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

Botanical illustrations

Botanical illustrations

George Forster's botanical illustrations do not, understandably, compare with those of Sydney Parkinson in quality or quantity. He was not a trained artist, though most certainly a "competent draughtsman", who was, as his father termed it, "in his Noviciate". George Forster put more time and effort into illustrating birds and fish than plants; after all, only about a quarter of the voyage was spent anchored near land. Although George was responsible for most of the biological illustrating, he did receive some help from his father, for the latter recorded in his Journal (24 April 1773): "I remained on board, in order to draw the young and delicate plants . . . before they might be spoiled." Dr P. Whitehead {Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Historical Series, 1978), when comparing several pencil drawings of fish and mammals, apparently by Johann Forster, with some by George, noted that "His father's drawings are careful, even hesitant, as befits a scientific man; by contrast, the best of George's are accurate but vigorous and assertive, as if presaging the scale on which his future literary talents would roam."

Within a year of his return to London, J. R. Forster was in debt again, mostly, it seems, because of lavish spending on books and periodicals. He therefore accepted in August 1776 an offer of £420 from Joseph Banks for George's botanical drawings. This was a generous sum, for the elegant residence that Forster rented for a time in St Pancras, London, was £60 a year, quite an extravagant amount then. The 301 drawings Banks acquired are now in the Department of Botany, British Museum (Natural History). Ninety-one New Zealand plants are included, and these are listed in an appendix by Phyllis Edwards to Forster's Journal (Hoare, 1982). (One of the New Zealand plants, the Forster's Wintera axillaris, now Pseudowintera axillaris, is incorrectly identified as Drimys winteri, a South American page 43 plant). Two hundred and three of the illustrations are in pencil, ten in pen and ink, forty-seven are finished watercolours, and forty-one are outline drawings with some watercolouring. One of George Forster's incomplete watercolours is reproduced in the Beggs' book, Dusky Bay (1975). A line drawing of Olearia oporina is also reproduced there, and comparison with a colour photograph of the plant on the opposite page demonstrates the accuracy of George's drawing. Reproductions of his watercolours of four fish and twelve birds from Dusky Sound are shown too. Many of these are superb. Other watercolours, drawings and engravings of New Zealand plants by George Forster are shown in the Beggs' James Cook and New Zealand (1970). Banks, to his annoyance, did not obtain all of George's botanical illustrations. George retained some, which he took to Germany; some were sold on his death. The Forsters' herbarium specimens were distributed to numerous botanical correspondents and institutions, and are now scattered in herbaria as far afield as Europe, Russia and USA. It is therefore difficult to locate many type specimens of the plants the Forsters described.