Artistic Endeavour: Contemporary botanical artists’ response to the legacy of Banks, Solander and Parkinson marks the 250th anniversary of the HMB Endeavour voyage along the east coast of Australia. Scientists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, together with illustrator Sydney Parkinson, collected and recorded many “curious plants [they] met with on shore”.
This exhibition showcases contemporary works by members of the Botanical Artists’ Society of Queensland in recognition of this historical event. Our artists from far north Queensland, south to Newcastle and west to Roma, have contributed to this exhibition which has proved to be the most complex project ever conducted by the Society.
The Banks, Solander and Parkinson Committee was established by the Society in May 2017 to guide the exhibition to fruition.
Being a juried exhibition, selection criteria were established for the artworks. Encouragement was offered to members by fellow members through workshops and peer review. Botanical artists Dr Gillian Scott and Margaret Saul offered additional guidance upon request, while Dr Megan Thomas, Dr Paul Forster and
Dr Nita C Lester offered support from the botanical perspective.
The very generous support given by Museums & Galleries Queensland, especially Rebekah Butler and Debra Beattie, and funding through Arts Queensland and the Australian Government’s Visions of Australia program, has enabled the Society to realise this exhibition, Artistic Endeavour.
We know our exhibition will inspire you to examine plants in detail and to enjoy their colours, textures and shapes. You might even create your own plant portraits.
Dr Nita C Lester
President, Botanical Artists’ Society of Queensland Co-curator,
Artistic Endeavour traces the extraordinary legacy of plant collections made along the east coast of Australia in 1770 during Captain James Cook’s voyage on HMB Endeavour (1768–1771). The joint efforts of scientists Sir Joseph Banks and Dr Daniel Solander, and botanical artist Sydney Parkinson, were the first attempt to collect and document the flora along this coastline.
This exhibition of botanical artworks by members of the Botanical Artists’ Society of Queensland portrays a selection of those same plants collected and identified in 1770.
The Endeavour expedition took place in the ‘Age of Reason’, a time of innovation and scientific discovery in Europe. While the journey’s primary purpose was to gain geo-political and commercial advantage for the British Empire, it was as much or perhaps even more for its secondary purpose, ‘to study and make collections of all natural materials, beasts, fish and minerals’ and the passionate work of the naturalists on board, that the expedition achieved great fame and significance.
This was a crucial period when modern science started to become established and gain widespread social prominence. The young and independently wealthy Joseph Banks successfully lobbied London’s Royal Society and through them, the British Admiralty, to be included on the Endeavour voyage, self-funding a team of eight staff and extensive library and equipment stores for collecting, studying and preserving natural history specimens. Following the voyage, Banks became President of the Royal Society, establishing an influential, international scientific network, which he presided over for more than 40 years. This succeeded in convincing the British government that investing in scientific research was in the nation’s and Empire’s best interests.
Botanical art is an art practice in the service of science. Sydney Parkinson was the first European artist to draw and paint plants collected from places on the exploratory voyages, greatly influencing the role and rise of botanical art. Parkinson’s sketches finally made up 21 large bound volumes. These were supported by often rapidly made notes by Banks and Solander and subsequent fair copies written out by Banks’ secretary and Finnish botanist, Dr Herman Spöring Jr. The records all remain an area of active research today and of great scientific importance.
The practice of botanical art has today matured into a recognised and reputable field involving specialist research, observation, techniques and methodologies.
Unlike Sydney Parkinson, the artists featured in Artistic Endeavour have had much more time to observe, research and know these plants. They have all liaised closely with Dr Nita C Lester, botanist, artist and Society President, who ensured the acceptable accuracy of the artworks for scientific value and purpose. In these intricate renditions, the works also speak to us as art, opening up affective emotional and intellectual responses of wonder and curiosity at Nature’s astonishing designs.
During their 70 days along the east coast of Australia, Banks and Solander collected over 1000 species of plants and animals. Much of what was found was completely new to them and to the Western world, and many species of Eucalyptus, Grevillea, Callistemon, Dillenia and Mimosa were all eventually formally classified on the basis of the specimens collected on this trip.
