A gathering of flowers: Banks’ Florilegium

You might have been fortunate enough to go on board HMB Endeavour in Port Adelaide in February during its current circumnavigation of Australia. You would have been struck by Joseph Banks’ commodious accommodation for himself and his entourage that included Carl Linnaeus’ student, Danish botanist Daniel Solander, Finnish naturalist and secretary, Herman Sparing, two artists, Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan, two dogs and a goat!

At that time, ‘No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History, nor more elegantly’. Banks’ luggage was reputed to have cost £10,000. Indeed, James Cook’s voyage of imperial exploration was in equal measure Banks’ voyage of scientific exploration. The voyage was one of trials as well as tribulations. In Rio de Janiero, Banks was confined on board for three weeks effectively unable to botanise on shore. ‘You have heard of Tantalus in hell, you have heard of the French man laying swaddled in linen between two of his Mistresses both naked using every possible means to excite desire but you have never heard of a tantalised wretch who has borne his situation with less patience than I have done mine I have cursd, swore, ravd, stampd‘. And after the Endeavour ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef, Banks lost a significant part of his collection. ‘Since the ship has been hauld ashore the water that has come into her has of course all gone backwards and my plants which were there safely stowd in the bread room were this day found under water; nobody had wamd me of the danger which had never once entered my head; the mischief was however now done so I set to work to remedy it to the best of my power. The day was scarce long enough to get them all shifted & c; many were savd but some intirely lost and spoild.’ Banks returned to London a hero, the artists and naturalist died on the return voyage and the goat ended its days in Greenwich Park.

Banks now held, ‘… the choicest collections of drawings in Natural History that perhaps ever enriched any cabinet, public or private; – 987 plants drawn and coloured by Parkinson; and 1300 or 1400 more drawn … and what is more extraordinary still, all the new genera in this vast collection are accurately described, the descriptions fairly transcribed and fit to be put to the press’.

However, the journey to publication proved considerably more protracted. First Banks engaged five watercolourists over three years to prepare watercolours for all of Parkinson’s drawings utilising Parkinson’s colours and notes and Banks’ herbarium specimens at a cost of £4500. Next, Banks engaged 18 engravers over 13 years to prepare 753 engraved copper plates at a cost of £7000. By 1784, Banks acknowledged the Florilegium as ‘fit to be put to the press‘. 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.’ However, the work remained unpublished on Banks’ death in 1820 when the plates were bequeathed to the British Museum. The reasons proposed for Banks’ failure to publish during his lifetime are largely conjectural but cost must have been a significant consideration.

Two centuries after the completion of the plates, in 1980, Joe Studholme at Alecto Editions in London endeavoured to finally ‘put to the press’ Banks’ Florilegium in partnership with the British Museum of Natural History. Alecto’s catalogue was already impressive and included multiples for artists of the calibre of David Hockney, Eduardo Paolozzi and Henry Moore.
Studholme, and the printer in charge, Edward Egerton-Williams decided to experiment with printing in colour directly from the plate. The technique selected dates from the end of the 17th century and would have been available to Banks’ printers. The printing involved 10, or in some cases up to 15, different colours inked into the plate with a rolled up piece of cloth (cotton tarlatan) or ‘dolly’ – rag-doll style or a la poupee, in French. Studholme and Egerton-Williams at Alecto and Chris Humphries at the Natural History Museum believed the a la poupee ‘…achieved the best balance between the need to be accurate in terms of original water-colours and the need to show the beauty,of the engraved lines including their effects of tonal subtlety‘.

Banks’ patronage had seen the plates ready to ‘put to the press‘. Kerry Packer’s patronage in underwriting 40 of the 100 sets proposed for printing allowed the plates to actually proceed to the press after a 200-year hiatus. The results are currently on display in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, again thanks to the generous support of an anonymous patron of the Gardens.

Banks’ Florilegium exhibition is open 10AM-4PM daily until Wednesday, August 15 in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany at the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 1 May 2012.

For more information about the Botanic Gardens of South Australia, visit the website.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s