You’ll undoubtedly have heard of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in HMS Endeavour from 1768 to 1771. If you’re botanically inclined, you’re also likely to be aware of the magnificent book produced by Cook’s botanist Joseph Banks, Florilegium. The artist who contributed 269 of the paintings for its plates was the almost unknown Sydney Parkinson (c 1745-1771).
Parkinson’s background is obscure, although he is known to have been the son of a Scottish brewer and a Quaker. He was apparently discovered by Banks drawing plants in London, and hired by him to join Cook’s expedition.
HMS Endeavour sailed from Plymouth, England on 25 August 1768, headed for Cape Horn, then onward to arrive at Tahiti on 13 April 1769. It was there that the scientists of the expedition undertook its crucial task of observing the transit of Venus across the Sun, which was collated with other observational data to enable calculation of the distance of the Earth from the Sun.
A second artist, Alexander Buchan, had also sailed with them from England. He was intended to share the work with Parkinson, and was apparently a landscape and topographic specialist. However, Buchan turned out to be a severe epileptic, and died at sea before they had even reached Tahiti. This left Parkinson seriously overworked.
Heads of Divers Natives of the Islands of Otaheite, Huaheine & Oheiteroah (1768-71) shows a print made from a compilation of Parkinson’s original sketches of indigenous peoples from Tahiti and its neighbouring islands.
The Lad Taiyota, Native of Otaheite, in the Dress of his Country (c 1769-70) shows a Tahitian taken on board HMS Endeavour to work as a servant. Parkinson’s original drawing has sadly been lost, but this engraving made from it remains.
Cook then started the second phase of his expedition, in which he searched for the fabled southern continent, or Terra Australis Incognita. The Endeavour reached New Zealand, where its crew mapped the entire coastline before proceeding to discover the south-eastern coast of Australia on 19 April 1770. Cook’s men landed in what he later named Botany Bay in honour of the work undertaken by Banks, where they made contact with its indigenous peoples.
Māori Man (1769) is described as showing “a Māori man, his hair in a tikitiki topknot with feathers and a bone comb, full facial moko, a greenstone earring, a tiki and a flax cloak”. A magnificent portrait, it shows one of the indigenous people who is believed to have visited HMS Endeavour when she was off Whareongaonga, Gisborne, New Zealand.
A New Zealand Warrior in his Proper Dress & Compleatly Armed According to their Manner (1769) is described as showing a man “holding a tewhatewha in his outstretched left hand. He has a topknot hairstyle, and feathers in his hair, a fine dogskin cloak in a chequered pattern, a patu tucked into his belt and bone ornaments at his neck.”
Parkinson’s original drawing of a Kangaroo made on 23 June 1770, which was later turned into this engraving, must have been the first image of this species seen in Europe.
In June, HMS Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. After major repairs, it set sail for Cape York and the Torres Strait. The ship then turned for home, sailing via Indonesia and the Cape of Good Hope. Unfortunately, Parkinson contracted dysentery at the western end of Java, and died at sea on 26 January 1771, before they reached Cape Town. Cook and most of the rest of his crew reached England on 12 July 1771.
Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander collected specimens, which were handed to Parkinson to produce detailed drawings and colour notes. Parkinson then turned those into finished watercolours, but had only completed 269 of those before his death. Banks employed five additional artists in London to complete the set of watercolours from Parkinson’s drawings and notes. Eighteen engravers then created the total of 743 line engravings from which Banks’s book was to have been printed. This wasn’t completed until 1990, when the last of 34 parts of the Florilegium was published in a limited edition of 100.
Banksia integrifolia (1768-71) is known as the coast banksia, and native to the east coast of Australia.
Banksia serrata (1768-71) is known as the saw banksia, and found on the east coast of Australia. The image below is probably the hand-coloured engraving produced from the watercolour above.
Fagraea berteroana (1768-71) is the sub-tropical perfume flower tree, or pua keni keni.
Neither Banks the botanist nor Parkinson his devoted artist lived to see the final publication of their combined work.