This exhibition includes portraits of some of Australia’s most iconic plants. Anne Hayes has depicted a single cone of Banksia serrata at heroic scale with great impact. Catherin Bull’s commanding work captures the smooth white bark of Eucalyptus platyphylla with intense details of the distinctive broad leaves. Julia Hancock’s lively and sensitive portrait of Melaleuca citrinus is flush with new growth and the much-loved, familiar flowers.
Botanical illustrators and artists have a diverse range of backgrounds and training. They may enter the field from fine art, graphic design, horticulture, landscape design, botany, or general biology. Some are graduates of one of a small number of tertiary programs in botanical art and scientific illustration, whereas others are self-taught. Many botanical artists learn from their peers, taking workshops and masterclasses with leading botanical artists that are often hosted by botanical artists’ groups and societies. The field is keenly cooperative and collaborative, sharing knowledge about both botany and artmaking, with online networks enabling international exchange.
Some botanical artists are also botanical illustrators. A botanical illustration is governed by stricter conventions and is usually produced to illustrate a botanical, taxonomic text. Typically, the artist works under the direction of a botanist to depict all relevant aspects of the plant, including the life cycle, and even relevant dissections, to enable accurate identification of the species. Over 90% of botanical illustrations are monochrome, drawn in graphite or in pen and ink. Botanical artworks, on the other hand, are always scientifically and botanically correct but not necessarily complete. More emphasis is placed on aesthetic value and the artist’s interpretation of the plant. Artworks are frequently in colour, on a plain background.
Botanical illustration and art require an understanding of plant morphology. What is even more foundational is the ability to observe and accurately record the living plant. Botanical artists will research their plant in written texts and also observe the plant growing over time, potentially even in different locations and throughout seasonal cycles, making notes and field sketches and photographic documentation. The artist is then able to take good specimens – ones that are typical of that species or particularly inspiring. This can involve obtaining collection permits and permissions. Artists will work with both live and dried specimens, often dissecting the plant, observing it under a microscope, and taking accurate measurements. Artists will liaise with botanists at various stages in their process to seek advice and support, particularly in regard to which features of the plant should be emphasised. Some botanical artists are also scientists and produce botanical art as an integral part of their practice and research.
Often, the finished illustration or artwork is a composite of many smaller drawings, some showing key plant parts such as seeds, flowers, or fruit in section or whole. The scale of specimen depiction is usually 1:1 or, if magnified or reduced, a scale will be indicated. These detailed observations and depictions can, in some cases, call attention to details of the plant’s structure that the scientist has missed. For botanists, botanical illustration and art are an essential aid to plant identification, and
regarded as an important scientific tool – one which has not been replaced by photography.
Many of the artworks in Artistic Endeavour reveal the lifecycles of native Australian plants in intricate detail. Hardenbergia violacea by Cassandra Hodgins lyrically expresses this popular plant’s vigorous climbing habit, while depicting leaf, flower and seed formation. Minjung Oh depicts the glorious opening of the Grevillea pteridifolia flower, revealing the development of a single flower stalk in acute detail.
During the early stages of the Endeavour voyage, artist Sydney Parkinson was able to keep pace with Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander’s plant collecting, completing his sketches in colour.
However later, and particularly while in Australia, he was inundated by the number of new specimens and could only sketch, partially colour and make notations for significant portions of each plant portrait. In addition, his workload increased when topographical draughtsman and landscape artist, Alexander Buchan, died in Tahiti.
Parkinson lived and worked on board ship in a small cabin surrounded by hundreds of specimens – conditions were cramped and without a level working surface. In Tahiti he was plagued by swarms of flies that ate the paint as he worked! Parkinson worked on paper using watercolour, wash, pen and pencil. Colour pigments were ground up on board ship. Banks and Solander decided which specimens should be drawn on the basis of their being noteworthy or new to science.
Watercolour is a medium often favoured by botanical artists both for its portability and convenience and also for the ability to capture fine detail. It is therefore adaptable for both working quickly in the field and for producing prolonged detailed studies in the studio. Although an accessible and versatile medium, watercolour requires extraordinary skill and precision in its application to achieve its best effects. The finely ground pigments, bound by gum arabic or other binding medium and afloat in water, resist absorption, coating the paper surface with a jewel-like brilliance and achieving a transparent quality which can be built up in layers.
