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 John Abbot  (1751 - 1840)

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Lived/Active: Georgia / United Kingdom      Known for: illustrator-birds, flora, fauna, botany

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John Abbot
An example of work by John Abbot
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Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
One of the earliest and most prolific artist-naturalists to work in America, John Abbot was born in London in 1751, the son of an attorney.  Abbot wrote in his manuscript, Notes on My Life, that he acquired “an early taste for drawing, which might be much increased by my father having a large & valuable collection of prints, of some of the best Masters, he had also many good paintings.”  The young artist also received private instruction from the engraver and drawing master Jacob Bonneau.  By age sixteen, Abbot had taught himself watercolors and began making scientific illustrations of insects in that medium.

Through Bonneau and others, Abbot became engaged with a prominent circle of natural scientists and collectors in London and, by 1773, had emigrated to America, armed with commissions from the Royal Society and private patrons.  He settled in Jamestown, Virginia, and spent two years exploring the area.  As was his practice, he prepared native specimens, sketches, watercolors, and written documentation.

Seeking to avoid pre-Revolutionary activity in Virginia, Abbot left for Georgia in late 1775, settling northwest of Savannah the following year.  He remained active in Georgia over the next five decades, avidly collecting and documenting natural history specimens, producing watercolors, and shipping his work to leading scientists, collectors, and publishers in the United States and Europe.

Abbot produced hundreds of watercolors of birds, rendered in a traditional, realistic style with delicate coloring.  Characteristically, he portrayed the bird in a flattened, but revealing, profile view, on an abstracted fragment of natural habitat, such as the rock and marsh grass of this example.  His earliest dated group of bird watercolors consisted of one hundred works done in 1791, which he shipped to John Francillon, his London agent and fellow naturalist.  Francillon eventually sold them to Chetham’s Library in Manchester, England.  The library commissioned additional watercolors, which Abbot sent in two groups in 1805 and 1809.


Biography from Morris Museum of Art:
During the nineteenth century, John Abbot was widely recognized for his superbly mounted specimens and thousands of watercolors depicting the birds, insects, moths, butterflies, and flora and fauna of the Southern United States.  His once-bright reputation has dimmed, however, in comparison to that of his fellow naturalist-artists and near-contemporaries Mark Catesby, John James Audubon, and William Bartram, all of whom also worked in the region.

An autobiographical fragment discovered in the files of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University describes Abbot’s life prior to his move to Georgia.  Born in London, England, in June of 1751, John was the second (though first surviving) son born to John and Ann (Clousinger) Abbot.  Two sisters and a brother completed the prosperous family. Abbot recollected that his youthful interest in drawing was spurred by the large collection of fine quality prints and paintings that his family owned, and his instinct for the careful observation of nature was established at their rented country home, where he explored the area, caught and bred insects, and sought out other collectors of natural history specimens.  Although his father, a lawyer, encouraged his son’s love of natural history and arranged drawing instruction with the engraver Jacob Bonneau, he expected John to follow in his professional footsteps.  In 1769, Abbot became a law clerk for five years, but his interest in natural history led him to amass a collection of the leading books on the subject including The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands (1731–43), by Mark Catesby; A Natural History of English Insects (1720), by Eleazar Albin; and two books by George Edwards, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds (1743–57) and Gleanings of Natural History (1758–64).

Eighteenth-century London was at the center of natural science studies.  Exotic specimens were sent there from Great Britain’s far-flung colonies. The classification system of plants and animals first proposed by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in his publication Systema Naturae in 1735 was widely known there, but, apparently, it was not studied by Abbot since he did not follow it in his commentary or drawings.  Nevertheless, he became part of the circle of natural history collectors.  Disenchanted with the study of law, he decided to devote himself to the study of natural history and to emigrate from Britain to one of her colonies in order to collect specimens that he hoped to sell to British collectors. He mastered taxidermic skills that enabled him to mount and preserve insects, moths, and butterflies. He also became proficient at illustrating them, and he exhibited two watercolor drawings of moths with the Society of Artists of Great Britain in 1770.

Abbot established a business contact with the London jeweler John Francillon, who became his agent in Great Britain, selling Abbot’s American specimens and drawings.  He sent thousands of mounted specimens and drawings to London over the next sixty years.

Abbot was familiar with a publication on the history of Virginia, and, in the belief that sailing there represented the shortest possible sea voyage to the New World, he embarked in the summer of 1773, armed with a letter of introduction from the Royal Society of London and commissions from several London gentlemen to collect specimens for them.  Abbot sold his personal collection of insects and drawings and set out aboard the Royal Exchange, never to return to his native country.  There were only eight passenger cabins on the ship, which encouraged a certain intimacy.  Abbot’s shipboard friendship with one couple, Parke and Mary Goodall, proved to be pivotal once the ship docked on September 9 after a six-week crossing. The Goodalls were newlyweds who planned to set up a store in Hanover County, Virginia, a remote site that was one hundred miles from the mouth of the James River. Abbot decided to join his new friends there, and over the next two years he conducted a geological survey of the area, collecting and illustrating specimens. His increasing disappointment over the paucity of good specimens in Virginia led him to consider moving back to England, even though he collected approximately 570 different insect species and bred butterflies and moths of the region.

Abbot was meticulous in the way that he mounted and shipped specimens for the difficult journey to London. He carefully pinned the specimens, often stuffing them with cotton in order to make them appear more lifelike. He then set them in cork-lined wooden boxes whose false bottoms provided him with a place for the watercolors he also sent back. This method of shipping provided protection for the watercolors as well as a way to avoid customs inspection and payment of duty taxes on them.  Of the three large collections Abbot sent to London, two were lost at sea. The increasing unrest between Great Britain and her American colonies was an additional factor in Abbot’s eventual decision to leave Virginia.

