John Abbot (1751-ca. 1840)
Abbot, already familiar with a publication of the history of Virginia, decided to leave London for the colony, believing that it represented the shortest possible sea voyage to the New World. He sold his personal belongings and set out for the six-week journey aboard the Royal Exchange in the summer of 1773. Abbot left his homeland, never to return, armed with a letter of introduction from the Royal Society of London, an agreement with the London jeweler John Francillon to serve as his
During the voyage, Abbot befriended a couple who were settling in Hanover County, Virginia, a remote location one hundred miles from the mouth of the James River. He settled there as well and spent the next two years conducting a geological survey of the region while collecting and drawing approximately 570 different species of insects, butterflies, and moths. He perfected his mounting and shipping techniques, pinning the specimens and stuffing them with cotton in order to create a more lifelike appearance before placing them in a cork-lined wooden box, the false bottom of which provided storage for his illustrations. His packing and shipping methods protected his illustrations while keeping them hidden, the only way to avoid customs inspection and taxes. Abbot sent three collections to London, but only one arrived safely.
Life in Georgia
At the outset of the Revolutionary War (1775-83), Abbot, dependent on British connections for his livelihood, left Virginia in December 1775 amid escalating tension between England and the American colonies. He set out for St. George Parish (later Burke County) in rural Georgia, about thirty miles south of Augusta, where relatives of his Virginia friends owned land. Within a few years of moving to Georgia, Abbot married; had a son, John Abbot Jr.; and acquired land in Burke County, as well as other property.
Abbot's meticulous illustrations and careful writing chronicle the habitats, life cycles, behaviors, and migratory patterns of numerous species. He also advances theories concerning the relationship between predator and prey. His work enabled others to classify closely related species, several of which were named according to Linnean classification from Abbot's specimens and drawings. Naturalist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin studied Abbot's work prior to his own exploration of the New World.
Abbot lived and worked in Chatham County between 1806 and 1818. When the War of 1812 (1812-15) disrupted overseas commerce, Abbot sent his work to American collectors. After trade resumed, he once again sent work to Europe; in 1818 he moved to Bulloch County. Abbot continued to send drawings and specimens abroad until the mid to late 1830s, by which time he was widowed, in failing health, and living in reduced circumstances. He moved to the home of his friend William E. McElveen, whose plantation was located in Bulloch County. The final legal record of the artist is a document that concerns his will, dated October 24, 1839, which is housed at the Bulloch County Courthouse in Statesboro. Abbot was recorded in the census of 1840, and anecdotal information indicates that he died shortly thereafter. He is buried in the McElveen family cemetery.
All in all, Abbot produced more than 4,000 original watercolors depicting the insects, plants, and animals of Georgia, although fewer than 200 were published under his name during his lifetime. The Natural History Museum in London owns several thousand of Abbot's watercolors, which were originally owned by John Francillon, Abbot's agent. In the United States, Abbot's watercolors can be found in the permanent collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; the Atlanta Historical Society in Atlanta; the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia in Athens; the Houghton Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library of Emory University in Atlanta; and the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens holds thirty-five etchings from The Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia in its permanent collection.
John Abbot, John Abbot's Birds of Georgia: Selected Drawings from the Houghton Library, Harvard University, with introduction and commentary by Vivian Rogers Price (Savannah, Ga.: Library of Georgia/Beehive Press, 1997).
Gail Fishman, Journeys through Paradise: Pioneering Naturalists in the Southeast (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000).
Pamela Gilbert, John Abbot: Birds, Butterflies, and Other Wonders (London, England: Merrell Holberton; Natural History Museum, 1998).
Vivian Rogers-Price and William W. Griffin, "John Abbot: Pioneer-Naturalist of Georgia," Magazine Antiques (October 1983): 768-75.
Karen Towers Klacsmann, Morris Museum of Art
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