Frederick Catherwood At Palenque

A middle aged man drenched in sweat and overcome by exhaustion stands amidst the heat of the jungle. Swatting at mosquitos and never losing focus, he is determined to finish what he started. With the help of his camera lucida and his attention to detail, he completes the most accurate depictions of the lost civilization to date. The civilization is known as Palenque, and the artist is Frederick Catherwood.

Frederick Catherwood, born on February 27, 1799, was an English artist and architect. By the year 1836, Catherwood became a well-known topographical artist after completing his detailed drawings of historical monuments such as the Ancient Pyramids of Egypt, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and many others across Greece, Turkey and Palestine. It was this notoriety that helped him meet American writer and lawyer, John Lloyd Stephens in London. The two would join forces for a much bigger expedition throughout Central America to create a detailed account of their discoveries and what remained of the ancient Mayan civilizations.

Catherwood and Stephens left New York on October 3, 1839. Stephens, appointed by President Van Buren, was to act as an ambassador of the United States and meet leaders of the newly formed United Provinces of Central America. His goal was to form a trade agreement between the two nations, however he and Catherwood had another goal in mind. They were to use the remainder of their time to investigate the ancient civilizations such as Copan and Palenque.

In May of 1840, they arrived in Palenque with the assistance of the native people. Upon first examination, Palenque was covered in thick vegetation of the rainforest that surrounded it. Mountains of stones covered the passageways, which made it difficult to navigate. Nevertheless, Stephens noted that elaborate ornamentation of the buildings could still be seen through the brush. The Indians cried “El Palacio”, the palace, as they entered the site. The pair along with their travel companions and crew, entered the palace before exiting and firing four gunshots each into the air. These gunshots were not only an act of celebration, but also as a way to let the locals know of their presence. For they didn’t want any visitors during the night.

The group set up a camp inside the palace corridor and fastened branches together to form beds. A heavy storm hit their first night and soaked the area, making it impossible to find a dry place to stand the following morning. However, Catherwood and Stephens persevered. Stephens began surveying the area and taking measurements of the palace and surrounding structures. They worked to clear area for Catherwood to set up his Camera Lucida, an optical device which Catherwood used throughout their journey to create proper proportion in his drawings. Once a proper spot which allowed Catherwood to create the utmost accurate drawing was found, Catherwood began to draw.

Every day, the rain would come at 3 or 4 pm and continue into the night. Mosquitos swarmed their beds and made sleep unbearable. Finally, they slit open their sheets and draped them over branches creating a dome-like structure to sleep in. Stephens fell ill after a flesh-eating tick, called Nigua, infected his foot. Stephens had to return the village where he took two days to recover. Upon returning to the ruins, Stephens was taken aback at the site of Catherwood. Stephens wrote of his travelling companion’s appearance, “He was wan and gaunt, lame like me from the bites of insects; his face was swollen, and his left arm hung with rheumatism as if paralyzed.” Nevertheless, Catherwood continued to work and in little under three weeks, he had completed his goal. Catherwood captured the beauty and exquisiteness of the ruins with more accuracy than anyone had before. In addition, he was also able to capture hundreds of hieroglyphic inscriptions.

He completed his last drawing on May 31st, and the group departed on June 1st. Catherwood was barely able to make it back to the village, because he had fallen ill, but he slowly recovered after days of rest.

Catherwood’s drawings accompanied Stephens’ text in their book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841), 34 illustrations accompanied the 36 pages of text describing Palenque. Catherwood’s work not only gave an accurate depiction of the ruins, but it helped bring the text to life by showing the world the beauty of Palenque. Today, Catherwood’s drawings continue to have a lasting impact. They are noted as some of the most accurate drawings before the photograph. However, the beauty of Palenque would continue to amaze as more discoveries came in the decades that followed.