Friday, 5 March 2010

The $100,000+ book

There aren't too many books associated with New Zealand that fetch many thousands of dollars, but one notable one is Bank's Florilegium, the story of which is covered in Early New Zealand Botanical Art, a book by F Bruce Sampson originally published in 1985 and which we've recently made available online.

This text provides a great review of the course of New Zealand botanical illustration, covering the significant artists and their creations from Cook's first voyage in 1768 to the 1914 publication of Thomas Cheeseman's Illustrations of the New Zealand Flora.

Sydney Parkinson was the first European artist to have New Zealand flora to work from, and he was prodigiously productive. Parkinson had been employed by Joseph Banks as the natural history artist on Cook's first voyage, while another man, Alexander Buchan, was the artist responsible for illustrations of landscapes and native peoples. However, with the untimely death of Buchan four days after arriving in Tahiti, the duties of all illustration fell to Parkinson, and as well as numerous landscapes and portraits, Parkinson produced almost 1000 plant illustrations before he, too, died, one of 31 of Cook's men that perished between the Endeavour arriving at Bativia (Jakarta) on the homeward leg, and her next stop at the Cape of Good Hope.
Because of the pressure of time, Parkinson would often sketch or paint only the essential parts of a particular plant and of his 925 plant illustrations, 676 were unfinished, many being later completed by artists that Banks commissioned after arriving back in England.

Parkinson's botanical illustrations

Parkinson kept a journal of his travels, which was completed and published posthumously by his brother and became a best-seller of the day. As well as containing some of the first landscapes and portraiture of New Zealand by a European, it provides a fascinating account of the adventure associated with Cook's first voyage, and contains many observations on aspects of culture and language, including a vocabulary of Maori.

Some of Parkinson's portraits

As well as Parkinson, history can regard itself lucky that Banks also employed the services of Daniel Carl Solander in Cook's first voyage. As Sampson relates, Solander was a student of Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy and the instigator of the binomial nomenclature that we use to describe flora and fauna.

It seems peculiar given the amount of work that Banks, Parkinson, Solander and others had put into collecting, describing and illustrating the flora of the voyage, but much of this work has not been published until recent times, and Sampson's book covers the twists and turns of this history.

Although some of the illustrations were published between 1900-1905, and again in 1973, the first complete edition of Bank's Florilegium, a work in 34 parts, was only published between 1980 and 1990 through a collaboration between Alecto Historical Editions and the British Museum. Unfortunately, due to the high standards of production and limited edition, this publication typically sells for more than NZ $100,000, thus being outside of the domain of most mere mortals, though there is a complete copy in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

As well as the artists associated with Banks and Cook (including Johan and George Forster), Sampson's book covers a number of other significant botanical artists, along with some beautiful examples of their work, of which I include a few examples of here below.

Following the links below will take you to the illustration presented in context in the text; keep clicking on that illustration to see the high-resolution image.

Martha King

Sarah Featon


Emily Harris


Georgina Hetley