- Historic Sites
Artist Of A Buried World
In the dense jungle lay the ruins of an imposing culture, unknown and unsuspected. But Frederick Catherwood, with his pencil and brush, made the silent stones speak
June 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 4
Who was Catherwood? The name is uncommon enough, yet anyone who has been interested in the history of those strange and haunting Mayas who reared stone cities in the jungles and plains south of Mexico will recognize it instantly: Frederick Catherwood, companion of John Lloyd Stephens and illustrator of his books, the first revelation of the Mayan wonders to the modern world. But Catherwood was much else besides: a pioneer in the archaeology of the Middle East; the friend of Keats and Shelley; an architect who raised many mansions and monuments in London, New York, and San Francisco; a surveyor who built the first South American railway. Author, traveler, artist, engineer—he was many things, and all in vain.
None of his well-placed friends ever wrote a description of him, none of his artist-companions sketched him, and though he was the first to use the daguerreotype to photograph Maya ruins, lie never sat for his own sell-portrait. He remains a shadowy and unrealized figure. When he finally gave up his unequal struggle with destiny—lost in a disaster at sea—he sank not only out of his contemporaries’ sight but almost out of human memory. Until recently the libraries of the world merely wrote his name, in their catalogues, as: “F. Catherwood (?),” as though his very excistence had been doubtful. He appeared, it hardly need be said, in no biographical dictionary. To unearth the most rudimentary facts about Catherwood has been itself a problem in archaeology—of “restoring” him from the broken and scattered potsherds of his life.
Catherwood began well enough. His eyes opened in London’s Hoxion Parish, during that late Georgian period of candlelight, powdered periwigs, and rhymed couplets. The Catherwood family was neither wellplaced nor misplaced; they were gentry, with a touch of (he literary and certainly some wealth, since the house where Frederick Catherwood was born on February ay, 1799, that still stands in Charles Square, Hoxton, is a graceful building, with architectural echoes of affluence and good taste.
Hoxton was not then, as it was later to become, the “queen of un loveliness.” It still had an air about it. Shakespeare had acted there at the theater called The Curtain; lien Jonson fought his duel with Gabriel Spender there; Keats lived close by; Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin lived on Essex Street, and she was known to Catherwood even before she joined Shelley on the Continent. As he made his daily way to the local grammar school, he walked past the Balmes House (hence “balmy”) where Mary Lamb had been confined alter she had killed her mother with a carving knife.
Catherwood grew up with Joseph Severn, who was later to be Keats’ good friend, and he and Severn studied together at the Royal Academy. Catherwood learned architecture under Sir John Soane; in 1820 he exhibited at the Royal Academy, and the next year —on September 15—he went to Italy, in response to a pleading letter from Joseph Severn. There he took up residence with Severn at 43 Via di San Jsidro, and was welcomed into the “Society of Englishmen” in Rome.
In 1822 the Eternal City was filled with English aristocracy, living elegantly in the villas of impecunious Roman nobles. Since a gentleman then could not be excused from his duty toward the Muses, a seemingly endless succession of artists, sculptors, writers, and architects lived in Rome off the generosity of a society which was at once literary, dissipated, and political.
Catherwood became involved in the diversions of this dissolute world; he even found himself installed for a time in the Villa Ncgroni as the lover of Lady Westmoreland. He was temporarily attached to the retinue of artists and architects that the Duchess of Devonshire was directing, with ample largess, for her private excavations in the Forum. But in time, with Piranesi as his model and with the lure of the antique at work within him, Cathenvood left the “Society of Englishmen” and moved down the boot of Italy, sketching as he went. In the land of Demeter, at Taormina in Sicily, he drew the Greek ruins which later he used in a water color; the same Mount Etna from the Ruins of tauramina which he exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1839, earning lavish praise from the American artist Thomas Cole.
It was Greece and Egypt which attracted him. The rim of the Mediterranean, then as now, was in tur moil. Byron had only lately lost his life on the way to help the Greeks light the Turks, and Egypt, which was in the full grip of Mehcmet AIi, was still a mysterious land where most archaeological work had been done by men like Giovanni Belzoni, a circus performer once billed as the “Patagonia Samson,” who would break into tombs with a battering ram and then walk, as he said, on “golden-plated mummies as thick as leaves in Vallambrosa.”