THE ORIGIN OF BANKS' FLORILEGIUM :
THE ENDEAVOUR VOYAGE
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 . . .
THE WATER-COLOUR DRAWINGS
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
USE OF THE COPPER PLATES: DIRECT AND INDIRECT
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.