Browse Similar Works on Paper

Purple Creeper,
John Abbot (1751-1840)

View Artist Bio
Watercolor on paper
11 x 8 1/2 inches
Status: Available

JOHN ABBOT (1751-ca. 1840)

Birds of Georgia

In 1776 the young English naturalist John Abbot settled in Georgia. He was one in a succession of talented men possessing the skill of a draughtsman and a passion for collecting, who classified and described hitherto unknown species of wildlife found in the South in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Englishman Mark Catesby had come to Virginia as early as 1712 to record the birds of that colony. The prints made in England after his field sketches were eagerly snatched up by a rapidly growing circle of gentlemen-naturalists, and to this day these very prints are highly prized by botanical collectors. On subsequent journeys to America Catesby explored the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Bermuda, and the Bahamas, and each time the reports of his findings, whether published in book or print folio format, sold well. Philip Georg Frederich von Reck, a Dane, visited Georgia in 1736, and his colorful watercolor sketches of the plant and animal life that he found there, though never published as prints, are unique and worthy of study. William Bartram, the son of a Philadelphia botanist, left his home in 1773 to record the flora and fauna of the South. His book entitled Travels, which resulted from a four-year trek, was published in England and became immediately popular on both sides of the Atlantic.

The very year that Bartram set out from Philadelphia, bug enthusiast John Abbot left London bound for Virginia. His choice of destination was inspired by his reading of Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia (1705; second edition, 1722).1  Abbot was born in London on June 11, 1751. From his teens, Abbot was possessed by a consuming passion for the study and classification of bugs. His family's class was such that his interest could be indulged, so his early education had included private lessons from the drawing master Jacob Bonneau, and his library numbered among its volumes Catesby's Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands, and George Edward's Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743-1745). His father accompanied him when he, still a young man, paid a visit to the renowned ornithologist George Edwards.  As Abbot recounted, Edwards, on seeing the drawings, "praised them much & desired me by all means to continue drawings, saying no doubt I would be a publisher hereafter of some work on Natural history."2 About this time Abbot met Dru Drury, a collector of insects. He also was encouraging and lent Abbot several specimens from his collection to draw.

When Abbot decided to go to Virginia Drury helped to underwrite his expenses, in exchange for which he asked Abbot to send him back certain specimens for his collection. Abbot left London in July of 1773 on the Royal Exchange, captained by Thomas Woodford.  He arrived at the mouth of the James River on September 16, having accepted while en route the hospitality of fellow passengers Parke and Mary Goodall, who invited Abbot to live with them at their home in Hanover County. During his first few weeks there he collected examples of 570 different species of insects.  He also carefully studied and made notes of the geology of the region and began to raise butterflies and moths from larvae.

As the possibility of a war with England grew ever more certain.  Abbot decided to leave Virginia. His first thought was to return home, but he decided to accompany a cousin of the Goodalls who was moving to Georgia. They left in early December 1775, and wound up in St. George Parish. Sometime during the Revolution Abbot married; his only child John Abbot, Jr., was born in 1779.  By 1784 he and his young family had settled in Burke County, north of Briar Creek and west of Shell Bluff Road.

Abbot was now in a position to begin the work on which his fame would rest: his recording of the plants, birds, and insects of Georgia in careful, meticulous sketches. It may seem surprising that over the course of more than sixty years, Abbot rarely strayed far from the Savannah River valley, confining his search for specimens to Burke, Screven, Bulloch, and Chatham counties.  Over 5,000 of his sketches made in Georgia have survived.

Abbot's work attracted the notice and patronage of some of the leading naturalists of the day on both sides of the Atlantic. He became friends with the Savannah pharmacist and botanist Augustus Oemler, who offered him instruction in the principles of Linneaues's system of nomenclature, as a result of which Abbot's renderings of plants remarkably improved. As librarian of the Savannah Library Society, Oemler arranged for the Society to purchase a series of Abbot's plant and insect watercolors, and he bought similar works for his private collection. Over the years Oemler purchased at least 193 watercolors from Abbot. Another patron, the Chetham Library in Manchester, England, became interested in Abbot's watercolor drawings of birds. Over a thirty-year period they amassed a collection of more than one hundred and fifty bird subjects. Abbot sent not only watercolors but also fine specimens of preserved birds and insects to an excited American and European clientele. Dru Drury continued to order specimens from him, and Abbot had customers on the Continent as well. John Francillon, the London jeweler and amateur naturalist, facilitated many of these contacts and essentially served as Abbot's agent for decades.

In 1793 James Edward Smith, the founder and president of the London Chapter of the Linnean Society, personally oversaw publication of 104 of Abbot's drawings. Each sheet in the collection showed the stages in the life cycle of a moth or butterfly together with the plant on which it fed. The plates, many of them etched by John Harris, were extremely true to the originals, which was fortunate for Abbot, who never had the opportunity to supervise the preparation of plates from his work.  On its publication in 1797 under the title The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects, Abbot's book became the very first publication devoted to the subject of American entomology.

Abbot was respected, one might even say, was depended upon by the scientific community for his detailed renderings of the plant, insect, and bird life found in his little corner of the world.  To the connoisseur of Southern art, his drawings are prized for far more than their accuracy. Their composition is carefully balanced, their colors rich and exciting, their drawing possessed of a forth-rightness which borders on the naive. As works of art they are among the earliest and finest to have been made in Georgia.

1Vivian Rogers-Price, John Abbot in Georgia: The Vision of a Naturalist Artist (1751-ca. 1840), Madison, Georgia:  Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, 1983.  Subsequent information is also from this source.

2Rogers-Price, p. 18.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by the Charleston Renaissance Gallery and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission from Hicklin Galleries, LLC.





1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
Get Our Email Newsletter
Created by . Easy site updating through Backstage CMS.