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Sydney Parkinson (c.1745-1771)

The only known portrait of Sydney Parkinson painted from life. Artist unknown. The original may be found at The Natural History Museum, London.

Sydney Parkinson was born sometime in 1745 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and after a proper education, and when he reached the appropriate age, he was apprenticed to a Boolean draper, or fabric merchant, in preparation for his future career. True to his Quaker roots, he regarded personal industry as a great virtue, so he also studied draughtsmanship under William de la Cour to broaden and refine his skills. He soon became proficient enough at drawing plants and flowers that he decided to change the focus of his studies.

Seeking a better situation and to further his education Sydney Parkinson travelled south to London in 1766. He spent many of his days sketching plants at 'The Vineyard', the nursery of James Lee and Lewis Kennedy located on the London road in Hammersmith. Lee had written An Introduction to Botany, a very popular book that described the Linnaean system of classification, and therefore had brought considerable fame and fortune to both himself and his nursery. So it was quite natural for all aspiring botanists, gardeners, and botanical artists to visit the nursery on occasion and admire the latest acquisitions. And when young Joseph Banks came to peruse the nursery, James Lee introduced him to Sydney Parkinson.

Aechmea nudicaulis, a South American bromeliad, by Sydney Parkinson

After seeing the quality of Parkinson's work, Banks wasted little time in securing the young artist's talents for Kew. Barely established at the garden for a year, Parkinson was hired by Banks to be the artist for Captain Cook's first great voyage of discovery on the Endeavour. Since Banks never did anything by half measures, he hired a second artist, Alexander Buchan, to record the scenery and make a general pictorial account of the expedition so Parkinson would be able to focus his talents on drawing only the plants collected.

Conditions were cramped and the work was intense, since from the day they first sailed Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander were busy collecting everything the dragnets dredged up, leaving the myriad assorted creatures and seaweeds for Parkinson to draw. But Parkinson prevailed and never complained, and became well liked and respected by both officers and crew.

When the reached the shores of South America, Parkinson's observations in his journal suggest that he had the makings of a great naturalist in his own right;

     'The country adjacent to the city of Rio de Janeiro is mountainous, full of wood, but a very little part of it appears to be cultivated. The soil near the river is a kind of loam, mixed with sand; but further up in the country we found a fine black mould. An the tropical fruits such as melons, oranges, mangoes, lemons, limes, cocoa nuts and plantains, are to be met with here in great plenty. The air, it seems, is but seldom extremely hot, as they have a breeze of wind from the sea every morning; and generally a land wind at night.'

There appeared to be great consternation on the part of the local Viceroy, Don Antonio de Moura, who simply could not believe that the King of England, for purely scientific reasons, had dispatched such a well-equipped mission. Captain Cook therefore found himself embroiled in local politics, while his ship lay anchored in the harbour, unable to restock much needed supplies.

Being stuck on the Endeavour unable to study the rich and diverse Brazilian flora and fauna was untenable for the young naturalists, and Mr. Banks hatched a plan. It was a dangerous one since the Viceroy had ordered a sentinel to be posted on the ship, and that the crew was to remain under constant surveillance. Parkinson recalled in his journal;

     'Having obtained a sufficient knowledge of the river and harbour by the surveys we had made of the country, we frequently, unknown to the sentinel, stole out of the cabin window at midnight, letting ourselves down into a boat by a rope; and, driving away with the tide until we were out of hearing, we then rowed to some unfrequented part of the shore, where we landed, and made excursions up into the country.'

It is also unlikely that Cook would have been pleased, as any such actions could only serve to antagonize the delicate situation. However, they managed to carry out their surreptitious collecting missions on several occasions, and the Captain was eventually able to negotiate the restocking of the ship.

The Endeavour continued on her mission, and Sydney Parkinson worked tirelessly on his drawings. The number of specimens collected did not yet overwhelm him, and so the works he created during this time were coloured by his own hand. This would not be true of the sketches he would make in the South Pacific and Australia. By the middle of April, 1769 the Endeavour safely reached the shores of Tahiti;

A Tahitian outrigger canoe as drawn by Sydney Parkinson

      'The 12th, the sea being mostly calm in the forenoon, we could get very little nearer land; but many of the Indians came off to us in canoes (one of which was double, and had much carved work on it) bringing with them cocoa nuts, and apples to truck for nails, buttons, and beads. These canoes were but just wide enough for one person to sit in the breadth: to prevent them from over-setting, they place out riggers, upon the top of which is fixed a bamboo fishing rod. The people in the canoes were of a pale, tawny complexion, and had long black hair. They seemed to be very good natured, and not of a covetous disposition; giving us a couple of cocoa nuts, or a basket of apples, for a button, or a nail.
      ... we made the island of Otaheite, called by the Do!phin's people George's Island ... We entered Port Royal harbour and anchored in nine fathoms of water, within half a mile of the shore. The land appeared as uneven as a piece of crumpled paper, being divided irregularly into hills and valleys; but a beautiful verdure covered both, even to the tops of the highest peaks. A great number of natives came off to us in canoes, and brought with them bananas, cocoas, breadfruit, apples, and some pigs ...'