Vellum (or calf skin) was used as an alternative medium to papyrus or paper for painting and printing since Roman times, and was often a preferred surface for botanical artists for its innate translucency and smoothness. Vellum is newly popular amongst contemporary botanical artists and is particularly favoured by those who are painting
in a very precise way – typically working with ‘dry’ watercolour using a stippling technique or very small strokes. Silverpoint, another medium used by the old masters, is also enjoying a revival by artists today. Styluses containing a sharpened silver wire produce delicate pale lines that tarnish over time to golden browns. Drawings have a lovely glow due to thin layers of silver reflecting light. Ipomoea macrantha in silverpoint on clayboard and Castanospermum australe in watercolour and gouache on vellum by Eva Richards are superb examples of artworks in these mediums.
Contemporary botanical artists employ a diverse range of other media including graphite, pen and ink, gouache, colour pencil, and scraperboard.
Artists are also producing works, in whole or in part, through various digital software programs and Lotus australis by Penny Watson is a delightful example of this innovative approach. While the choice of media is intrinsically important to the resulting artwork’s aesthetic impact, it is their service to communicating the realism, detail and clarity of the plant subject that distinguishes botanical art.
Botanical art may form part of a project and contribute to a flora or florilegium – records made of plants in a geographical location or garden.
Sir Joseph Banks intended to publish the natural history records made during the Endeavour voyage as a Florilegium. From 1773 to 1784, he employed five watercolourists to complete 595 new artworks based on Parkinson’s unfinished work, and 18 engravers to produce a total of 738 copper printing plates. Botanist Daniel Solander provided ongoing support until his sudden death in 1782. However, the scientific publication never happened and only select proofs were made from the copper plates in Banks’ lifetime.
Banks made the collection records available to other scientists for their research. Of the estimated 3,607 plant species collected over the entire Endeavour voyage (represented by over 30,000 collected specimens), about 1400 species and 110 genera were new to science.
Between 1900 and 1905, the British Museum (Natural History) issued lithographic prints of just 315 of the plant engravings, under the title Illustrations of Australian Plants, which included three newly made lithographic images not represented by the copper plate engravings. Much later in 1973, a selection of 30 of the copper plate engravings was printed in black only and published in a bound volume entitled Captain Cook’s Florilegium. It was not until the 1980s that the Museum, in association with the publisher Editions Alecto, decided to restore the copper printing plates and print the complete set of images for the first time in colour, using the à la poupée method to apply each colour separately to the plate. A limited edition of 100 sets, under the title of Banks’ Florilegium, was published between 1984 and 1987.
In the progression from initial drawing to completed painting to published engraving, there is a visual journey, building the plant portrait in completed detail and aesthetic composition. Artistic Endeavour includes reproductions of several historical works including initial drawings by Parkinson, finished paintings by Miller or Nodder, and final engravings.
The sequence of Xylomelum pyriforme is particularly rich and revealing. Dorothee Nijgh de Sampayo Garrido’s contemporary portrait of Xylomelum pyriforme provides a visual companion with a deeply attractive lustrous aura.
Botanical artworks are carefully considered arrangements of the plant’s key characteristics, often comprised of component elements that have been observed and depicted over seasonal time. Where, for example, a botanical artwork depicts flowers and fruit appearing on a specimen at the same time, this must be an accurate representation of the plant’s behaviour. Otherwise, flowers may appear on the specimen with the fruit depicted separately or vice versa. The same applies to leaf growth and seed formation. Dianne Lois Kelly’s Callicarpa pedunculata depicts clustering formations of flowers on one branch and fruit on another in a rhythmic and sensitive reflection.
By developing a thorough understanding of each species, and often through discussion with a botanist, the artist determines its key features, which can involve the depiction of roots and bulbs, barks and seed pods, or even key colour changes over time. Sometimes, the artist will focus on only select aspects of the plant, and a finished artwork may contain a single seedpod. Often times, botanical artists will portray the same species many times over, exploring new ways to express the special character of the plant that they have come to know and appreciate in such intricate detail.
In 1770, Banks, Solander and Parkinson were only able to observe plants in their natural habitats very briefly and the collected specimens could only be kept fresh for short periods before being pressed between paper pages into drying books. An excerpt from the BBC and History Channel co-production, The Ship, shows contemporary botanical artist Lucy T Smith taking the place of Sydney Parkinson in this historical re-enactment of the Endeavour voyage. Lucy demonstrates and describes some of the challenging on-board conditions.
