Catherwood's watercolour depicts the previously unknown Mayan site of Kabah which Catherwood discovered and excavated with John Lloyd Stephens in 1842: 'An important religious centre in the tenth century (to judge by the number of its monuments) Kabah was part of the tri-citied League of Mayapán. It had been connected, at the height of the League's power, by a road to Uxmal over which runners once carried messages -- and over which commerce and people alike flowed. It extended over a vast area. Where cattle cropped the sparse herbage, great buildings had once stood; remains were still to be seen of immense terraces, a triumphal arch, stately palaces, and pyramids, badly ruined and mutilated by man and time alike, yet still preserving enough of their grandeur to quicken the pulse of the discoverers. Combined operations of axe and machete soon cleared most of the tan structures of vegetation and this allowed full sight of the buildings...' (V. von Hagen, Search for the Maya, The Story of Stephens and Catherwood, London, 1973, pp.266-7)
The watercolour shows Stephens directing the removal of the five hundred pound carved stone door jambs, six feet high and two feet wide, which were transported, wrapped in grass and straw, to the coast for shipment to New York. Stephens envisaged that they would be the centrepiece of his projected Museum of American Antiquities. They were later acquired by the American Museum of Natural History and were exhibited in the Middle American Hall of the museum.
Catherwood set out with John Lloyd Stephens to Mexico and Guatemala in 1839 to explore the monuments and buildings of the little known Mayan civilisation. On two expeditions, in 1839-40 and 1841-42, Catherwood systematically recorded the sites, producing the first accurate drawings of Mayan buildings and inscriptions. The drawings were the models for the engravings in Stephens's two books on the expeditions (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan (1843)) and for Catherwood's own Views published in 1844.
The present drawing (along with the following lot and lots 251-258) comes from a portfolio of Catherwood watercolours which descended from John Davies (an architect and friend of Catherwood's) to the present owner. For another rare Mexican subject by Catherwood, see Christie's, 14 July, 1987, lot 130, 'Study of a Mayan Monument' (£26,400).