Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art


page 13

James Cook's first great voyage of discovery (August 1768-July 1771) resulted in the first illustrations of New Zealand plants. These 207 water-colours by Sydney Parkinson, most of which were completed by other artists in England, for Parkinson died near the end of the voyage, are among the best illustrations ever made of New Zealand plants. The finest of them have the accuracy and immediacy of a high-quality colour photograph, yet few of them have been published.

A project has begun to publish the 200-year-old engravings made from most, but not all, of the finished watercolours of plants from Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, Madeira and Java. This limited edition of Banks' Florilegium, which involves time-consuming hand colouring, is beyond the reach of most, as each set will sell for about $NZ 130,000.

The idea for a voyage to observe the June 1769 transit of the planet Venus across the sun, from a suitable island in the Pacific, came from the Royal Society of London. This transit is a comparatively rare event, and the next one would not take place until 1874. By accurately measuring the time interval between when the planet first obscured the sun and when it moved off, the distance of the earth from the sun could be calculated. King George III gave approval and financial support for the expedition, and the Navy Board purchased the Earle of Pembroke, a three-masted, 368-ton collier, 106 feet (32 metres) in length. It was renamed the Endeavour and was ideal for coastal exploration, being of shallow draught.

The vessel was chosen some weeks before its commander. There had been considerable debate as to who would be the most suitable, but finally James Cook (1728-79), a forty-year-old warrant officer, was selected. His skill as a navigator had been demonstrated in charts he had made of the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador. He had also shown a strong interest in astronomy. The Endeavour was Cook's first independent command, and he was given the rank of first lieutenant. Charles Green, who had been an assistant astronomer at Greenwich, was made astronomer for the voyage.

Although the transit of Venus was the ostensible reason for the voyage, another more important aim was given in "Additional secret instructions to Lieut. James Cook, commander of His Majesty's Bark the Endeavour". The page 14 expedition was to search for the existence of a great southern continent and, if discovered,

you are to employ yourself diligently in exploring as great an extent of the coast as you can . . . observe the nature of the soil and the products thereof, the beasts and fowls that inhabit and frequent it, the fishes . . . minerals . . . You are likewise to observe the genius, temper, disposition and number of the natives if there be any . . . also with the consent of the natives to take possession of convenient situations in the country, in the name of the King of Great Britain.

The Royal Society gave approval for one of its youngest fellows, a very wealthy 25-year-old, Joseph Banks, to join the expedition in a private capacity at his own expense. Banks (1743-1820), who had developed an interest in natural history from studying riverside plants and insects at Eton, studied botany at Oxford. He brought with him the following staff of eight: Dr Daniel Carl Solander (1733-82), who was a talented naturalist at the British Museum, and who had been one of Linnaeus's most brilliant students; Herman Diedrich Spöring (ca. 1733-71), a Swedish friend of Solander, who had been his clerk at the British Museum. Spöring had studied medicine and natural history, and acted as clerk or secretary to Banks and Solander during the voyage; Sydney Parkinson (ca. 1745-71), who was employed as natural history artist; and Alexander Buchan (died 1769), an artist whose chief responsibility was to illustrate the landscape and peoples encountered on the voyage, as well as their weapons, boats and villages. The other four members of the group, who have usually been referred to as Banks's servants but who were also trained collectors, were two men from Lincolnshire, where Banks had an estate: Peter Briscoe, who had been with Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, and James Roberts; and two negroes, Thomas Richmond and George Dorlton, both of whom died early in the voyage. Beaglehole (1962) noted that it was the fashion to have negroes in one's service in London at the time.