooting into very long Points: Below the Gills on each Side were placed a broad pliant light-coloured Fin, a little curved or turning up; From the Ridge of the Back extends obliquely towards the Belly six obscure dusky Lines; The Body of the Fish is brown, except that the Belly and Throat are lightest, with a Mixture of reddish Yelow; The two hindmost Fins were of a solid dark Blue, but verged with bright Blue. They are tolerable good Fish when their rough Skin is stripped off. All the Fish of this Form I have observed to be slow Swimmers, and that they are a Prey to the larger and voracious Kinds, and tho' Nature seems not to have left them altogether defenceless, their Enemies generally evade the Danger of their Weapons by biting the hind part of the Body short off, but as the Nature of all rapacious Animals is to pursue and devour with furious Eagerness, I conjecture that sometimes by advancing a little too far they are caught by these sharp Bones, one entering the upper, and the other the lower Jaw which keeps the Mouth from closing, the Consequence of which is that the Devourer will soon be drowned except he can instantly extricate himself from his Prey: An Instance of which I shall relate in the Account of the Water Viper.

Mark Catesby (1683 – 1749)

Facts regarding Catesby’s early years are scant. It is known that he was born in the ancient market town of Sudbury, England to a father who was a legal practitioner and mayor of Sudbury and to a mother from an old Essex family.  It seems that he received an understanding of Latin and French and was familiar with the eminent naturalist Reverend John Ray. Following his father’s death, he was endowed with the means to pursue his interest in the natural history of North America.

Catesby arrived in Virginia in 1712 as the guest of his sister and her husband, Dr. William Cocke, an aid the Governor of the colony.  Soon he was acquainted with the well-connected William Byrd, a Fellow of the Royal Society whose diary contains passages discussing Catesby’s strong curiosity with all things relating to North America. 

This included plants native to the fields and woods of Virginia through which Catesby traveled, collecting examples of botanical specimens unfamiliar in England, which he illustrated and sent back to his uncle, Nicholas Jekyll and the apothecary and botanist, Samuel Dale.

Catesby’s first trip to the New World was extensive and included a visit to Jamaica. Although he felt that his approach to a larger understanding of its natural history was lacking in structure, his experience would inform his future expeditions. 

Following his return to London in 1719 Catesby resolved to return to the colonies and gather additional information for his illustrated Natural History... He gained the financial support of members of the local scientific community, many of who were members of the Royal Society keen to send a naturalist to Carolina who could provide an accurate account of its resources.  Among those who belonged to the Royal Society was William Sherard, who after examining Catesby’s drawings, was key in advancing the project. With further backing by Sir Hans Sloane, court physician and naturalist whose collection would form the basis for The British Museum, Catesby sailed to Carolina in 1722.

Catesby’s four years of travels following his second arrival in North America brought him throughout South Carolina, parts of Georgia, and the Bahamas. He was 

intent on visiting the same location at different times throughout the year in order to observe his subjects as they developed. In addition to gathering botanical specimens of potential horticultural importance, he also acquired birds and other creatures.  

Catesby’s patrons in London were eager to receive examples of the varieties of plants and animals he encountered but collecting, packaging, and sending them back to England served as a distraction to his intended Natural History...  Nevertheless, he continued to observe, paint, and write descriptions of the previously un-investigated wildlife he encountered on the shores and in the swamps, woods, and fields of the middle American colonies.

Catesby returned to England from his final voyage to America in 1726 and spent the next seventeen years preparing his Natural History... He envisioned his work containing colored plates reproducing his studies from nature in a substantial, folio-sized format, an achievement nearly unprecedented in earlier natural history publications. Catesby arranged for financing in the form of an interest-free loan from the Quaker Peter Collinson, a fellow of the Royal Society. Nevertheless, the cost of paying professionals to prepare his delineations on copper plates for printing was too great. To this end, with the assistance of Joseph Goupy (1689–1769), a French artist living in London, he taught himself to etch.  In addition to producing nearly all of the plates for his publication, Catesby closely supervised the coloring of the engravings, either painting the impressions himself or closely overseeing the work to insure its fidelity to his preparatory work. To further finance the project Catesby sold subscriptions, offering his book in sections of 20 plates to be published every four months.

The first volume of Natural History of Carolina, Florida & the Bahama Islands, containing one hundred plates, was completed in 1731 and no doubt facilitated his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in February, 1733. The second volume, also containing one hundred plates, was finished in 1743 and was supplemented with twenty plates based on information sent to Catesby by John Bartram and others in in America appeared in 1746–1747. Of the approximately 180 - 200 copies of the first edition produced, roughly 80 copies remain complete and accounted for and there are an unknown number in private collections. A second edition was issued by George Edwards in 1754 and a third edition, published by Benjamin White, in 1771 who continued to print examples of the plates until at least 1816. As early as 1749 editions were produced for the European market with translations of the text in German, Latin, and Dutch. In these the plates for the first volume and appendix were re-etched by Johann Michael Seligmann and the plates for the second volume re-etched by Nicolaus Friedrich Eisenberger and Georg Lichtensteger.  

Catesby’s tenacity resulted in a sweeping and compelling study of American plants, animals, and marine life native to little documented lands in which he strove to assign scientific nomenclature to his subjects. Indeed, Linnaeus, in his 1758 Systema Naturae, made use of much information brought to light by Catesby using it as the foundation of his system of binomial nomenclature for American species.

Throughout the production of his Natural History…Catesby lived in London with his Elizabeth Rowland with whom he had four children and married in 1747, before his death in 1749.

 *From James L. Reveal’s Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands in the appendix of The Curious Mr. Catesby, University of Georgia Press.