In December of 1775, Abbot went to Georgia, where he spent the rest of his long life.  In the company of William Goodall (a cousin of Parke Goodall) and members of his household, he traveled through the Carolinas. They stayed with members of Goodall’s extended family along the way and arrived in Georgia, in February of 1776.  Abbot bore the costs associated with this journey for the entire party. He settled on land owned by William Moore, the brother-in-law of William Goodall. At this time of increasing tension between Great Britain and the American colonies, Georgia was considered to be neutral, which Abbot felt was to his advantage since he was eager to maintain ties to the English clients who were essential to his livelihood as a naturalist.

A “John Abbot” served in the Revolutionary War as a private in the Third Georgia Continental Battalion, and though the records are incomplete the name appeared on two payrolls in 1779. After the war this soldier received a headright grant of 575 acres of land in Washington County, Georgia, as payment for his services. Whether or not this is the same person is unknown, but it is documented that John Abbot eventually became a landowner and married.  His only child, John Abbot, Jr., born in 1779, moved to Savannah as an adult and died there in 1826. Abbot’s name appears on legal proceedings in Savannah with his daughter-in-law's. His last recorded proceeding is the recording of his will on October 24, 1839, in which he left everything, including a slave, to William McElveen.

Abbot spent most of his life collecting and illustrating the insects, spiders, moths, butterflies, birds, and plants of Georgia.  His detailed notes on habitat and life cycle advanced several theories on the relationship between predator and prey, and his meticulous rendering of the flora and fauna of the region enabled later classification of closely related species.  There are several reasons that his work fell into obscurity.  For one thing, his classification system was not standard.  For another, his specimens and drawings often entered the private collections of European naturalists. Fewer than two hundred of his illustrations were published under his own name, though his efforts provided material used by other naturalists in their publications. In addition, Abbot’s mounted specimens, which he sent from America to Great Britain, were illustrated and described by others, and his watercolors, often unsigned, illustrated influential texts by other natural scientists and explorers. For instance, Scudder’s three-volume work, The Butterflies of the Eastern United States and Canada contained an entire chapter devoted to Abbot and his drawings.

Abbot’s work was also included in the Histoire générale et iconographie des lépidoptères et des chenilles de l’Amérique Septentrionale (1833), by Jean Alphonse Boisduval and John LeConte, as well as in Alexander Wilson’s American Ornithology (1808–14) among others.  The Library of the British Museum of Natural History in London owns seventeen volumes, originally owned by Abbot’s London agent John Francillon, that contain more than four thousand original watercolors depicting the insects and plants of Georgia.  Charles Darwin is known to have consulted Abbot’s material before setting out on his own exploration of the New World.

The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia, Collected from the Observations of Mr. John Abbot, the two-volume work published for James Edward Smith, founder and president of the Linnaean Society of London in 1797, contain 104 watercolors that were engraved by John Harris.  It was the first major publication concerning North American species that Abbot collected in the vicinity of his Georgia home between 1776 and 1792.  In addition to the illustrations, Abbot provided information on the life cycles, habitats, and behaviors of the species depicted, as well as two essays about bird migration.

When the War of 1812 disrupted overseas commerce, Abbot’s work and trade were confined to America. His watercolors and mounted specimens entered several private collections, and his American ornithology writings entered the scientific canon. He also produced work on commission for a Swiss merchant, Heinrich Escher-Zollikofer, who was then living in New York. This work eventually moved to Zurich with Escher when he returned there in 1814.

Abbot’s wife died in 1817, and after a brief retirement he resumed working with European collectors. His mature illustrations show animals in more natural poses with stylized vegetation.  By his own account, he executed more than two thousand watercolors of insects and five hundred illustrations of spiders. His knowledge and skill were sought out by zoologists, entomologists, and geologists. He apparently continued to work well into his eighties, as evidenced by a collection of insects sent to England in 1838.  Near the end of his life, in failing health and living in reduced circumstances, Abbot moved to the plantation of his friend William E. McElveen and boarded in one of the outbuildings.  He was counted on the Bullock County census that was recorded on October 27, 1840. Anecdotal information indicates that he died shortly thereafter.  He is buried beside his friend in the McElveen family cemetery.

In 1957, the Georgia Historical Society placed a marker in the cemetery in Bullock County as a monument to Abbot and his work.  As testimony to his influence, there are two species of spiders, Sphodros abboti and Peucetia abboti, and one moth, Sphecodina abbottii, named in his honor. In addition, the Southern Lepidopterists’ Society, established in 1978, bestows an annual John Abbot Award on an individual who has made significant contributions in the field.

Abbot’s work can be found in museums in London, Oxford, Zurich, and Paris and in the United States at the Boston Society of Natural History, Harvard University, the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, University of Georgia, Emory University, and the Morris Museum of Art.

Additional citations are found in:

Abbot, John. John Abbot’s Birds of Georgia: Selected Drawings from the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Savannah: Library of Georgia / Beehive Press, 1997.

Gilbert, Pamela. John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders. London: Merrell Holberton ; Natural History Museum, 1998.

Rogers-Price, Vivian and William W. Griffin. “John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia.” Magazine Antiques, October 1983: 768–775.

Written by Karen Towers Klacsmann
Adjunct Assistant Curator for Research
Morris Museum of Art
Augusta, Georgia

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