Search our collections

Advanced Search

Topic: Banks' Florilegium

Two hundred years after the project was started, Joseph Banks' collection of coloured botanical engravings was painstakingly printed in a limited edition of 110 sets, entitled Banks' Florilegium.

Banks and Daniel Solander were responsible for gathering the vast collection of wildlife specimens from the many countries they visited during the Endeavour's round-the-world voyage. Most significant for them, with their special interest in botany, were the plant specimens. The Te Papa botany collection now holds several hundreds of the ones from New Zealand. Another collection of them is held in the Auckland Museum.

Banks' party collected thousands of plants. That was only part of the story. Once collected, the specimens had to be described before they wilted, then dried and stored for preservation. At the same time, Banks' botanical artist, Sydney Parkinson, had the job of doing accurate illustrations of the specimens. He sketched them, made notes on their colours, then did complete drawings, and lastly made full colour illustrations. He must have been kept very busy. During the voyage, until he died of malaria caught in Java, he completed nearly 950 plant drawings. He managed to complete the colour illustrations of 269 of these.

The publication of these illustrations was to be Banks' crowning achievement from his Pacific expedition. When he got back to England, he made arrangements for bringing the project to fruition. He employed five artists to complete the full colour illustrations following Parkinson's notes on coloration. They could also refer to the specimens themselves, which were now part of Banks' herbarium at his home.

The next part of the process was to make line engravings of the illustrations on copperplate, so the illustrations could be reproduced. Banks employed eighteen engravers, the best in the country, to make these. After thirteen years of work, 738 engravings were completed. Banks had spent a fortune on their preparation, but the whole work was never published in his lifetime.

Daniel Solander wrote a manuscript describing all the species collected from New Zealand during the six months the expedition spent here. It was called Primitiae Florae Novae Zelandiae ('beginnings of a New Zealand flora'), and was to be illustrated with the plates prepared by Banks. It was never published, but it was available for study by anyone interested, first at Banks' London home, then at the Natural History section of the British Museum.

The collection of engraved plates was also held there. Several sets of black and white proofs were made from the plates in the late nineteenth century, and three of these sets were acquired by the Dominion Museum in 1921.  In the 1980s, an independent publisher, Alecto Historical Editions, joined with what is now called the Natural History Museum to print 110 sets of all 738 illustrations in full colour. There are 183 prints in the New Zealand plants section. Te Papa purchased forty-five of these in 1996, and in 2011 bought a full set of the 183 New Zealand colour prints with the assistance of the Friends of Te Papa.

Text updated from that originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.

Related information