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Artist Of A Buried World

May 2024
16min read

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

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.”

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.

The contract between the two men, curiously enough, is still extant, in the Stephens papers at the Bancroft Library at the University of California. Dated September 9, 1839, three weeks before they set sail to Central America, it is written in Stephens’ hand and constitutes a “memorandum of an agreement this day between John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood … who agrees to accompany Stephens on his journeys to Central America … [and] throughout the said tour [to] exercise his skill as an artist making drawings of Palenque, Uxmal, Copén and other ruined cities.” Catherwood was to see these made into engravings, and to publish no narrative or descriptions of his own. In turn Stephens agreed to pay all expenses and the sum of fifteen hundred dollars. The agreement was to last all their lives. Catherwood turned his panorama over to George Jackson, bookseller, and also gave into his care a wife and two children. On the night of October 3 they sailed on the evening tide aboard the Mary Ann .

Our next recorded date is November 17, 1839, and it is a memorable one in American archaeological history, for it was on that day that Catherwood and Stephens stood before the jungle-covered remains of Copân. “I am entering,” Stephens recalled later, “abruptly upon new ground.” And so they were. While Stephens directed the clearing of the forest, Catherwood put up his easel and came to grips for the first time with Maya art. “As we feared,” wrote Stephens of his companion’s efforts, “the designs were so intricate and complicated, the subjects so entirely new and unintelligible, that he had great difficulty in drawing.”

In the end Catherwood succeeded, so well that a century later an American archaeologist looking at these pictures made at Copán in 1839 wrote that “his drawing … is so accurate that it is possible to decipher the date inscribed from it.” After finding more hitherto unknown ruins in Guatemala, they went on to Palenque, in the jungles of Mexico. The two explorers would have gone on to find more cities in Yucatan if malaria had not laid Catherwood low; as it was, their first look at Maya civilization had been a clear one, and was to have many consequences.

Within less than a year of their return to New York, Stephens’ first book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan , with its wonderful Catherwood engravings, was ready for the press. Edgar Allan Poe, reviewing it for Graham’s Magazine (and he was the only critic who really had anything significant to say about it as a book), wrote that it was a “magnificent one—perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published.” In the autumn of 1841, hardly giving themselves time to savor their success (the book went through eight editions in three years), Stephens and Catherwood were again in Yucatan. Now they were three, for Dr. Samuel Cabot of Boston, physician and ornithologist, had joined them. This time their archaeological researches were confined to’ the Yucatan peninsula, and it was quite enough. Within less than a year they found forty-four Maya sites and laid the base, for all time, of the history of Maya culture.

Among the greatest of the cities that Stephens and Catherwood discovered and recorded, in the dry-jungle interior and along the wind-swept north coast, was Uxmal, without doubt one of the most architecturally uniform and consistently beautiful cities in the entire Maya kingdom. Catherwood made many detailed drawings of it; one of them—over eight feet in length, showing the intricate façade of the Nunnery Quadrangle—is to be seen in the Museum of the American Indian, New York. Numerous other originals of the House of the Governor attest to Catherwood’s skill as an architectural draftsman.

On June 17, 1842, the expedition ended. The three men set sail for New York loaded down not only with Catherwood’s drawings, Stephens’ notes, and Cabot’s stuffed birds but with numerous objects taken from the ruins as well. The owners—there was then no official protection of the ruins—gladly allowed this. These sculptures were the first to be seen outside of their place of origin, and it was Stephens’ plan to see them made the basis of a museum for American antiquities.

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.

The surprise—or it should have been—was the text. Catherwood was not a writer, even though he had done an occasional article on Mediterranean archaeology. Yet the calm, judicious, even brilliant manner in which he summed up the Maya in terms of their architecture was indeed impressive. It must be understood that he had nothing, or next to nothing, to draw upon other than his own experience. The public, avid then as now for the sensational, had been fed on gibberish about the wandering tribes and floating Egyptians who were supposed to have peopled the ancient American world. Catherwood found Maya architecture entirely dissimilar to the Egyptian, or to anything else in the Old World; his conviction, contrary to most who were then writing on the subject, was that the Maya architecture was not of immemorial antiquity. “I do not think,” he said specifically of Uxmal, “we should be safe in ascribing to any of the monuments a greater age than from eight hundred to a thousand years …” It was a remarkable deduction, since the Maya dateglyphs had not then been deciphered. Catherwood placed Uxmal’s buildings at about 1044 A.D. The glyphs say that it was built between 987-1007 A.D.

Catherwood’s conclusions about the Maya ruins anticipated much subsequent scholarship. He argued that they were not “the work of unknown races; but that, as we now see them, they were occupied and possibly erected by the same Indian tribes [Maya] in possession of the country at the time of the Spanish conquest—that they are the production of an indigenous school of art, adapted to the natural circumstances of the country.” Finally, he maintained that “they present but very slight and accidental analogies with the works of any people or country in the Old World.”

