One day in 1839, two explorers – an East Londoner, Frederick Catherwood, and an American, John Lloyd Stephens – climbed the crumbling steps of the pyramids in the Maya city of Copán. The pair were the first to do so for centuries, the pyramids, overgrown by jungle, their origins long forgotten by locals. The two were the first Westerners to be aware of what was before them as they explored the immense terraces, the magnificent temples and the palaces that had been mysteriously abandoned centuries earlier.
Ignored by Spanish Conquistadors, the city had fallen into oblivion, slowly hidden by creeping tropical vegetation. Now human footsteps reverberated around the chambers of these extraordinary buildings. The pair studied incomprehensible inscriptions, ran their hands over elaborate and expertly worked stone carvings and explored darkened rooms with splutterring oil lamps.
Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) was born in Hackney, East London in 1799. He became an explorer, architect and artist. Catherwood is forgotten but should be remembered for his exquisite, evocative and meticulously detailed drawings (he was an architect after all) of the lost ruins of the Mayan Civilisation. He explored Meso America in the mid the 1830s with writer John Lloyd Stephens. Their books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, were best sellers and introduced the civilization of the ancient Maya to the Western world.
Catherwood moved to San Francisco following the California Gold Rush with the intention of opening a supply store for supply miners and prospectors. He considered this a better way to make money than chasing after the gold himself.
In 1854, Frederick Catherwood was a passenger aboard the Arctic, a steamship making the Atlantic crossing from Liverpool to New York. On 27 September, in a dense Atlantic fog, the Arctic collided with the French steamer Vesta, and sank with huge loss of life, including Catherwood. Mysteriously Catherwood’s name was left off the official casualty lists for weeks until a concerted effort by friends and colleagues resulted in a belated inclusion of a single line in the New York Herald Tribune: “The Saved and the Lost: Mr Catherwood Also is Missing”. He was 55 years old.
A large number of Catherwood’s original drawings and paintings were destroyed in New York when the building where he was exhibiting them caught fire. A small number survive in museums and private collections.