John Abbot was one of the most important naturalists and artists working in early America, but because he generally eschewed publication and most of his work was only available to wealthy patrons and collectors, he has not been as appreciated as other notables of his era, including Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Credit is due the Georgia Historical Society for commissioning a delightful memorial marking Abbot’s burial place*, installed at the old McElveen Family Cemetery in Bulloch County. Publication of a collection of his ornithological paintings, John Abbot’s Birds of Georgia, by the Beehive Press in 1997, has done much to advance his reputation.
*-[detail, above]. Mary Stuart. Bronze Relief, after the circa 1804 self-portrait “John Abbot of Savannah, Georgia, America”. 1956. It is the only known image of the naturalist.
Born in London in 1751 to James and Ann Abbot, John was influenced from an early age by the impressive art collection of his lawyer father. Though the elder Abbot expected his son to read law, he also encouraged his interest in art and natural history, hiring the noted engraver Jacob Bonneau to instruct him. In his late teens, John Abbot clerked for his father’s law office but was far too distracted by his passion for natural history and art to give it serious consideration as a career.
He set out for Virginia aboard the Royal Exchange in 1773 and upon arrival resided briefly with Parke & Mary Goodall. By 1775 rising unrest in the colony prompted Abbot to leave, settling with Parke Goodall’s cousin William and his family in St. George Parish, Georgia (present-day Burke County). Sometime during the Revolutionary period he married a young woman named Sarah (maiden name unknown) and their son John, Jr., was born around 1779. During this time Abbot was actively collecting and illustrating Georgia’s insects and a large number were acquired by Sir James Edward Smith, founder of London’s Linnaean Society. Smith commissioned hand-colored engravings of the original Georgia watercolors and published them in 1797 as the Natural History of the Rarer Lepidopterous Insects of Georgia Collected from Observations by John Abbot. It is considered the first major publication devoted to American entomology.
Spicebush Swallowtail on Sassafras, John Abbot, from the Natural History…, 1797. Public Domain Image.
The Abbots remained in Burke County, where John likely taught at Waynesboro’s Burke County Academy, until moving to Savannah in 1806. He was often in transit throughout the central Savannah River area in pursuit of specimens and new material. Sarah’s death in 1817 sent Abbot into a deep state of grief and poor health consumed him for at least two years, during which he was inactive. He finally settled in Bulloch County in 1818 and resumed collecting and drawing for patrons. He lived out his last years on the property of his friend William E. McElveen. His exact date of death is unknown, but thought to be 1839 or 1840.
In what has to be some of the most inspring language on any memorial in the state, the Georgia Historical Society note of John Abbots: Talented artist and searching naturalist of birds and insects. – As a tribute to him and his work may you who stand here find pleasure in protecting the natural beauty of Georgia. – John Abbot lies buried in this woodland cemetery because of his love of nature and his long friendship with the McElveen family.