Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Joseph Banks: botanical work on Cook's voyage finally makes it to print Prints of hundreds of plant specimens collected by the British naturalist come together in Florilegium Pereskia Grandifolia (rose cactus, Cactaceae) One of the images from Banks’s Florilegium: Pereskia Grandifolia (rose cactus, Cactaceae). Photograph: Editions Alecto Ltd and the Trustees of the National History Museum, London Michael Slezak @MikeySlezak email Monday 20 November 2017 17.00 GMT Last modified on Tuesday 28 November 2017 08.04 GMT The publishing deadline was missed by more than 200 years, but finally the work of one of the great men of the Enlightenment has been printed and distributed, sharing with the world the detailed botanical work of Joseph Banks on his journey aboard James Cook’s Endeavour. Cook’s mission when he left England in 1768 was ostensibly to chart the transit of Venus – a measurement that would allow the estimation of the distance from the Earth to the sun, which would aid navigation. However, Cook had been instructed to attempt the “discovery of the southern continent so often mentioned”. Banks first stepped on the land of the Dharawal people – a place the invaders called Botany Bay – in 1770, in the midst of his mission to describe the natural history of the lands encountered on the voyage and to amass the largest collection of plants previously unknown to European science. Stogmaphyllon Ciliatum (orchid vine, Malpighiaceae) Facebook Twitter Pinterest Stogmaphyllon Ciliatum (orchid vine, Malpighiaceae). Photograph: Editions Alecto Ltd and the Trustees of the National History Museum, London As was the case with many Enlightenment scientists, Banks was a wealthy member of the English upper class. He paid his own way on the ship, as well that of his eight staff and colleagues. Over a period of about two years, Banks completed a journal 200,000-words long and collected 30,000 plant specimens, about half of which were new to science. But key to the scientific work was the recording of the specimens, which at the time required paintings, drawings and etchings – work undertaken by Sydney Parkinson, a young Scottish artist who was part of Banks’s team. Before Parkinson died at just 25 on the ship’s return via South Africa, he had completed 269 plant watercolours and had 673 unfinished sketches. When Banks returned, he is thought to have put aside £10,000 to publish 14 volumes. In them would be 942 plant illustrations – of which 753 were eventually engraved for printing. But the project was never finished, thanks to the deaths of some of the key authors, and Banks’s financial losses following the American War of Independence. Eventually, about 23 decades later, 100 sets of prints were finished in 1990 – one set sold for £100,000. Now, ahead of the 250th anniversary of Cook’s voyage next year, those of more modest means can enjoy the finished product of Banks’s studies, with publisher Thames and Hudson’s release of the book Joseph Banks’ Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook’s First Voyage. In the book, 147 of the prints have been delightfully reproduced, and are accompanied by the prose of the former executive director of the NSW Royal Botanical Gardens and Domain Trust, David Mabberley. Bouganivillea Spectabilis (Nyctaginacea) Facebook Twitter Pinterest Bouganivillea Spectabilis (Nyctaginacea). Photograph: Editions Alecto Ltd and the Trustees of the National History Museum, London His commentary is written as captions to each plate, but as he explains in his introduction, the captions also produce a continuous narrative, carrying the reader through the selection of glorious prints. As Mel Gooding explains in the book, Banks’ Florilegium was intended primarily as a contribution to science – “the initiation of Australasian botany”. But to the modern reader, it is more a work of art. It is “a work of outstanding graphic achievement and a radiant revelation of natural beauty in its infinite variety and particularity,” Gooding writes. This article was amended on 28 November 2017 to correct the sale price of the 1990 set of prints.