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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Mark Catesby (1682-1749)

The Bald Eagle c.1722-6

RCIN 924814

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During the eighteenth century there was a growing interest in the flora and fauna of the British colonies. The English naturalist Mark Catesby (1682–1749) made two extensive explorations of the east coast of North America between 1712-19 and 1722-26, and on his return to England published the Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1729-47), the first illustrated survey of the wildlife of North America.

The volumes consist of full page etched and coloured illustrations with accompanying textual descriptions, and include studies of plants, mammals, reptiles, insects, corals, fish and birds. Catesby dedicated the first volume to Queen Caroline, consort of George II, and the second to Princess Augusta, wife of Frederick, Prince of Wales and mother of George III. Both were keen amateur botanists. In 1768 George III acquired a set of the Natural History with Catesby’s original watercolour studies in the place of the printed plates.

The Bald Eagle is one of the most striking plates in the Natural History and Catesby placed it at the start of the first volume. The bird was then common throughout North America (it was adopted as a symbol of the United States as early as 1782, shortly after independence). 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. The majority of Catesby’s watercolours were conceived as technical drawings, serving as clear, accurate records of his observations rather than works of art in their own right. Today, the watercolours have been removed from the volume for conservation reasons (and replaced in the volumes by facsimiles), and have been individually mounted.