There are few more romantic subjects for a painting (if you are Triple P anyway) than ancient ruins. One of the things we rediscovered with our purchase of the book Archaeology by CW Ceram last year was the name of the artist of one of Triple P's favourite paintings of ruins, which was reproduced in the book. If there is any picture that captures the exotic thrill of the discovery of lost cities deep in the jungle it is this picture of Uxmal by the English artist and architect Frederick Catherwood. The most notable modern spin on this is, of course, the opening temple scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Idol at Copán
Interior of the Principal Building at Kabáh
Studying architecture at the Royal Academy, from 1824 until 1832 Catherwood travelled extensively around the Mediterranean drawing ancient Egyptian Phoenician and Carthaginian ruins. He became fascinated with the stories of ruins in Central America. In 1836 he met, in London, the American lawyer and travel writer John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852) and having read the account of the ruins of Copán published by Juan Galindo they resolved to travel to Central America and produce an illustrated account of the ruins.
Pyramidal Building and Fragments of Sculpture, at Copán
They travelled in the region from 1839 (Stephens had just been appointed special ambassador to Meso-America by US president Martin van Buren) to 1840 and their subsequent books Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (arising from a further visit in 1843), became best sellers and, essentially, reintroduced the world to the Mayan civilisation.
General view of Kabáh John Lloyd Stephens is in the blue shirt
They fought their way through almost impenetrable jungle to unearth these lost relics of a great civilisation, the existence of which had essentially been forgotten. Excavating relics, in over forty sites, from the grip of foliage that had long covered them, they discovered things that even the few locals had not realised were there.
Broken idol at Copán
Sadly, many of his original drawings were destroyed in a fire at the building where he was exhibiting them in New York.
Las Monjas, Chichén-Itzá
Teocallis, at Chichén-Itzá
Later, Catherwood moved to San Francisco and ran a store selling equipment to miners and prospectors of the Californian gold rush in 1849.
Fortress at Tuloom
In 1854 he was travelling on the American liner the SS Arctic, one of the most luxurious ships of the day, from Liverpool to New York when it collided off Cape Race, in poor visibility, with the smaller French ship Vesta and sank with much loss of life, including Catherwood's.
The sinking of the SS Arctic from an eyewitness' sketch
The sinking of the Arctic was a huge scandal at the time as although there were 84 survivors nearly 350 lost their lives including every woman and child on board. The evacuation of the ship was carried out amidst panic and utter disorginisation and lifeboats were launched with hardly anyone on board. Such was the outcry over this that the tradition of "women and children first" on sinking ships was developed. The Vesta stayed afloat, despite having lost her bow, as she was steel hulled and had watertight internal compartments but the wooden-hulled Arctic sailed on only to sink shortly afterwards.
Temple at Tuloom
In order to achieve his extraordinarily accurate pictures he often used a camera lucida. The picture above contains the only known portrait of Catherwood or, rather, a self-portrait. He is the figure on the top right in the yellow.
Idol and Altar at Copán
As archaeologists have subsequently discovered, Catherwood's illustrations were extraordinarily accurate; he used no artistic licence on the detail of his subjects at all. Where he did use his artistic ability was in his use of light on the buildings and objects, such as this menacing idol, to give them the maximum visual impact.