Historical botanical illustration of the day

Sydney Parkinson, Banks' Florilegium, Endeavour botanical illustrations, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

Ficus parkinsonii was the name given to a type of Australian fig, which today is known by the trinomial moniker Ficus superba var. henneana.

The specimen above was collected by the naturalist Joseph Banks on a brief visit to Booby Island together with Captain James Cook on 23 August 1770.

With preparations beginning for the journey back to England after more than four months in ‘New Holland’, this was the same day Cook noted in his journal that the “dangers and fatigues of the voyage” were “drawing near to an end.”

After painstakingly charting the previously unmapped northern coastline of Terra Australis Incognita, he was also content to declare that “New-Holland and New-Guinea are two Seperate Lands or Islands, which until this day hath been a doubtfull point with Geographers.”

Endeavour botanical illustrations, Banks' Florilegium, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium,

He named one of the nearby islands ‘Prince of Wales’s Island’ and another ‘Possession Island’ and christened the stretch of water between them that marked the beginning of his ship’s return journey ‘Endeavours Straight’.

As for the plant, it was named after the artist Banks had employed to illustrate the incredible variety of previously undiscovered botanical specimens he and his assistants collected during the course of the round-the-world voyage.

Sydney Parkinson (right) completed 280 finished and botanically accurate paintings, and over 900 sketches and drawings over the course of the expedition. Sadly, he died on the way back and never got the chance to see the final results of his labours.

The picture above, based on one of his sketches, was later completed by Frederick Polydore Nodder, who helped prepare the Banks’ Florilegium – a compendium of all the new plant species named and described by the naturalist during the Endeavour’s circumnavigation.

Parkinson was among the men who succumbed to malaria and dysentery contracted during the next stopover, an ultimately disastrous three-month stay in Java, which claimed the lives of 24 members of the crew.

Sydney Parkinson, Endeavour botanical illustrations, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,Cook noted shortly after arriving at the island that he had “not one man upon the sick list” but among the first to succumb to ‘Batavia fever’ was the ship’s surgeon himself, William Monkhouse. “Several of our people are daly taken ill which will make his loss be the more severly felt,” the captain wrote.

It was after leaving Java, on 26 January 1771, that Parkinson died. Just a few days before him another one of Banks’ assistants, the Finnish botanist and instrument maker Herman Spöring, fell victim to the “putrid fever”, as the artist described it in his account of Batavia – one of the last and lengthiest entries in his journal.

Several days after Parkinson’s departure, the Endeavour’s astronomer Charles Green, who’d played such a vital role in observing the transit of Venus from Tahiti, followed him.

Ficus parkinsonii, Sydney Parkinson Award for Botanical Illustration, Banks' Florilegium, Endeavour botanical illustrations, Mrs Morgan's Florilegium, Natalie Waddell,

While the label Ficus parkinsonii has since fallen out of favour, the artist’s name still lives on in the species of seabird called Procellaria parkinsoni, more commonly known as the Black Petrel or Parkinson’s Petrel (above).

And, just a few months ago, the Sydney Parkinson Award for Botanical Illustration was established in his honour, the inaugural medal presented to London’s Natural History Museum, which to this day houses many of his original works, including the above top painting. The engraving on the back of the medal is of Ficus parkinsonii.

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