The John Abbot Watercolors at the
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Abbot Biography

 

John AbbotJohn Abbot, a pioneering artist and naturalist who immigrated to the United States during the late 18th century, was born in 1751 to John and Ann Clousinger Abbot in London, England. According to art historian Vivian Rogers-Price, Abbot’s baptismal records list May 31 as the date of his birth, while Abbot himself claims he was born on June 1. Rogers-Price asserts that Abbot was actually born on June 11 (ANB13).

Although Abbot’s father, an attorney in the Court of King’s Bench (plea side), envisioned a career in law for his son, he nevertheless allowed John to receive instruction under the tutelage of the engraver Jacob Bonneau (1741-1786), who helped Abbot understand “the rules of drawing and perspective” (qtd. in Gilbert
9). In 1769, Abbot began a clerkship in his father’s law office, all the while continuing to collect, study and paint birds and insects. Despite his father’s desires, Abbot began to make plans to travel to North America to follow his passion for natural history.

In 1770, Abbot received some notoriety when he successfully exhibited two watercolor paintings of Lepidoptera in London at the Society of Artists in Great Britain. Three years later, Abbot left England in July to travel to Virginia with the financial backing of two English naturalists, Thomas Martyn (1735-1825) and Dru Drury (1725-1804). Abbot arrived in Hanover County Virginia on September 16th, initially establishing residence with a couple whom he met on his voyage, Parke and Mary Goodall. However, Abbot’s stay in Virginia was short-lived in part because of the tumult of the Revolutionary War. Abbot selected Georgia to be his new home, which would be Abbot’s home and base until his death in 1840. Abbot initially established residency in present-day Burke County, finding work as a subsistence farmer and a teacher. 

Before leaving London, Abbot had formed a business partnership with London jeweler John Francillion (1744-1816), who would serve as Abbot’s agent and sell Abbot’s specimens and paintings from America to the naturalists of Europe. Over two thousand paintings he completed for Francillon are now deposited in The Natural History Museum, London. In 1797 Abbot’s drawings received increased attention in naturalist and scientific circles due to the publication of The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia by Sir. James Edward Smith (1759-1828). The two-volume work included one hundred and four hand-colored engravings of Abbot’s paintings, along with Abbot’s notes and observations, given in both French and English. 

Map of Georgia -- Click to EnlargeIn 1806, Abbot moved to Chatham County, Georgia, near the important port city of Savannah, where he was able to better maintain contact with other naturalists in Europe as well as to get needed supplies more readily (MMCC 24). Also during this time Abbot began to collect and paint other species along the Georgia cost line, expanding his repertoire by developing an ardent interest in the birds of Georgia. 

Abbot’s work was again interrupted by the outbreak of war, when the United States declared War on Great Britain on June 12, 1812. Although Abbot initially considered abandoning his studies and work, he received a request from Augustus Gottlieb Oemler (1773-1852) and John Eatton Le Conte (1784-1860) for specimens and watercolors, thus prompting Abbot to resume his work. Six years later Abbot moved to Bulloch County in September. Abbot continued his work for the next twenty-years, painting and collecting until his death in 1840. He is buried in the old McElveen cemetery in Arcola, Bullock County, Georgia. A Georgia State Historical Marker (GHM016-02), located one mile south of U.S. Highway 80 on Arcola Road, Bullock County, Georgia, identifies his burial site. An older Georgia State Historical Marker (124-9), located along U.S. Highway 301, just south of S.R. 24, incorrectly identifies his burial site as five miles north of Sylvania, Screven County, Georgia. 

Throughout his life, Abbot is credited with over five thousand watercolor sketches, although the vast majority of which were never published. Along with the publication of The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia (the only work to bear his name), Abbot’s specimens and paintings are believed to have been utilized for a number of publications, including Johann Christian Fabricius’sEntomologia Systematica Emendata et Aucta (1792-1799), Thomas Martyn’s Psyche (1797), Jacob Hübner’s Sammlung Exotischer Schmetterlinge (1806-1838) and Zuträge zur Sammlung Exotischer Schmettlinge [sic] (1808-1837), William Swainson’s Zoological Illustrations (1820-1821), Jean Baptiste Alphonse Boisduval and John Eatton Le Conte’s Histoire Générale et Iconographie des Lépidoptères et des Chenilles de l'Amerique Septentrionale (1829-1837), Edward Doubleday’s The Entomologist (1840), Charles Athanase and Baron Walckenaer’s Histoire Naturelle des Insects: Aptères (1837-1847), and again in the 1836 volume of Herman August Hagen’s Abbot’sHandzeichnungen im Britischen Museum und die Neuroptera Georgiens (ANB 13).


References


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

Rogers-Price, Vivian. “John Abbot.” American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 

----. John Abbot in Georgia: the Vision of a Naturalist Artist (1751-ca. 1840). Madison, Georgia: Madison-Morgan Cultural Center, 1983.

 

 

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