If there is a Magna Charta of American archaeology, this declaration written in 1844 by Frederick Catherwood is it.

The remainder of Catherwood’s life was anticlimax. Stephens had helped form the Panama Railway Company and gone off to Panama to push it through and to acquire, among other things, the disease that would shortly kill him. Frederick Catherwood, civil engineer (he now dropped the “archt.”), set off for British Guiana to build South America’s first railway. One gathers from the official reports that the trip did neither him nor the rail line much good. All too often there appears in the official diary: ”… there was considerable disagreement with Mr. Catherwood.” To provide laborers Catherwood had to import Negroes from Jamaica. At this the colonists complained of the abuse of their women by the migratory workers, and Catherwood had to arrange for other ladies to be available along the route of the railway. In May, 1849 —bogged down in flies, floods, and floozies—he resigned or, as the official report had it, was relieved “for reasons of economy.”

In the autumn of 1849, Catherwood was approached by Stephens’ Panama Railway Company, perhaps to direct the “works” in the Isthmus, while Stephens himself went to Bogota to straighten out a contract with the Colombian government. Catherwood was willing, but the amount of money was a problem, “as it is absolutely necessary that I should be doing something and my children are growing up around me. My boy, who is as tall as myself, is a good classical scholar and arithmetician, so much so that I intend to bring him up as an engineer.” Meantime another idea had bitten him: California. “If I were to go out to Panama it would be with the view, after my year of service had expired, to try my fortune at San Francisco …” That was precisely what he did.

By 1851 he was established at Benicia, “The Queen City of the Bay,” then only a settlement of straggling huts. There was a scheme afoot to make Benicia the principal port in the Bay region, however—to wean away the shipping from nearby San Francisco by building a railway from Marysville to Benicia, cornering the major share of California land—and commerce.

As soon as the principal merchants in San Francisco learned of the scheme, the “war of ports” began, and by that time Frederick Catherwood was very much a part of it. “I am very actively employed here engineering for the P. M. S. S. Co. [Panama Mail Steam-Ship Company].” Later he was an engineer for the Marysville-Benicia Railroad Company. “I am very very well pleased with my position at present … and have become much attached to California,” so much so that he even urged Stephens to come out and enter California politics. “Why don’t you become a candidate for the US Senate … it is not too late and you would have an excellent chance of success …”

In 1852 Catherwood was again in England, presumably to settle his affairs and return to California since he had, contrary to his original intention to have nothing to do with the “diggings,” acquired shares in the Comstock Mine. Before leaving he learned that his old friend Stephens had died in New York City, and he arranged a new edition of Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America as a sort of memorial. As it happened, this was to be his own memorial as well.

The S.S. Arctic sailed from Liverpool on the twentieth of September, 1854. Many New Yorkers were aboard: there were Drews, Comstocks, Fabricottis, Rowlands, Lockmiranets, Ravenscrofts, and a sprinkling of aristocracy, the most notable representative being the Duc de Gramont, returning to his post in Washington with his family. On the seventh day out of Liverpool, the sea was obscured by a thick fog blanket and at noon time, just as it began to lift, the Arctic collided with the S.S. Vesta . There were only enough lifeboats for fifty people. After frantic efforts to make rafts out of barrels and available timber, the S.S. Arctic went down with nearly all its three hundred passengers.

Two weeks elapsed before New Yorkers became aware of the disaster, but then the boldest type swept all else from the front pages of the city’s newspapers: “THE LOSS OF THE ARCTIC … THRILLING ACCOUNT BY THE CAPTAIN … SERMONS ON THE DISASTER.” The Stock Exchange closed; banks stopped their business; flags throughout the city were at half-mast. The captain of the Arctic made his first statement from Quebec, where he had been brought after his rescue. It was addressed to E. K. Collins, president of the line: “Dear Sir: It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the total loss of the S.S. Arctic , under my command, with your wife, daughter and son …”

Then followed, day upon day, name after name of the missing passengers. For two weeks the editors barred everything from the first page but details of the tragedy. One by one the survivors told of the last acts of those who had perished, and later the newspapers printed long obituaries on each of the victims. All, that is, except for the friend of Keats, Severn, Shelley, of Prescott and Bancroft; not a word of the companion of Bonomi, Robert Hay, and WiIkinson; the pioneer of Egyptology, the panoramist of Leicester Square, the New York architect, the co-discoverer of the Maya culture, the builder of South America’s first railroad. His death was to be as obscure as much of his life had been. Only after many days had passed did the New York Herald, almost as an afterthought, print the single line:

“Mr. Catherwood, also, is missing.”

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