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Banks' Florilegium consists of seven hundred and thirty-eight botanical engravings which record the plants collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Carl Solander and drawn by Sydney Parkinson on Captain James Cook's first voyage round the world 1768-1771.

The engravings are printed in colour for the first time from the original eighteenth-century copperplates. These historic plates, bequeathed by Sir Joseph Banks to the British Museum, are exceptionally fine examples of the engraver's art and depict some of the first plants to engage the scientific attention of European voyagers in the Pacific Ocean, including the very first plants of New Zealand and Eastern Australia ever to be gathered and studied by Europeans.


We do not know what Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) would have called the grand and stylish publication which he once envisaged for these botanical engravings. But in choosing a title for this first comprehensive edition two hundred years later it seems natural and just to commemorate the name of the founder and overseer of the whole botanical venture, whose reputation as one of the great men of the eighteenth century continues to grow. Had it not been for the young Joseph Banks, the scientific purpose of Captain Cook's first voyage of circumnavigation in the Endeavour would have been confined to the observation from the South Pacific of the Transit of Venus on 3 June 1769. It was entirely due to an initiative by Banks that the Council of the Royal Society wrote as follows to the Lords of the Admiralty:

. . . The Council have appointed Mr Charles Green, and Captain Cook, who is commander of the vessel, to be their observers; besides whom, Joseph Banks Esq, Fellow of this Society, a gentleman of large fortune, who is well versed in natural history, being desirous of undertaking the same voyage, the Council very earnestly request their Lordships, that in regard to Mr Banks' great personal merit, and for the advancement of useful knowledge, he also, together with his suite, being seven persons more (that is eight in all), together with their baggage be received on board of the ship in command of Captain Cook . .

From the point of view of Banks' Florilegium, the important figures on the voyage were Daniel Carl Solander (1733-1782) who had studied natural history under Linnaeus at Uppsala from 1750 to 1759 and who was to become a keeper of' the Natural History Department of the British Museum; Sydney Parkinson (?1745-1771) a young but highly industrious and graceful artist who sadly died of fever on the voyage home, after leaving Batavia; and of course Banks himself who was to become President of the Royal Society from 1778 to 1820 and an honorary member of almost every learned society in Europe. The amateur naturalist John Ellis (?1710-1776) wrote to Linnaeus at the time, 'No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History.' The expedition continues to hold its significance as the first organised and thoroughly equipped voyage of biological exploration, the precursor and pattern of other influential voyages including that of Darwin in the Beagle. Banks has recreated the scene on the Endeavour in these words:

. . We sat at the great table with the draughtsman directly across from us. We showed him how the drawings should be depicted and hurriedly made descriptions of all the natural history objects while they were still fresh. When a long journey from land had exhausted fresh things, we finished each description and added the synonyms to the books we had. These completed accounts were immediately entered by a secretary in the books in the form of a flora of each of the lands we had visited . . .


Where Sydney Parkinson was unable to complete a water-colour before the fresh specimen had wilted and faded, his system was to make a quick outline field sketch in pencil, colouring in Just enough detail for accurate completion later aided by observations in writing, normally on the back of each sheet of paper. Before his death towards the end of the voyage, Parkinson had completed two hundred and eighty out of over nine hundred drawings and the system enabled five other artists, Thomas Burgis, John Cleveley, John Frederick Miller, James Miller and especially Frederick Polydore Nodder to finish the work in England under the supervision of Banks and Solander and with the aid of the pressed and dried specimens which are still preserved in the British Museum (Natural History).


At least seven hundred and forty-three engraved copperplates of superb quality were made from the completed water-colour drawings by eighteen engravers over the years 1771-1784 under the discriminating eye of Joseph Banks and at a cost to him of over 7,000. The principal engraver Daniel MacKenzie actually resided at Banks' house in Soho Square and produced over two hundred and fifty of the finished plates. MacKenzie, G. Sibelius and Gabriel Smith were responsible between them for more than three-quarters of the total number of plates. The other fifteen engravers in the order of their output of finished plates were Charles White, William Tringham, Robert Blyth, Frederick P. Nodder, Jabez Goldar, van Drazowa, Thomas Scratchley, John Lee, Jean-Baptiste Michell, William Smith, Edward Walker, John Roberts, Thomas Morris, Bannerman and Francis Chesham.


That Banks did not publish in the eighteenth century may be ascribed to a complex variety of causes but lack of demand on the part of European botanists was not one of them. Linnaeus had written to John Ellis on 22 October 177 1:

. . . By all that is great and good I intreat you, who know so well the value of science, to do all that in you lies for the publication of these new acquisitions that the learned world may not be deprived of them . . .

In November 1784 Banks wrote:

. . . All that is left is so little that it can be completed in two months, if only the engravers can come to put the finishing touches to it . . .

The main reason for the delay in publishing was that Banks understandably did not consider a modest style of publication appropriate. Had Parkinson and his fellow artist Buchan not died on the voyage the water-colour drawings would no doubt have been completed sooner. Had Banks not been an exceptionally busy man with a wide variety of interests and responsibilities especially as President of the Royal Society, the work of the engravers might have been speeded up.

By 1784 when the plates were more or less ready, thirteen years had elapsed since the end of the voyage and circumstances had changed. If the desire for fame had been part of the original impetus to publish, Banks no longer needed it; and by 1784 Banks may well have felt that he was no longer depriving the learned world of knowledge because he had made his discoveries available to botanists willing and able to come to his house and collection in Soho Square. In 1782 his old friend and colleague Solander died. This event used to be thought of as having delayed publication irrevocably, but it is at least equally possible that it was the economic circumstances of the 1780s leading up to the Napoleonic Wars that caused the indefinite postponement. In particular there was a sharp drop in Banks' rental income from his estates in Lincolnshire, a county greatly affected by the depression in the long wool trade following the American War of Independence.

This failure to publish, having come so very close to doing so, has long been regarded as one of the tragedies of science and to some extent it still remains one of the puzzles of history.


It is known that the engravers took about three sets of black ink impressions in the eighteenth century and that proofs of particular plates were sent by Banks to other botanists for private use. A group of twenty-eight plates has been recorded as forming a folio volume in the Berlin Library.

In the late nineteenth century the Trustees of the British Museum authorised the New Zealand Government to obtain proof sets of the engravings of the New Zealand plants. The intention was to reproduce them in a reduced form as illustrations to a botanical work by Thomas Kirk. Kirk died in 1897 and the book was never published but James Britten's book (Illustrations of Australian Plants collected in 1770) was published by order of the Trustees between 1900 and 1905. The illustrations were reproduced by photolithography.

The only twentieth-century direct printing, again in black ink, from thirty of the original plates is the much prized book entitled Captain Cook's Florilegium with introductory texts by Wilfrid Blunt and W. T. Stearn.

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