Frederick Catherwood

Frederick CatherwoodIf 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.

Link and suggestion courtesy of John Uibel, a modern concept artist who credits Catherwood as his favorite artist and largest influence (see my post on John Uibel)

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.


4 Replies to “Frederick Catherwood”

  1. I think you might be confusing two optical aids in your description here. What Catherwood used was the camera lucida, essentially a prism mounted on an arm that attached to a lap-sized drawing board. By putting one eye up against the prism one can simultaneously look out at the subject matter and down at the drawing pad. The two percieved images merge and make it look like the scene to be drawn is being projected on the page and just needing to be traced. What Vermeer used was a camera obscura, a different device very like the camera we use today but lacking the film. The body of the camera obscura was usually a small darkened room like a closet. A tiny hole acts as a lens taking in the image and projecting it faintly on whatever wall or surface it hits. The artist sat in the dark and a reversed, upside down image of what existed outsdie the pinhole “lens” could be traced onto a canvas. What Vermeer used (and we are so certain he used this because the geometry of the floor tiles in his paintings is so consistent that scientists using triangulation have been able to determine within an inch or so how tall Vermeer was) involved a constructed room and was not practical for an explorer/artist. What Catherwood used was far more portable but if you’ve ever tried to use one you quickly find that one has to be extrememly disciplined to hold your head quite still while drawing. The slightest movement bobbles the positioning of the image on your paper.

  2. Oops! You’re right, of course. I’va added a correction to the main post. While researching the post, I was reading “camera lucida” and thinking “camera obscura” (which I find much more interesting), and just didn’t catch it. Thanks, Daniel.

    Other readers may want to check out Daniel van Benthuysen’s portfolio of figurative paintings and drawings.

  3. I just was sent a December 7, 2006 article on Frederick Catherwood and his Camera Lucida from “Lines and Colors”.
    I am a photojournalist and explorer, and was elected a Fellow Member of the Explorers Club. In the 1980’s I retraced the footsteps of the 1839-40 expeditions of Stephens and Catherwood, duplicating many of Catherwood’s drawings and paintings (from his books and 1844 portfolio) using my camera. In 1998-99 I was curator for a major exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, with Catherwood’s art, my photos and artifacts related to their expedition. In the exhibit I included a Camera Lucida (which I own) and description. I have given many lectures and have led small tours following their trail. I can e-mail you a brief published article describing my exhibit. It may interest you to know that the British Museum has many Catherwood originals.
    Payne B. Johnson

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