Botanic beauty discovered

20:05, Sep 27 2012

Last week Glyn Church wrote of artist Sydney Parkinson's voyage to Tahiti with Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour. This week their epic journey continues to New Zealand and Australia.

Everyone was disappointed to be leaving Tahiti. The warm climate, plentiful food and friendly people made this the perfect paradise.

But Captain Cook had instructions to find 'Terra Australis Incognito' or "The Unknown Southern land". With two enormous land masses in the northern hemisphere, scientists believed there must be an equal land mass in the southern ocean to balance the earth.

Having captured the runaway crew members, they set sail into the southern ocean. Parkinson had a host of plant paintings to work on and Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander added to his load by finding more specimens to paint. When they were at sea the two men were constantly catching fish, sharks, birds, and then seaweeds and other marine life using a dragnet.

Fishing sounds like fun and no doubt it did relieve the boredom when surrounded by vast oceans for weeks on end, but once caught these men of science began the time-consuming job of analysing, recording, naming and painting each specimen. As you can imagine, painting at sea was a trial with the tiny boat heaving and lurching around in the ocean waves.

On October 7, 1769 they saw land. Banks in his journal said 'all hands seem to agree that this is certainly the continent we are in search of'. Because it was bigger, much bigger than a typical Pacific island, they were convinced they had found the missing continent. It was New Zealand, of course.


As they sailed around the country surveying the coast, Banks endeavoured to get ashore as often as possible to collect plants. Parkinson was busier than ever doing the work of two after fellow painter Alexander Buchan died in Tahiti. Now he was painting people and scenery as well as his usual task of sketching and painting birds and plants. To keep up with the overwhelming number of plant samples he came up with a plan. The trick was to draw an outline of a plant and then painting just one leaf and a portion of flower with the intention of completing the work when he got home.

Parkinson had the privilege of painting the gaudy red ratas and pohutukawas, our two common kowhais with their dainty leaves, and the kakabeak which seems an unlikely candidate given it's such a rare plant in the wild.

Nowadays kakabeak are only found wild around Lake Waikaremoana, far inland. It seems it was cultivated by coastal Maori for its beauty.

You can see all these paintings in the exhibition. But he didn't just depict the choice attractive plants, they gathered and studied and then painted every plant they could find.

His paintings of Maori and Australian aborigines were the first ever seen in Europe.

He was also the first to record the kangaroo, something they described as a giant mouse. As you can imagine the poor man was inundated with plant specimens as they sailed around New Zealand and then up the east coast of Australia. Here he was, recording two of the most astonishing floras in the world and everything the expedition touched was new to science. Imagine being the first European to see and paint a pohutukawa or kakabeak, then on to Australia and seeing banksia and acacias galore. It must have been so thrilling and yet mind boggling to a man from chilly Scotland.

Having escaped the clutches of the Barrier Reef when their ship the Endeavour almost sank; the next stop was Batavia, modern day Jakarta in Indonesia. Remarkably, Cook had lost no-one to scurvy and hardly lost a crew member on the voyage. But now, seemingly safe in dock, nearly everyone got sick except Parkinson. During this time he took up the role of plant collector as well as painter because Banks and Solander were both too ill. The two men rented a house and employed local women to take care of them.

Many crew members died in Batavia and even when they sailed away things were dire. Some were still dreadfully sick. Having survived all this time, Parkinson was suddenly struck down and died just a few days out from Batavia and he was buried at sea. It seems a sad end for such a skilled man but it emphasises the fact that this voyage was a daring adventure and every man's life was at risk. Banks secretary Herman Sporing also died on this leg of the journey, so only Banks and Solander survived of Banks' original contingent of seven.

From a botanical viewpoint it's sad that Parkinson died before returning to London to complete his task. His brother nabbed his journal and argued with Banks about the paintings. Banks eventually paid him [PndStlg]500, a huge amount of money for the full rights to the artist's work. Even then Parkinson's brother had to be restrained from publishing his brother's account of the journey before the official account was released.

Parkinson's book A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas was published in 1773 and proved very popular. In some ways Parkinson's description of their voyage is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of what happened aboard this long voyage.

Cook's was mostly nautical and had to do with the day to day running of the ship and what they encountered. Banks was writing for a larger audience, making himself the centre of attention, whereas Parkinson simply wrote about what happened. Parkinson was a learned man and took several books with him on the voyage including Shakespeare, Homer and Ovid.

Banks organised London painters and engravers to finish Parkinson's paintings.

But the paintings were never published in Banks' day. He seemed to lose heart once Solander died. The Florilegium was only completed in the 1980s when all 34 volumes were created using the same techniques as they used 200 or more years ago.

The Puke Ariki museum has the two volumes relating to New Zealand.

The exhibition of these paintings called Shadowing Venus is on at Puke Ariki Museum until November 11.

My thanks to Janet Brown.

Taranaki Daily News