If Indiana Jones had been equipped with a sketchbook and watercolor kit instead of his famous whip, he might have been Frederick Catherwood.
Catherwood was an English architect and artist who traveled to Central America in the mid-1800’s with a writer named John Lloyd Stephens to create a book on the ancient Mayan ruins, which had been previously documented, but not in detail.
They were astonished by the ruins of of the Mayan’s monumental structures, and did their best to convey that astonishment in their book.
Catherwood produced numerous drawings and watercolors on the spot, often with the aid of a camera lucidia. (A camera lucidia is an optical device, predating photography, which projects a scene against a piece of glass, making it easier for an artist to compose a scene and see it visually “flattened”. Many artists have found them useful, probably including the great Dutch master Vermeer.) [Oops! Wrong! See my erratum below.]
If the camera lucidia makes some aspects of seeing a scene easier, all other conditions for making these works were far from ideal. These were treks into remote regions in thick jungles in oppressive heat and humidity amid malarial insects, dangerous swamps, torrential rains and local civil war.
The book published by Stephens and Catherwood on their return, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, featured lithographs made from Catherwood’s drawings and was an immediate success. Catherwood was trying for both scientific accuracy and for the drama of the magnificent ruins, and accomplished both.
The pair returned to the Yucatan and released another book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan 2 years later, which Catherwood followed a year later with Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, a collection of 25 color lithographs made from watercolors he painted at the various sites.
Catherwood had made previous trips to the Eastern Mediterranean to draw the monuments of Egyptian, Carthaginian, Phonecian and Greek civilizations, and was the first ‘”infidel” to enter the Mosque of Al-Aqsa and made the first architectural drawings of its interior.
A large number of his original drawing and paintings were lost to fire while on display in New York, but many remain and are often more detailed than the engravings created for publication.
There are some books about him, including The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood by Fabio Bourbon, and there are modern editions (though still out of print) of Views of ancient monuments in Cental America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas And Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
Erratum: As Daniel van Benthuysen was kind enough to point out, I was off in my description of the camera lucida, I read “camera lucida” in a bio of Catherwood and in the bleary early morning hours, saw “camera obscura” in my head. Catherwood used a camera lucida, Vermeer a camera obscura. See the comments page for this post to read Daniel’s excellent description of the two devices. (If you’ve ever seen those ads for those spindly little devices that promise to let you “Draw anything!” in silver age American comics, that’s essentially a camera lucida.) Just goes to show that I’m more obscure then lucid in the mornings.