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Catesby

At the very least, I should name my next bird dog Catesby. Mark Catesby was the English naturalist who came first to Virginia and then—after a trip back to England to recharge—made Charleston his home from 1718 to 1721. His watercolor studies of the flora and fauna of this New World and honest descriptions thereof became the first comprehensive record of our American—make that Southern—natural history. Before I wrote that first business check for camera equipment I would never use, I purchased two plates from this important work for, I believe, eighty-five dollars. One of these prints was the Turtle of Carolina, which came to serve as the company logo; an ironmonger’s version is hammered into the railing on the second floor of our Charleston gallery.

Peggy Gignilliat had been my orchestra teacher in high school and her cotton broker husband Charles retired close to the time I finished my third year (and most of the course work for the fourth) at Presbyterian College. After that, I almost never made class and almost never missed the chance to run with Charles. We did flea markets and museums, and I learned as we sported about and he told tales. Mr. and Mrs. Gignilliat took a flat in London each August and he worried everyone there in his pursuit of plates from Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. There were three English editions plus variants, but Charles didn’t discriminate. Upon his return late in August of 1971, I purchased two of the plates he had just acquired, having found them to be duplicates of versions he already owned.

It was in May of the following year that I began to deal in earnest, or try to, after my return from basic training at Fort Knox and then advanced training as a medic at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. I had spent the fall of 1971 teaching junior high school English on Spartanburg’s underprivileged north side and playing bass behind Ted Wright and Reid Sullivan at a dive called “The Wicked Witch.” During my time at PC, I also played with Robin Williams, known to many today, along with his wife Linda, as members of Garrison Keillor’s Hopeful Gospel Quartet. Robin was a fine friend, and we have kept in loose touch.

Some two years into my new endeavor, Charles returned from his 1974 trip to share his discovery of a complete set of Catesbys available from Quaritch, the renowned British dealers in rare books. It was a third edition—and a late one at that—printed on wove paper, but it could be mine, Charles announced, for a mere $8,000. Not that I had that much money, but Charles had “spoken” with his man there: if I wished to pursue it, then the books were available with the commitment to pay over a matter of months. Well, I have never been spooked by easy credit. The books arrived at my door, I split them, and headed for the Richmond, Virginia Academy of Medicine Antiques Show. Thirty-nine of the 220 plates sold. As I remember, this revenue paid my debt to Quaritch and left me with money—and inventory—to spare. Somewhere along the way, I found another set, which I used to fill orders for the more popular plates, long sold from that first collection. Better still, the second two books were second editions. With a price tag of $13,000, I was really stepping out, and I quickly learned that the second edition plates brought more from my clients. I made seven trips to Richmond in that year alone, all for the sake of Mr. Catesby and the miscellaneous maps and occasional painting I might take along.

I was accepted at Presbyterian College (after having been turned down by both Clemson and Wofford)—and then only provisionally. I had to pass both freshman English and math during the summer between high school graduation and the start of term in the fall if I wanted to be part of the entering class. I only finished college early because once I got started in summer school, I saw no reason to put the brakes on until all of the course work was in place for my degree. Obviously, I had not considered the possibility of Vietnam until Forrest Gump’s government instituted the lottery. My number was up, you might say, so I chose the Army National Guard, hence my tour of duty lasting only some six months.

That first summer at Presbyterian College I actually spent a little time in the library on campus and was literally stopped in my tracks by the glass case displaying the institution’s two-volume set of Catesby’s great work. This was a first edition—my virgin encounter with the books at age seventeen—and though I had no notion of ever owning such a thing, the beauty of those books stayed with me, like a fish bone in my throat. Charles and Peggy Gignilliat also owned first edition plates. When—not long after that initial exposure—I was given the opportunity to own some as well, something clicked, telling me I could share my enthusiasm for these wonderful objects and maybe make a living doing it. The life-altering view of my father’s mill in Columbus, Georgia came just a little later.

My 1974 purchase of Mr. Catesby’s History has been followed by twenty more sets—a grand total now of twenty-one. An especially fine third edition, pure and in its original calf, rests on a table in our library today. It succeeds that first-encountered set Jane and I purchased from Presbyterian College in the summer of 2007, as close to a dream come true as I might get. I went on to deal in rare books and am grateful for the experience, though I only came to truly understand the big plate books. I bought John James Audubon’s Birds of America from the Groton School in 1983 and then another of the same set from the Charleston Library Society in 1986. Those birds changed my life, for it was with them that I made my first real money. That money then gave me the capital to buy and sell paintings like I knew what I was doing. As with the Catesbys, the custom was to split the books and sell them for the plates. Charles Gignilliat said that in so doing there would be many who would enjoy, whereas so few could afford to own the volumes complete. Perhaps I could say now that my taking razor to spine fueled my journey, but I will not break another binding. I am fortunate to be able to cast a glance at those magnificent volumes, books safe from the likes of me when I was a young man, as I settle in for an evening of comfort at home today.

Mark Catesby (1679-1749)
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands ()
Owner: Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Hicklin, Jr., Charleston, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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