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Meet David Mabberley, Botanist and Author

Sydney Parkinson made hundreds of sketches and watercolours for Joseph Banks on board the Endeavour on Captain Cook’s first journey.

More than 200 years later they have finally been printed in colour as Joseph Banks’ Florilegium. Professor David Mabberley chose the prints and wrote the text.

An interview with Robin Powell


Meet David Mabberley, botanist and author


Why didn’t Joseph Banks get around to publishing Sydney Parkinson’s illustrations as he’d intended?

That’s the big question. Banks spent the equivalent of millions of pounds in modern money on them and got only as far as having them engraved. The general consensus is that money was getting tight and Banks felt he’d fulfilled his obligations by making the engravings available to anyone who wanted to see them in his library. I first saw them in 1972 and was overwhelmed - firstly that I hadn’t seen them before, and also how outstanding they were, especially given the time and the circumstances in which they’d been made. I thought then that they should be made widely available.


How hard was it to choose the images for the book?

Very! We chose 181 out of more than 700. I chose the most interesting from each place the Endeavour stayed, so that the story of the journey is told not just through the text but also through the plates themselves. I also wanted to make sure that all the engravers were represented, as well as the artists who finished the watercolours that poor Sydney Parkinson was too overwhelmed with specimens to finish. I asked my co-authors, printer Joe Studholme, and the art historian Mel Gooding, for their favourites, and I looked for plants that people would have some relationship with - either as food plants or garden plants.


Clerodendrum paniculatum, Pagoda flower, Labiatae


Do you have any particular favourites?

Some of the ones at the end, when everyone was ill in Java, are very poignant. Sydney was collecting as well as sketching and I love the grace of the clerodendrum he has captured. It’s very delicate. The leaves are a little bit wrong but it’s a glorious effort. And of course he died a few days later. At last we’re doing him some justice.


Why did you think the book worth doing now?

I’ve always thought the illustrations should be available for people to see, especially people in this country. They are the first European illustrations made of the extraordinary plants on this side of the continent so they’re important historically, as well as botanically. It’s not a cheap book, but at less than a dollar a plate it’s a bargain.

Joseph Banks’ Florilegium, with texts by Mel Gooding, commentaries on the plates by David Mabberley, and an afterword by Joe Studholme, published by Thames and Hudson, rrp $120.


Thespesia populnea, Mahoe, Malvaceae


About this article

Author: Robin Powell