- 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
In Egypt, Catherwood joined another group of Englishmen, and it was here that his real archaeological education began. He was a pioneer in Egyptology and the names of his associates include many more who were to become famous in archaeology. For six years during the period between 1822 and 1833, Catherwood drew and explored the land of Egypt. The folios of an expedition he joined, in the archives of the British Museum, fill forty-nine folio-volumes: paintings, drawings, plans, maps, and panoramas. Catherwood is heavily represented: his sketch of the Colossi of Memnon, the enormous seated figures of Amenhotep JlI near Thebes, was for decades his finest illustration. He sketched in Greece and the Levant; he explored the “fertile descent,” studying almost every known ruin. He even made a full set of drawings of the Mosque of El-’Aqsá and the Dome of the Rock, a dangerous enterprise for a non-believer.
The London to which he returned in 1834 did not hold many promises; he had been away too long to find immediate employment for his talents. Yet he had to live, and so he turned to panoramas. Leicester Square had long been the center of these popular attractions. The outsixcd rotundas housing colossal circular murals—paintings of battles, coronations, cities remote and romantic—drew, as does the cinema today, immense numbers of curious people. The cloud of panoramas, dioramas, poluphusikons, and eidophusi kons—“where the eye was pleased without the brain being duly exerted”—had a great hold on the public, not only in London but in the other world capitals.
It was here in Leicester Square that Catherwood joined forces with Robert Burford, and transformed his drawings from the Near East into panoramas. His view of Thebes became a continuous canvas on the mystery of Egypt. He followed it with Karnak and the ruins of llaalbek; and in 1836 he finished and mounted his panorama of Jerusalem. This last was widely advertised; one of its most eager visitors was John Lloyd Stephens, a New Yorker and lawyer by training, who had just finished a two-year tour of Russia, Poland, and the Middle East. Hc had first discovered “Mr. Catherwood” in Jerusalem, “where I used a lithographic map made by him, which I found a better guide to all the interesting localities than any I could procure in Jerusalem itself.” In such a fashion did the writer-lawyer and the architect meet, and at the former’s urging Catherwood came to try his fortune in New York Gity.
It was a good moment for his arrival. For the fourth time in two decades, New York had been razed by fire. Hampered by the water’s freexing in their pipes, firemen had been unable to stem the holocaust, and it had destroyed most of the city north of City Hall. The ruined metropolis appeared to be the best of all possible worlds for an architect, and he came well recommended. Soon he hung out his shingle; and before much longer he emerged as a partner in Catherwood & Diaper, “who respectfully inform their friends that they have entered into arrangements to carry on together the Profession of Architects and Surveyors … at 94 Greenwich Street.” Each gave his qualifications, Catherwood’s as follows: Fellow of the Institute of British Architects and F.R.A.S., has in the course of his studies as an Architect visited Italy, Greece, Egypt, France, Germany, England & in which countries he has measured and drawn many of the principal remains of ancient magnificence as well as the more important and striking modern edifices. His studies have been pursued during between 7 and 8 years with the greatest perseverance and zeal.
This was his introduction to America.
While Catherwood worked to reconstruct New York, he also built a Rotunda on Broadway and Prince Street —the first of its kind in America—and had copies of his canvases for Burford shipped over from London. The Rotunda soon was in business and the American panorama boom—or, better, the craze—had begun. “Splendid Panorama of Jerusalem,” so the advertisement ran in the leading newspapers, “a painting of the largest class, 10,000 square feet, from drawings of Mr. Catherwood, brilliantly illuminated every evening by upwards of 200 gas-lights—admission 25 cents.”
It had praise from the critics, but what helped it most was the endorsement of John Lloyd Stephens. He had written an excellent book, the first of four which were to make him, as Van Wyck Brooks said a century later, “the greatest American travel-writer.” In his Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Pctraca, and the Holy Land he called the public’s attention in his preface “to Mr. Catherwood’s panoramas of Jerusalem … [present] a vivid picture of the holy city, and I add to my mind, evidence of correctness of every detail …”
Despite outward success—perhaps the first Catherwood had experienced in his forty years—he seems to have lost none of his inner restlessness nor his passion for archaeological exploration. He needed very little urging from Stephens, who had meanwhile made a tidy sum from a pair of two-volume travel books, to toss all else aside and set off to find, if possible, the ruins that were said to lie in the Central American jungles.