200-year-old prints return to Australia

By Melissa Leong 19 May 2010
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Early impressions of Australia’s natural world are shrouded in history and mystery.

FOR THE FIRST TIME in more than 200 years, 15 of the original prints from Sir Joseph Bank’s Florilegium are arriving in Australia.

These prints, to be displayed at the annual Cooktown Discovery Festival, QLD, were produced from original copperplate engravings of flora species collected at the Endeavour River during the voyage of James Cook’s Endeavour. The species were collected by naturalists Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, and then illustrated by onboard artist Sydney Parkinson.

Botanist Sandy Lloyd says the prints “represent the beginning of
European understanding of Australian flora.”

Discovery of a new world

More than 30,000 plant specimens were collected by Joseph and Daniel throughout the Endeavour voyage from 1768-1771. Out of that, over 200 were found at the Endeavour River during the crew’s 48-day stopover there. Altogether, the specimens represent 3,600 species, 1,400 of which were new to science at that time.

The whole process took 13 years and UK£10,000 at Bank’s expense – a hefty sum of money in its day. Sadly, he never published the results. First copies of the Florilegium were hand-printed from the original copperplates in the 1980s.

Lizards by Ernst Haeckel, 1904

Lizards, depicted by Ernst Haeckel, 1904 VIEW GALLERY

Historian John McDonald says Australia as a nation grew from Cook’s landing at Endeavour River. “Cook’s journey and his incidental discovery of Australia is probably the founding event of Australian modern history,” says John. “Flora, fauna and even insects were found. A whole new world was discovered.”

Mystery of false flowers

Sydney Parkinson sketched and water-coloured the specimens until his untimely death at sea in 1771. Despite the centuries that have passed, a nagging mystery still surrounds the flowers in his paintings.

“The crew was here in June or July 1770. That’s the dry season, but majority of our flowers flourish in the wet season,” says Sandy. “Did Sydney Parkinson paint flowers that should not have existed? Has the climate changed from the past, or the plants evolved since they were collected over 200 years ago?”

After Sydney’s death, the illustrations were completed based on his existing work and 743 copperplate engravings of the specimens were produced. 337 were of Australian flora.

Alongside the unique prints at the exhibition will be deceased botanical artist Vera Scarth-Johnson’s 15 matching paintings and living specimens from the Cooktown Botanic Gardens.  Today, the copperplates can be found in the British Natural History Museum. Similarly, the original pressed-dried specimens can be found there and in some of Australia’s Herbariums.

The flora species depicted are golden guinea flower (Hibbertia banksii), wax flower (Hibbertia banksii), bats wing coral tree (Erythrina vespertilio), beach jack bean (Canavalia rosea), silky wattle (Acacia holosericea), tree potato (Parinari nonda), corkwood tree (Carallia brachiata), coast canthium (Canthium coprosmoides), button plant (Dischidia nummularia), native waxplant or white hoya (Hoya australis), silver oak or beefwood (Grevillea parallela), Queensland bleeding heart (Omolanthus novoguineensis), golden orchid (Dendrobium discolor), the tea tree orchid (Dendrobium caniculatum) and blood root (Haemodorum coccineum).

The exhibition will run at Natures Powerhouse Gallery in Cooktown Botanic Gardens from 6 – 30 June.

Voyage of Endeavour: Two centuries on
Cooktown: A place of endeavour
Art of nature: A depiction of the natural world