Title: Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Author: F. Bruce Sampson

Publication details: Reed Methuen, 1985, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: F. Bruce Sampson

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

Conditions of use


Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Early New Zealand Botanical Art

Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks

Joseph Banks was born on 13 February 1743 (not 1744 as has sometimes been stated). He came from landed gentry in Lincolnshire, whose "seat was Revesby Abbey, not far from Boston; as the fens were drained its wealth increased, and intelligent management made its standing still greater" (Beaglehole, 1962). His great-grandfather, grandfather and father had all been members of parliament, but Joseph developed no interest in that type of politics. At the age of nine he went to Harrow and four years later, to Eton. Banks showed litde interest in books during his early education, but at that time his interest in natural history was aroused. His doctor and friend, Sir Everard Home, wrote in 1822:

One fine summer evening he had bathed in the river as usual with other boys, but having stayed a long time in the water he found when he came to dress himself, that all his companions had gone; he was walking leisurely along a lane, the sides of which were richly enamelled with flowers; he stopped and looking round, involuntarily exclaimed, How beautiful! After some reflection, he said to himself, it is surely more natural that I should be taught to know all these productions of Nature, in preference to Greek or Latin ... He began immediately to teach himself Botany.

Old ladies who collected herbs for apothecaries were paid sixpence for every piece of useful information they could give him, and to his delight he found in his mother's dressing room an old copy of Gerard's Herbal, which he brought back to Eton. The story goes that he was engrossed in this book page 16 when detected by his tutor for the first time, in the act of reading". Joseph Banks became an avid collector and his large herbarium is now in the British Museum (Natural History).

Near the end of 1760 Banks went to Oxford, which "echoed with his armours", according to an article in Town and Country Magazine. Banks had no interest in Greek, then so popular, and found to his horror that Dr Sibthorp, who occupied the chair of botany, had delivered only one lecture on his subject in thirty-five years. Sibthorp, fortunately, had no objections to the suggestion that a lecturer in botany be engaged at Banks's expense. As there were no suitable people in Oxford, Sibthorp provided Joseph with a letter of introduction to his counterpart at Cambridge. Banks hired a horse and went to Cambridge to meet Professor Martyn, who recommended Israel Lyons, four years Banks's senior. Lyons proved to be an excellent tutor in natural history, and Banks organised a small group of students at Oxford. Natural history became a respected subject at that university and Banks and Lyons became firm friends.

When Joseph Banks was eighteen his father died, leaving him a fortune to be inherited on his twenty-first birthday. His mother, Sarah Banks, sold the family's London home in Westminster and moved with her daughter, Sarah Sophia, to a house in Chelsea. Sarah Sophia, who was a year younger than Joseph, never married and devoted her life to helping her brother in his work, and even after his marriage continued to live with him. The new house at Chelsea was close to the Chelsea Physic Garden, forerunner of Kew Gardens, and was not far from Lee and Kennedy's Vineyard Nursery, where Banks met Parkinson.

Plate 1 Entelea arborescens (whau)

Sydney Parkinson made this painting from a specimen collected at Anaura Bay. It was completed by F. P. Nodder in 1779. Whau has the lightest wood of all New Zealand trees and the Maoris utilised it for floats for their fishing nets. It occurs in the North Island and on Three Kings Islands, and in the north of the South Island (Nelson and Marlborough regions). The whau is a remarkably fast-growing plant, which is, however, easily damaged by heavy frosts. The soft, papery leaves are very large (up to twenty-five centimetres in length and breadth) and, among our native trees and shrubs, probably only the puka (Meryta sinclairii) has larger leaves.

Whau, or corkwood as it is sometimes called, is the only New Zealand member of the family Tiliaceae, which includes the European linden trees. The genus Entelea consists of only one New Zealand species. The white flowers have a rather crumpled appearance. The spiky fruits that develop from them open while still on the trees and release a large number of small, greyish seeds. It has been observed that the average life of an individual tree is only about ten years and that a single tree can produce a million seeds a year!

Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)

page break
Plate 1 Entelea arborescens R. Br. (whau) Sydney Parkinson

Plate 1 Entelea arborescens R. Br. (whau) Sydney Parkinson

Joseph left Oxford at the age of twenty and divided his time between the Revesby estates, Chelsea, and a fine house he had purchased in New Burlington Street, London. It was at about this time that he met Daniel Solander. He spent much time fishing with the Earl of Sandwich, who, by the time of the first voyage, was First Lord of the Admiralty. Visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden (Society of Apothecaries Garden) gained Banks the friendship of its superintendent, Philip Miller, a fine botanist and author of Gardener's Dictionary (first edition, 1724).

Banks was eager to study the plants and animals of relatively unexplored countries, and in April 1766 he left England as a passenger on H.M.S. Niger, bound for Newfoundland and Labrador. He was accompanied by a naval friend, Lieutenant Constantine Phipps, who became Lord Mulgrave. Joseph had become interested in Labrador through contacts his mother had made with a religious sect, the Moravian Brethren, founded in Bohemia. The Moravian Church had sent missionaries to Labrador to make contact with the Eskimos.

There had been considerable conflict between French and English fishermen along the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador, so rich in cod, halibut, seals and walruses, and H.M.S. Niger was sent to do summer "peace-keeping" duty. By the time the Niger left St Johns, Newfoundland, late in October, Banks had amassed a large collection of biological specimens and had gathered much information about the Eskimos and Newfoundland Indians. The Niger spent six weeks in Lisbon, Portugal, on the way home. This gave Banks the opportunity to meet several leading Portuguese botanists, starting life-long friendships with them. In January 1767 the Niger reached England.

As Dr Lysaght pointed out in her monumental book, Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766 (1971), Banks's extensive and well-documented collections demonstrated his outstanding abilities as a naturalist.

page 17

Plate 2 Elaeocarpus dentatus (hinau)

This specimen was collected in November 1769 at Mercury Bay on the Coromandel Peninsula. The hinau grows in forests throughout the North Island and in lowland forests in all but the southernmost regions of the South Island. Trees can grow up to twenty metres high, and the leaves are shorter and thicker and often less conspicuously toothed on adult trees than on juvenile ones. There are pits, known as domatia, on the underside of each leaf, situated where a lateral vein meets the midrib. Domatia occur on the leaves of a number of other New Zealand plants, but their function is unknown. The creamy-white, bell-like flowers have petals with frilly margins. Plum-like purplish fruits each contain a single seed.

Hinau is a member of the family Elaeocarpaceae, which is related to the Tiliaceae, to which the whau (Plate 1) belongs. There are about ninety species of Elaeocarpus, most in tropical regions. A second New Zealand species, the pokaka, Elaeocarpus hookerianus, occurs in the North, South and Stewart Islands.

Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History)

page break
Plate 2 Elaeocarpus dentatus (J. R. et G. Forst.) Vahl. (hinau) Sydney Parkinson

Plate 2 Elaeocarpus dentatus (J. R. et G. Forst.) Vahl. (hinau) Sydney Parkinson

The journey gave him the experience to organise so superbly the biological work on Cook's first voyage. Characteristically for Banks, none of his work on the flora and fauna of Newfoundland and Labrador was published; this despite the fact that he had commissioned some outstanding illustrations of the plants by Georg Ehret (1708-70), who has been described as the dominant influence in botanical art in the middle years of the eighteenth century. Sydney Parkinson sketched and painted many insects, birds and fish from Banks's Newfoundland and Labrador collection, and a number of these are reproduced in Dr Lysaght's book. Lysaght also notes that Banks "was always exceedingly generous in lending other scientists his material and MSS, and many of his discoveries have been published by other men".