There were surprisingly few new plants for Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander after the first two weeks on the Island of Tahiti. While the astronomer recorded the transit of Venus, or struggled to regain equipment taken by the locals (who had a very different concept of property from the Europeans), Parkinson worked hard to complete more of his sketches and colour a number he had made before. This was made all the more difficult by the local insect population. Captain Cook recalled Parkinson's tribulations;

     'Our residence on shore would by no means have been disagreeable if we had not been incessantly tormented by the flies, which among other mischief, made it almost impossible for Mr Parkinson ... to work; for they not only covered his subject so that no part of its surface could be seen, but even ate the colour off the paper as fast as he could lay it on.      We had recourse to mosquito nets and fly traps, which, though they made the inconvenience tolerable, were very far from removing it.'

But for Parkinson the most troubling incident occurred when Alexander Buchan, the landscape painter, suffered a severe epileptic fit, fell into a coma, and died. The two artists had formed a firm friendship, and now Parkinson would have to go on with little opportunity to grieve, as he was now expected to take on the work of two men.

'A New Zealand Warrior in his Proper Dress & Compleatly Armed, According to their Manner.'
by Sydney Parkinson

The next major port of call was New Zealand, where Banks and Solander were able to collect only a very few botanical specimens, but this afforded Parkinson the opportunity to make detailed drawings of some of the Maori people they encountered. It was soon evident that his remarkable talent extended to portraying people as well.

When the expedition moved on to Australia, the changes could not have been more dramatic. The people, the animals, and the plants all appeared to be worlds apart from anyone or anything they had encountered before. True to their botanical leanings, Banks and Solander collected mostly botanical specimens, with only a few examples of the local birds and mammals and sea creatures - and Parkinson was expected to draw them all. He was inundated, and worked hard to keep up with the huge number of plants being brought onboard the Endeavour each day, often making only sketches of each item, with hastily scribbled notes about the colours he would fill in later.

They spent several months off the western coast of Australia, and then began the long journey home. No one had suffered from scurvy, and there had been only a very few deaths on the Endeavour, a remarkable record for such an extended voyage around the world. But after stopping in Batavia, now Djakarta, four crewmembers were struck down with fevers and died. The journey to the African Cape was a nightmare for all, as several vicious diseases tore through them, tuberculosis, dysentery and malaria all took their toll. On January 26th 1771, Sydney Parkinson died, and was buried at sea. Parkinson had produced a considerable body of work, 280 finished and botanically accurate paintings and over 900 sketches and drawings.

A famous journalist of the day, John Hawkesworth, was granted exclusive rights to tell the story of this, one of the greatest sea voyages in history, and the resulting three volume set is told in the first person, vacillating between Banks and Cook with no indication of who is talking. It borrows heavily from the journals of Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, and of several other members of the voyage, including Sydney Parkinson. Despite a wealth of information, Hawkesworth still managed to fill his work with staggering inaccuracies, which in itself would simply make his odious tome one of the most laughable journalistic misadventures on record, but the slight to Parkinson and the others was considerable, and was a catalyst in the dispute between Stanfield Parkinson and Joseph Banks.

After the return of the Endeavour in July 1771, a protracted struggle ensued over the ownership of Parkinson's journal, paintings and sketches. Banks wanted the artwork, Hawkesworth demanded the journal, and Stanfield Parkinson wanted the money. Eventually Banks managed to secure clear ownership of the sketches and paintings for £500, a settlement which included Sydney's unpaid salary.

Banks arranged for the sketches to be finished, coloured, and engraved, by Frederick Polydore Nodder and four other artists and engravers, but the quality of these engravings never quite matched the sensitivity and expertise of Parkinson's originals. By 1778 over 500 plates had been engraved for publication, but for one reason or another, it was not until 1900 that they were finally published by James Britten in his 'Illustrations of the Botany of Captain Cook's Voyage Round World in HMS Endeavour in 1768-1771 by Sir Joseph Banks, Daniel Solander: with a determination by James Britten'. This long and pretentious title fails to mention Sydney Parkinson in yet another rather remarkable slight.

Ficus parkinsonii was named in his honour, and today Sydney Parkinson is finally recieving the credit he so richly deserves, and he is remembered as one of the truly great botanical artists.



*Based on the originals at The Natural History Museum, London

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