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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.
As quoted in Pamela Gilbert, John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies and Other Wonders (London: Natural History Museum, 1998), 117.
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