Banks’ Florilegium Society Islands 1769

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts exhibition – closes 31 July 2021.

Leisha Owen – Curator

Banks’ Florilegium – Society Islands, 1769 comprises framed botanical prints individually colour-printed in the 1980s, from the 18th century copperplate engravings of Sydney Parkinson’s drawings. Parkinson was the artist who drew the fresh plants collected in the Society Islands by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, as part of Captain James Cook’s first voyage round the world.

Jordan Goodman in his new book Planting the World: Joseph Banks and his collectors: an adventurous history of botany, highlights how dynamic Joseph Banks was and how influential he was in organising the botanising that went on all over the world in the late 18th century. As it turns out Banks only went on one round the world voyage – with Cook on the Endeavour (1768-1771).  He planned to go on Cook’s second voyage in 1772 but Banks’s requirement for more room and equipment on board for his collectors, artists and their plants didn’t work out. The extra bulk on the ship made it unfit to sail!  These alterations had to be undone and Banks decided not to go. Just as well for us that he stayed home, as there was already enough diverting him from getting on with organising the results of the Endeavour voyage; including hiring the very best engravers to make the copperplates of Sydney Parkinson’s exquisite botanical artwork. Thank goodness the copperplates were engraved. After Banks’s death they went to the Natural History Museum in London and were eventually colour printed for the first time in the 1980s by Alecto Historical Editions.

Sydney Parkinson was only 24 years old when Banks hired him; paying him an annual salary to join the Endeavour voyage as the botanical draughtsman. Parkinson has been described as sweet, amiable, shy, restrained and extremely hard working. His journal of a Voyage to the South Seas is on display in the exhibition. The Allport Library is proud to hold a number of editions of this work.  There is no extant original journal written by Parkinson, as the publication was put together from his writings and notes. His only brother, Stanfield, was instrumental in this – he obtained Sydney’s work from a rather frustrated Joseph Banks who would have preferred to have had the time to get the official version written before loaning out the material. A fellow Quaker, Mr Fothergill was called in to calm the waters and he recounts the full, fascinating, but sad story in the preface to the Allport’s 1784 edition – on display in the exhibition.  Stanfield wrote in his preface:

‘Joseph Banks made him [Sydney] the proposal of going in the capacity of botanical draughtsman, on the then intended voyage to the South-seas. An insatiable curiosity for such researches prevailed over every consideration of danger, that reasonably suggested itself, as the necessary attendant of so long, so perilous, and, to my poor brother, so fatal a voyage!’

Sadly, Sydney Parkinson aged 26 years, died of dysentery on the way home. His wonderful journal is available to read online.

In addition to the background to the beautiful botanical specimens themselves, this exhibition highlights the story of the 1980’s colour printing of the 18th century copperplates. There is an original interview with the Alecto Historical Editions publisher, Joe Studholme which is showing in the Allport Library during the exhibition.

The Allport Library is very proud to hold copy 14/100 of Alecto’s exquisite publication of Banks’ Florilegium. This was not an uncontroversial acquisition. The publisher, Joe Studholme, came to Tasmania in 1981 and visited the State Library to talk about the proposed project to print the Banks’ Florilegium in colour for the first time. The Allport Curator Geoffrey Stillwell said he wasn’t that keen on purchasing the Florilegium as Cook hadn’t been to Tasmania on his first voyage!  But the Allport Management Committee was very keen, and we put in a late offer of subscription. The Florilegium is certainly not out of place in the Allport Library collection, with its strengths in science, exploration, natural history and botanical art.

This exhibition focuses on the specimens collected from the Society Islands in the South Pacific. 17 of the beautiful, mounted and framed, original Society Islands botanical prints are on display. Be sure to visit and spend some time taking in the edible, the intoxicating and the medicinal details of the plants; well-known to the island people, but many of them entirely new to European botany at the time. A beautifully designed colour catalogue is available for sale in the Gallery.

Plate 586 CRATAEVA RELIGIOSA G. Forster
Plate 598 SESBANIA COCCINEA (Linnaeus) Poiret

Further reading:

Read a review of the exhibition at The Review Board

Goodman, Jordan, Planting the world: Joseph Banks and his collectors: An adventurous History of Botany. (Harper Collins Publishers, 2021)

Parkinson, Sydney, A journal of a voyage to the South Seas in His majesty’s ship the Endeavour faithfully transcribed from the papers of the late Sydney Parkinson…To which is now added, Remarks on the preface by John Fothergill and an appendix containing an account of the voyages of Commodore Byron, Captain Wallis, Captain Carteret, Monsieur Bougainville, Captain Cook, and Captain Clerke. (London: Printed for Charles Dilly…and James Phiillips…, 1784).

Author: Leisha Owen

Leisha Owen is co-curator of the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts

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