Some Australian Flowers: Plates from Banks’ Florilegium

Friday, August 30, 1996 to Tuesday, October 15, 1996

Banks’ Florilegium consists of 738 botanical engravings of the plants collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Carl Solander on Captain Cook’s first voyage around the world in 1768-71. Apart from their intrinsic beauty, they are in many cases the first scientific drawings of certain plants, notably the ones from New Zealand and Eastern Australia, which had never previously been studied by European botanists.

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), later president of the Royal Society, was only 25 when its council, at his own initiative, recommended him to the Lords of the Admiralty to be part of Captain Cook’s expedition. The crew also included Daniel Carl Solander (1733-1782), who had studied natural history at Uppsala with the great Linnaeus, and the artist Sydney Parkinson. Their presence on the Endeavour made the expedition the first systematic voyage of biological exploration.

“We sat,” Banks later recalled, “at the great table with the draughtsman directly across us. We showed him how the drawings should be depicted and urriedly 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.”

When Parkinson died of fever on the voyage home, after the Endeavour left Batavia, he had only completed 280 drawings, but five other artists were able to finish the task in England from his field sketches, under the personal supervision of Banks and Solander. From those completed water-colour drawings, at least 743 copperplates were produced by no fewer than 18 engravers between 1771 and 1784 at Banks’s own expense. Still, for a variety of reasons, not all of which are clear, the publication project–one that would have rivalled Audubon’s great Birds of America –never came to fruition. At his death, Banks bequeathed all his plates to the British Museum.

Apart from a few proofs produced in Banks’s lifetime, the first twentieth-century printing directly from the plates was published in 1973 in a limited edition under the title Captain Cook’s Florilegium . It comprised only thirty engravings from each geographical area. In 1980, more than two hundred years after the historic voyage, Alecto Historical Editions in association with the department of Natural History of the British Museum undertook the first complete printing, in an edition of 110 which took nine years to complete. The 24 engravings on display all come from the Australian section, by far the largest with 337 plates; the other areas covered by the 34 parts of the Florilegium are Brazil, Java, Madeira, New Zealand (183 plates), the Society Islands, and the Tierra del Fuego.