Mr Catesby and me ... how letter began 10-year crusade for Val
When Val Herbert was asked to help research the life of naturalist Mark Catesby, her first reaction was “who?”
The request came from America, where Catesby is feted as a star of 18th century art and science.
But history-enthusiast Val, like almost everyone else in his home town of Sudbury, had never heard of him.
Mark Catesby was the man who, more than 250 years ago, opened European eyes to the wonders of the flora and fauna of the New World.
After two long expeditions, he wrote, illustrated and published the first natural history of North America.
The massive, spectacularly beautiful work took 20 years to produce. He etched and hand-coloured every one of the 220 illustrations himself from his original watercolours.
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands was the most expensive book of its day. Only 160 copies were made and those surviving now change hands for more than £200,000.
Catesby became a fellow of the Royal Society, and King George III was so impressed by his artwork that he bought all the original pictures. They are still in the royal collection at Windsor.
But in 21st century Sudbury, if the name meant anything at all, it had a much more explosive connection.
Mark Catesby’s distant relative, Robert, was a prime mover in the Gunpowder Plot.
Now, 10 years after ex-journalist Val realised there was a story begging to be told, the home-grown Catesby’s reputation has been restored.
She has staged a decade-long crusade to reinstate his rightful place in Sudbury’s history.
And although Thomas Gainsborough will always beat him to the title of the town’s most famous son, his name is no longer greeted with puzzled frowns.
The Catesby Meadow housing development was named in his honour. His paintings were exhibited at Gainsborough’s House, and he will also feature in the Sudbury Heritage Centre.
Next week, Gainsborough’s House will host the prestigious launch of a biography, The Curious Mister Catesby, produced by an American society dedicated to promoting him and his work.
“I feel I have brought him out of the shadows,” said Val, who is now a historian and writer.
She was editor of the Sudbury Society’s newsletter when the organisation was contacted by American art historian Alex Seltzer, who was seeking information about Catesby’s Sudbury roots.
The letter landed on her desk. “I had no idea who Mark Catesby was, and found that no-one else did either,” she recalls.
“The nearest I got was another local historian who said ‘wasn’t he the chap who went to America and did some painting?’
“To me, it was a challenge. I really wanted to find out who he was.
“He caught my imagination because, once I started to research him, I realised he had achieved so much.
“His contribution to the knowledge of wildlife has been long celebrated in the United States, where the Catesby Commemorative Trust promotes him and his work through exhibitions, lectures, a documentary film, and now this biography.
“In the book, his life, influences and legacy are scrutinised in more than 20 essays by selected international scholars.”
The man who would revolutionise European knowledge of North American natural history spent his boyhood in Sudbury, although he was born, in 1683, at his grandmother’s house in Castle Hedingham.
His father was mayor of Sudbury six times, and the family home was Holgate Farm, which was in Melford Road.
Catesby is known to have sold property in North Street to pay for his first journey to the New World.
He sailed for Virginia in 1712 with his sister Elizabeth, who was travelling to join her husband.
The trip lasted seven years. A second, plant-collecting expedition was sponsored by the Royal Society.
He returned to England in 1726 and spent the next 20 years completing his master work.
“I discovered his remarkable story and, for me, it became something of a mission to bring him out of the shadows in Sudbury,” says Val.
She gave a talk about him at the Quay Theatre, showed Sudbury History Society a documentary about his travels, and also lobbied successfully for the estate built on Sudbury’s former football ground to be given his name.
It was not all plain sailing. Her first call for an exhibition at Gainsborough’s House was rejected by the then curator because he was ‘a scientist not an artist’.
But the museum’s governors later took up Catesby’s cause and a highly successful exhibition was held in 2013.