It is understandable then that some of Parkinson’s botanical illustrations have inaccuracies that are only appreciated through greater contemporary knowledge of the plants. One example of this can be seen in the historical depictions of Melaleuca quinquenervia and Melaleuca viminalis which fail to accurately depict the growing tip and habit of the branches. The historical drawing, painting and print depict the branch upright with a terminal flower.
However, as shown in the contemporary artworks, the branches of this species are weeping and the flowers occur along the branch with a growing tip of new leaf appearing beyond, even before the flowers are finished.
In 1735 in Sweden, Carl Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, a binomial classification system for the natural world which he continued to develop, expand and republish widely over the following decades. Daniel Solander studied with Linnaeus and employed the binomial system in identifying the plants, both known and new, collected during the Endeavour voyage. Thus, the fame and success of the Endeavour expedition helped to consolidate the international adoption of this classification system, which is still in use today.6
Melaleuca and Callistemon are two of the best- known Australian members of the Myrtaceae family. All of the callistemons and many of the melaleucas have flowers arranged in ‘bottlebrush’ fashion, clustered together in cylindrically shaped spikes. But only callistemons are commonly called bottlebrushes; melaleucas are usually called paperbarks or tea trees. Over the years there have been suggestions that the differences between species of the two genera are not sufficient to warrant them being kept distinct. The well- known Callistemon viminalis is one that has often been discussed as not easily fitting the accepted definition of Callistemon. Some state herbaria, including Queensland, have transferred all species of Callistemon into Melaleuca, while others have retained them as separate genera.
Botanical art plays a vital role in accurately depicting the plant species as it really is, transcending changing classifications and evolving taxonomies.
The much-loved flowers of the Melaleuca species present a serious artistic challenge. Several of these contemporary artworks have portrayed the plant at magnified scales.
The morphology of a plant tells the story of its unique evolution, adaptation and survival. While many plants can be dispersed, grow and survive across different regions, many others can only be found in one isolated location, occupying a highly specific environmental niche. Only a small portion of Australia’s 20,000-odd species of vascular plants (ferns, conifers and flowering plants) are in cultivation. To really know and appreciate our natural heritage, we need to go beyond our gardens, even our Botanic Gardens, and encounter plants in their native habitats.
Botanical artworks may include a record of the plant growing in its natural habitat. Dischidia nummularia by Colin Price shows the plant growing on its host tree and with Dendrobium canaliculatum – the rich dark details of the bark contrasting with the delicacy of this unusual succulent. Ellen Terrell’s portrait of Cynometra iripa includes a profile of the various mangrove species that live in the Daintree River’s lower reaches. This shows their adaptive relationship to variations in water salinity, extending from the
low-growing exposed coastal species to the much taller and more protected inland forms. The shaded portion of the tree profile indicates the region where Cynometra iripa thrives.
Botanical artworks may also include other special, dependent and inter-dependent relationships such as pollinating insects. Acacia holosericea by artist and botanist Dr Nita C Lester is a portrait in two parts, with one part depicting a special butterfly and ant relationship. Jalmenus evagoras is a small, metallic blue butterfly notable for its unique mutualism with ants of the genus Iridomyrmex. The ants provide protection for the caterpillars and cues for adult mating behaviour. They are compensated with food secreted from the butterfly larvae. The ants greatly enhance the survival and reproductive success of the butterflies. This butterfly lives and feeds on Acacia plants, so populations are localised to areas with preferred species of both host plants and ants.
All botanical artworks seek to capture and express the plant as a living subject. While a plant portrait may reveal millennia of evolutionary adaptation and connect us to deeper cycles of time, it will also capture a sense of the momentary and the fleeting – flushes of new leaf, budding flowers, swelling fruit, germinating seed or shedding bark. Such vivid immediacy connects us to our own living presence and perhaps even a sense of our own mortality.
Many botanical artists include depictions of decay within their plant portraits, evoking the cycles of death as well as life. Liz Showniruk’s Homalanthus novoguineensis focuses on one mature red and decaying leaf, finding beautiful detail in this single feature and capturing the real and poetic essence of the plant’s common name, bleeding heart.
