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Cities of Stone
Page 8


  The travelers reached New York on July 31st, 1840, "ten months less three days" after their departure. Catherwood, restored to health, began preparing his illustrations for publication. Some of them were sent to London, whose graphic artists were then considered the finest in the world, to be reproduced as woodcuts. But the work did not satisfy Catherwood, who was unable to travel to England to supervise the artists. "...[A)t some considerable loss of both time and money, they were all thrown aside, and re-engraved on steel. Proofs of every plate were given to Mr. Catherwood, who made such corrections as were necessary." So precise were Catherwood's corrections that his renderings of Maya heiroglyphic inscriptions, whose meanings were totally unknown to him, can be deciphered by modern scholars.

  Catherwood's illustrations are remarkable for their accuracy. The drawings were not prepared freehand, however, but were made with the aid of the camera lucida (known to graphic artists today as a "lucy"), an instrument which, by means of a series of prisms and lenses, casts an image of the subject on a sheet of drawing paper so that its outline may be traced. Catherwood was familiar with this common tool, and had used it in Egypt to draw the ruins along the Nile. But this not-so-modern convenience (it was described by da Vinci in the 15th century) was not as helpful as one might think. The strange motifs and designs of Maya art, completely foreign to the Western aesthetic in which Catherwood was so well-versed, resisted his initial attempts to limn them. This is Stephens' description of Catherwood's first encounter with a sculptured stele at Copan:

  "Standing with his feet in the mud, he was drawing with his gloves on to protect his hands from the mosquitoes. As we had feared, the designs were so entirely new and unintelligible that he was having great difficulty in drawing. He had made several attempts both with the camera lucida and without, but failed to satisfy himself or even me, who was less severe in criticism. The idol seemed to defy his art; two monkeys on a tree on one side seemed to be laughing at him, and I felt discouraged and despondent."

  Fortunately, Stephens' despair proved groundless, and Catherwood's work stands as a monument to his skill as a draughtsman. Stephens, meanwhile, was at work on the manuscript of Central America. From the date of a letter to William H. Prescott, the author of The Conquest of Mexico, we may infer that it was completed by February of 1841: "I have delayed publishing, as I am engaged in a scheme for bringing to this country some very interesting monuments, which might be defeated by newspaper paragraphs reaching Guatemala, and giving the owners exaggerated ideas of their value." Stephens was once again attempting to purchase the monuments of an ancient city in Central America, this time those of Quirigua, in Guatemala.


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