- 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 July of the same year these pieces of Maya pottery and carved wooden lintels, dated with glyphs, from the ruins of Kabah and Uxmal were put on exhibit at Catherwood’s Rotunda, along with hundreds of his large sepia drawings. The public scarcely had time to see them, however, for on the night of July 31, 1842, the Rotunda caught fire. Philip Hone, the New York merchant whose Pepysian diary is a shrewd, opinionated record of all that took place in those times, was himself a witness: Catherwood’s Panorama of Thebes and Jerusalem burnt last evening about ten o’clock and those two valuable paintings were destroyed together with the other contents of the building, among which were a large collection of curiosities and relics … collected by Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood in their recent travels. … This will be a severe loss … to science and the arts in general. The New York Herald on the following day recorded that the building and its contents were totally destroyed and estimated their value at $20,000. Catherwood and his partner Jackson were not the sole sufferers. There was also Stephens himself, who had brought back the Maya remains at so great a personal sacrifice; he especially grieved for the great carved wood lintel, decorated with the glyphs that would have told the date of the Kabah structure. “I had,” he said, poking among the ruins the morning after, “the melancholy satisfaction of seeing their ashes exactly as the fire had left them.”
Nonetheless, the financial disaster did not prevent Catherwood from going to work at once on the illustrations for their second book on the Maya. Stephens had written it at great speed, despite the fact that it was more demanding than the book which had preceded it. While he gave his readers a full share of the “incidents,” he now had to enter the unknown and uncertain ground of Maya history. It is amazing how capably Stephens handled all its contradictions, and this in the face of the numerous antiquarians who insisted these were not American Indian remains at all, but the work of Phoenicians, Romans, Egyptians, or the wandering tribes of Israel.
In March of 1843, Harper & Brothers published the two-volume Incidents of Travel in Yucatan , containing 800 pages, with 124 engravings from the drawings of Frederick Catherwood. Its success was immediate and in great measure paved the way for Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico , which was soon to follow. Inevitably it led Stephens and Catherwood to think of publishing still another book, planned on so monumental a scale that only Audubon’s vast folio Birds of America would surpass it. They planned to issue by subscription “a great work on American antiquities to contain 100 or 120 engravings folio—to be issued in four numbers quarterly, Price: $100!” This Stephens confided to William Prescott in a letter in March, 1843, asking Prescott to give them a text. The latter replied by return mail: “The American Antiquities … is a noble enterprise, and I hope it may find patronage … I will supply an article of the length you propose.” Similar acceptances came from Humboldt and Albert Gallatin (on American Indian languages), and Catherwood even applied to his old friend from their Egyptian days, Sir John Wilkinson, to do a piece on the resemblance or dissimilarity of “American signs and symbols and those of Egypt.”
But they were not to have an easy time of it. New York was in a period of political and economic uncertainty. Harper & Brothers, who had mined such gold from Stephens’ publications, stalled for a while and then stated to the press that they were “not willing to undertake so great a work without some prospect of remuneration.” Bartlett 8c Welford, the well known booksellers, then took up the idea and displayed Catherwood’s Maya drawings at their store in the Astor House on Broadway. But nothing came of it, and so Catherwood decided to try his luck in England.
Again he went from publisher to publisher, without success. “The booksellers say that trade is bad, etc., the old story and I fear a very true one. … I have not yet attained my object, an audience of the Queen and Prince Albert … [but even this] ill accords with my loco foco notions …” At last Catherwood lost his illusions, and Stephens, for reasons unknown, withdrew. But it would not have been like Catherwood to let the “great project” die. He lowered his sights, reduced the plan to one within his own modest range. “I shall be my own Publisher.”
He chose twenty-five drawings out of the 120, gave these to six of England’s best lithographers, and prepared the text himself. On April 25, 1844, he published his one book: Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan , a series of twenty-five folio, hand-colored lithographs, limited to three hundred sets and dedicated to John L. Stephens. It was in its way a success, not as much of a one as Catherwood had originally wanted, yet sets were purchased and praised, and their influence was enormous.