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

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Early New Zealand Botanical Art

The fate of the botanical illustrations

The fate of the botanical illustrations

The watercolours

Of Parkinson's 925 plant illustrations, 676 were unfinished. At first he had been able to complete his botanical paintings, but by the time he reached New Zealand, he could not find time to finish each drawing. Soon after his return to London, Banks engaged a team of artists, at his own expense, to finish the paintings, botanical and otherwise. These artists did not simply complete each painting that Parkinson had begun; rather they copied Parkinson's incomplete illustration on to a fresh sheet of paper and then completed it. One can compare, at the British Museum (Natural History), London, Parkinson's incomplete illustrations with the finished versions.

The artists who were responsible for completing most of the botanical paintings were James and John Frederick Miller, John Cleveley jun. and Frederick Polydore Nodder. As I have commented, they followed Parkinson's style closely, and one cannot always tell without examining signatures which artist completed which painting, or even which paintings Parkinson completed himself. James and John Frederick Miller were sons of Johann Sebastian Miller (1715-ca. 1790), a distinguished German artist and engraver, who was an admirer of Linnaeus and particularly interested in botanical illustration. He anglicised the family name when he moved to England. John Cleveley junior added the "jun." to his name because his father, who had the same name, painted nautical subjects. These three artists so impressed Banks that he engaged them to accompany him on Cook's second voyage. When this plan did not eventuate, they accompanied him to Iceland in 1772. Frederick Polydore Nodder (who died about 1800) illustrated a number of botanical works and by 1788 was referred to as "botanical painter to her Majesty"

Of the signed illustrations of New Zealand plants that were completed by the above artists, most were by Frederick Nodder. James and John Frederick Miller completed a number too, and John Cleveley jun. finished four of them. Another artist, Thomas Burgis, finished a single New Zealand plant illustration. It should be noted that all twenty-four drawings of New Zealand ferns, most of which were finished by J. F. Miller, are uncoloured, unlike all other New Zealand plant illustrations.

One hundred and forty-six of the completed watercolours of plants are shown, reduced in size, in Sydney Parkinson (D. J. Carr (ed.), 1983). Most are reproduced in colour, and twenty of these illustrations are of New Zealand plants.

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The engravings

Banks had engravings of the finished Parkinson illustrations made on copper plates. His intention was to publish the botanical results of the Endeavour voyage in a series of fourteen or more volumes, with text to accompany the illustrations. Solander had made his descriptions of each plant on oblong pieces of paper during the voyage and these were filed in small boxes, now known as "Solander cases". The descriptions were neatly copied after the voyage into folio volumes and marked ready for printing. Joseph Banks employed eighteen different engravers to make the set of about 740 engravings. It has not been possible to determine whether the engravings, which have strong lines and lack the delicacy of many French engravings (compare Plates 4 to 7 with Plates 9 to 12) were to have been hand coloured after printing.

Joseph Banks, who was made a baronet in 1781, was a man of many activities and had been away on his expedition to Iceland during the last half of 1772. It was not until November 1784 that he was able to state that only two months' work was needed before publication. The copperPlate engravings alone had cost him £7,000, a huge sum then. Trial proofs were made but publication did not eventuate. The New Zealand portion, entitled Primitiae Florae Novae-Zelandiae, contained descriptions of 343 species, illustrated by over 200 plates. Even the title page had been prepared. Had the manuscript been published, we would now be using Banks's and Solander's names for many New Zealand plants. A number of later botanists did, however, use some of the names suggested by Banks and Solander. There are typescript copies of Primitiae Florae Novae-Zelandiae in the Auckland Institute and Museum and in the National Museum, Wellington.

In the 1890s several sets of proofs of the engravings were received by the New Zealand Government from the British Museum. They included 182 New Zealand plants and several hundred from elsewhere. These sets are now at the Auckland Institute and Museum, the National Museum and the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. In 1973 a limited edition of thirty of the botanical engravings, including some of New Zealand plants, was published (Blunt and Stearn, 1973).

Banks' Florilegium

All but a few of the 743 copperplate engravings have survived to the present day, despite air-raid damage to the British Museum in September 1940. These 738 plates are being published in eighteen volumes by Alecto Historical Editions, London, in association with the British Museum (Natural History). The edition is limited to 100, and each set will sell for about $NZ 130,000. The Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, has purchased a set and the first volumes, illustrating Australian plants, have been received. In Banks's time the engravings would probably have been printed with black ink and perhaps sold in uncoloured and hand-coloured versions. Alecto Historical Editions have used the à la poupée technique of colour printing from copper plates, developed by a Dutchman in the seventeenth century. Each copper plate is chromium plated to harden it so that it will not become page 30 worn during the printing. The various coloured pigments are worked into the incised lines of the engraving with a bunched piece of cloth (poupée). Then the smooth, unengraved part of the Plate is wiped clean. The colours of the pigments that are rubbed into the Plate are carefully chosen to match the colours of each finished watercolour. Up to fifteen different colours are used for each plate. The pigments chosen are those that were used in the eighteenth century, and these are mixed with boiled linseed oil. It can take three hours or more to ink up each Plate and to remove excess ink from non-engraved regions. Heavy-weight, acid-free paper is then lightly dampened and placed on top of the copper plate. This is run through a press, the rollers of which press the ink onto the paper from the grooves in the plate. Only one print can be made from each inking, which explains why each set of prints is so costly. The finished plates are very impressive indeed. They are, however, a step removed from the watercolours, which give a more accurate and life-like picture of each plant.