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BBG displays a treasure trove of botanical art

GO Brooklyn Editor

The set of engravings of plants in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new exhibit, "Banks Florilegium: An Eighteenth-Century Botanical Art Treasure Rediscovered," is of interest to everyone from scientists, to lovers of botanical art to those who love a good old-fashioned story of adventure on the high seas.

Curated by Patricia Jonas, the Garden’s director of library services, these engravings are based on the botanical drawings of artist Sydney Parkinson while aboard Captain James Cook’s voyage around the world on the Endeavour from 1768 to 1771. Out of the 743 color engravings (in the Garden’s collection) that are made from his works, Jonas culled just 36 for this exhibit.

The collection of engravings, Banks’ Florilegium, is named for Joseph Banks, the British naturalist who with Daniel Solander collected more than 30,000 plants in Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, Society Islands (Tahiti), New Zealand, Australia and Java.

Jonas said she started whittling down the number of images to be displayed by first including representatives of each of the countries the botanists visited, but she also chose some that are represented in the Botanic Garden’s own collections, and labels them as such, so visitors can see the engraving and then seek out its living counterpart.

"Of the 743 plants in the Florilegium, Banksias were an easy choice for me: Banks and Solander were the first Europeans to see this important Australian genus and it was the genus later named for Banks," said Jonas. "Banksia includes over 70 species but Banksia serrata is fairly widespread and has the colorful common name, ’Old Man Banksia.’ We also have an herbarium specimen of that plant on display and a small plant in our living collection.

"I also tried to choose those that had a good story or were visually exciting," she continued. "For instance, one of the weedy plants I chose is an endangered plant, Cook’s Scurvy Grass from Australia. It’s not much to look at, but it’s an antiscorbutic - it has properties that help fend off scurvy, which was a terrible scourge of long sea voyages. They collected a lot of this on the trip, so I included a story about scurvy."

Jonas said that after most of the voyage was over, only five passengers on the Endeavour had scurvy and there were no deaths from it, "as opposed to Magellan’s voyage where 80 percent of the crew died of scurvy," she said.

While he did not die from scurvy, Parkinson did die of fever six months before the end of the voyage, said Jonas. So Banks commissioned other artists to finish Parkinson’s paintings, which had meticulous notes, and engravings were then made from those paintings. Upon landing, "Cook’s considerable cartographic accomplishments were overshadowed in 1771 by the dazzling natural wonders collected and cataloged by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander and painted by Sydney Parkinson," explain the exhibition panels. Despite this success, prints were not made from the Endeavour engravings until 1983.

"Banks hired 18 engravers to create three tons of copper plates that were engraved, and then it was never printed and why is a matter of speculation," said Jonas. "In the 1980s, a fine press, Alecto Editions, approached the natural history museum in England to publish it for the very first time and that’s what we’re looking at [in the Garden’s exhibit]. The [original] paintings and the copper plates are still in their collection, where they sat for 200 years.

"So it’s an amazing publishing story, too," said Jonas. "My original background was in publishing, so I’ve been involved in projects that took a long time - but not 200 years - to bring to completion."

Although Alecto only printed 100 copies of the Banks Florilegium, the Botanic Garden received its own copy of the 743 engravings as a gift from the family of the late Robert Duenner Jr. in 2003. The prints on display are culled from this set.

While the paintings of plants in far off lands represented in the Banks Florilegium were fascinating for 18th-century natural history buffs and royalty alike ("King George III devoted two weeks after the triumphant return of the Endeavour to studying the drawings," according to the exhibition notes), botanical art continues to be an important way of collecting qualitative information about a plant and its seed, fruit and flowers for today’s scientists, explained Jonas.

"Botanical art itself is still favored over photography because of the universal detail it can capture and put into one illustration," said Jonas. "A photograph may take many angles, many times of the year but there have to be multiple images, where a botanical artist can and does paint the plant in one painting in various times of the year. The painting would include a rendering of the flower, seed and important details for identifying the plant - all on one illustration."

"I’m also curator of a contemporary florilegium, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden Florilegium, a multi-year project to record in watercolor, oil, and pen and ink the living collection at BBG," said Jonas. "Some of the United States’ finest botanical artists paint the living collections here And we do something very similar [to 18th century botanists]: painting the specimen while it’s still fresh, before it wilts and fades, and we are collecting the specimens and drying and pressing them. Both of these records are essentially permanent records of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the plants that grow here."

While Banks and his entourage were aboard the Endeavour to collect specimens and data about the landscape, people and plants they came across on the journey, the primary reason for the voyage to Tahiti, which had recently been named King George III’s Island by Captain Samuel Wallis, was to record the transit of Venus, in a larger attempt to compute the distance between the Earth and the sun. So the Botanic Garden’s exhibit also includes information about that undertaking, excerpts from Banks and Parkinson’s meticulous journals, actual dried plant specimens from the Endeavour voyage and a reproduction of Parkinson’s sketch of a kangaroo - which is probably the first ever made by a European.

Said Jonas, "[This exhibit] is interesting to botanical artists working today, and to botanists for the information that it contains about plants and specimens that were first collected of those plants, and to people interested in the romantic story of this great voyage."


"The Banks’ Florilegium: An Eighteenth Century Botanical Art Treasure Rediscovered" is on display now through April 10 in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Steinhardt Conservatory (900 Washington Ave. at Eastern Parkway in Prospect Heights). Free with garden admission: $5, $3 seniors and students with valid ID, free for children age 15 and younger. For more information, call (718) 623-7200 or visit the Web site at

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