Lasting Impressions: Frederick Catherwood’s drawings of Maya Ruins

Despite the excellent modern film, video and photographs of spectacular ancient Maya ruins, some of the most atmospheric visual depictions of ancient Maya buildings are drawings and paintings that were made by British artist, architect and explorer Frederick Catherwood in the mid-19th Century.

Catherwood’s drawings, which illustrated writer John Lloyd Stephens’ books such as ‘Incidents of Travel in Central America’ and ‘Incidents of Travel in Yucatan’, were instrumental in introducing the Western world to the then virtually unknown ancient Maya culture and were a result of a join expedition by the men to uncover these lost cities.

The meticulous details of the buildings depicted in Catherwood’s beautiful images have also been very helpful to modern archaeologists, in many cases depicting details and colours on the buildings that have eroded and disappeared in the 150 years or so since he made his drawings.

Many historical artists were very fanciful in their depictions of ancient buildings, but Catherwood was famously accurate, using a so-called ‘Camera Lucida’ to capture the exact details of the buildings and guide his drawings.

The expedition to Central America came together in 1839 and continued through the following year, visiting dozens of ruins and resulting in the detailed description of 44 sites, many for the first time.

A large number of his original drawings and paintings were destroyed when the building where he was exhibiting them in New York City caught fire, but a number survive in museums and private collections, often showing more detail than the published engravings.

Interested in all things Mayan? In this episode of Empire Builders we explore the remarkable history of one of the world’s greatest ancient civilisations.