Early New Zealand Botanical Art
Many details of the short life of Sydney Parkinson are unknown. He was born in Edinburgh about 1745. His parents were Quakers, and when his father, a brewer, died leaving considerable debts,
his son Sydney was put to the business of a woollen-draper; but, taking a particular delight in drawing flowers, fruit, and other objects of natural history, he became soon so great [and] proficient in that stile [sic] of painting, as to attract the notice of the most celebrated botanists and connoisseurs in that study.
Sydney Parkinson certainly received a good and broadly based education — a book list in his sketch book showed that he was familiar with the works of such writers as Homer, Virgil, Spenser, Chaucer, Pope and Dryden.page 15
The quality of his art work is such as to suggest professional training by a skilled artist. The late Dr Averil Lysaght has suggested Parkinson may have been a pupil of William de la Cour, a gifted Frenchman who ran the first publicly maintained school of drawing and design in Great Britain.
When Sydney Parkinson was about twenty, he moved with his mother to London, where, in 1765 and 1766, some of his flower paintings were exhibited. He was employed by another Quaker and Scotsman, James Lee, part-owner of the well-known Lee and Kennedy Vineyard Nursery in Hammersmith, to give drawing lessons to his teenage daughter, Ann, who later became an accomplished artist. Lee's An Introduction to Botany (first edition, 1760) was the first book in English to describe Linnaeus's methods of classification. James Lee was a friend of Joseph Banks — in fact, his ward, Harriet Blosset, became engaged to Banks shortly before the voyage began. In 1767 Lee introduced Parkinson to Banks, who commissioned him to illustrate material he had collected in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766, to copy some paintings, and to illustrate exotic birds and insects in his collection. Most of these illustrations are now in the British Museum.
Sydney Parkinson was well aware of the potential hazards when he accepted Banks's offer of employment as artist on Cook's voyage. "God knows I may never return", he wrote, and made his will a month before sailing.