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The art of natural history in the age of discovery

Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

The Bald Eagle c.1722-6

RCIN 924814

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A watercolour of a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus (Linnaeus)). It is depicted with its wings spread, swooping upon a fish in the river below. Beyond the eagle is an osprey (Pandion haliaetus (Linnaeus)). In the distance is a rocky landscape. A boat is also shown on the river. The fish has been identified as probably a grey mullet (Mugil cephalus Linnaeus). Inscribed in ink at top right: 1

Mark Catesby was born in Suffolk and was interested in natural history from an early age. In 1712, he travelled to the east coast of America with his sister Elizabeth, who had married a doctor who practised in Williamsburg, Virginia. Catesby spent seven years in Virginia collecting specimens and seeds for London buyers before returning to Britain. In London his drawings of birds and plants met with praise and a group of benefactors paid for his travel to Carolina in 1722. There, he made numerous drawings of the flora and fauna, working hard to ensure that his depictions were as helpful for an understanding of their subjects as possible. On his return to Britain, his drawings were reproduced in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, which appeared in a series of volumes between 1729 and 1747. The first volume was dedicated to Queen Caroline, the second to Augusta, Princess of Wales. The original drawings from the volumes, which had been in the possession of Catesby’s widow until her death, were purchased by George III from the London bookseller Thomas Cadell in 1768.

The bald eagle is one of the most striking plates in the Natural History and Catesby placed it at the beginning of the first volume, although he omitted the landscape from the published illustration. In the accompanying text he described how 'Tho' it is an Eagle of a small size, yet has great strength and spirit' and noted that 'This Bird is called the BALD EAGLE, both in Virginia and Carolina, though his head is as much feather'd as the other parts of his body'. It was rare for Catesby to introduce drama into his compositions, as he does here, where the eagle swoops to catch a fish dropped by an osprey above. In 1782 the bald eagle was chosen as the emblem of the United States of America.

For identification of the species depicted see James L. Reveal, ‘Identification of the plants and animals illustrated by Mark Catesby for his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands' in Phytoneuron 2013 and revised online version.