In addition to illustrating the collected plant specimens, Sydney Parkinson was also the first European artist to undertake illustrations of the Indigenous people of Australia from direct observation. While the ship was under repair on the Endeavour River in Far North Queensland, the crew were able to make contact with the Indigenous people of this area – the Guugu Yimithirr. Cook, Banks and Parkinson recorded some of their language – including the word ‘Kangooroo: the leaping quadruped’ noted and depicted by Parkinson. Guugu Yimithirr remains an active spoken language today and, where possible, plant names in Guugu Yimithirr have been included in the artwork labels of this exhibition. Names in Yuggara, the Brisbane region Aboriginal language, have also been included, where available, to represent those plants found in south eastern Queensland.
Of course, while the collected plants were new to European eyes, they were deeply familiar to Indigenous peoples. What may have appeared to Cook and Banks as a wild landscape supporting a nomadic people that hunted and foraged, can now be better appreciated as an intensively managed and extensively settled landscape by peoples with deeply established and multi-faceted connections to country.
Castanospermum australe is a tropical rainforest tree that originates in Cape York but has been found as far south as northern New South Wales. Contemporary research mapping the tree’s DNA provides strong evidence that Indigenous peoples carried, shared, and traded the seeds as a valuable food as they travelled along the Great Dividing Range. Edwin Butler’s brilliant portrait of this tree is a celebration of fertility.
Indigenous shields, made from the soft-wood of Erythrina vespertilio in tropical northern Australia, were traded as far south as Lake Eyre in South Australia. The tree’s inner bark and leaves have medicinal uses, the tree roots are eaten raw, and the bright red seeds are used as decorations in weaving and body designs. Robyn Douglas’s portrait dances with life in rhythmic flows of curving lines and gentle tonal variations.
Plants are foundational to every aspect of traditional life for Indigenous peoples, providing food and vital materials for shelter and clothing, tools, toys and instruments, medicines and ceremony. Plants, through their flowering, fruiting and other seasonal variations, provide a guide for living on country, indicating, for example, when and where to hunt, to camp or to travel. Many Australian plants have evolved dependencies on Indigenous peoples, such as those plants that are propagated by fire, a dependency created by Indigenous peoples’ regular burning of the landscape. Certain plants have great cultural and spiritual significance, particularly trees. Major trees could become place-markers for ceremonial gathering, burial or birthing, and were often planted in groves and carved. Plants, especially trees, feature in the creation stories, song-lines and artworks of Indigenous peoples.
Potential benefits in bringing together traditional Indigenous plant knowledge with contemporary scientific research include the development of new foods, medicines and materials, as well as improved land management practices. Botanical art can provide a basis for understanding, sharing and protecting our unique natural heritage, and provide artists and audiences alike with a means for connecting to and caring for country.
Today, botanical artists continue to accompany botanists on journeys of discovery, just as Parkinson did with Banks and Solander on Cook’s Endeavour in 1770. Like Parkinson, contemporary botanical artists undertake vital field work, roaming through national parks and forests, or through local bushland reserves, recording the plant life that they observe and creating artworks that help inform the public about nature’s diversity and fragility.
Australia is home to the highest number of unique plant families in the world – 92% of Australian flowering plants are found nowhere else. Some are plants that reach back to the beginnings of plant life. We have plants that have no living relatives in any other country of the world.
“Australia has more plants than 94 per cent of countries on earth, but we have the highest loss of species (flora and fauna) of anywhere in the world. About 6 per cent of our endemic vascular plants are threatened with extinction – 1,271 plants are on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act list, on a spectrum from critically endangered to vulnerable. These plants might be at risk from diseases such as Phytophthora, their populations degraded through weed infestation, erosion or salinity, grazing, feral animals, fire and climate change, but their biggest threat is habitat loss through clearing for housing, agriculture and logging.
Just about every region has a local plant that is vulnerable, and it is disturbing to consider that even small declines in species can significantly disrupt the complex web of insect, bird and animal life.“
Artistic Endeavour is a celebration of Australia’s unique flora. The exhibition provides a small snapshot of the biodiversity of Australia’s eastern coast. Artworks range from delicately portrayed tiny jewels of forest and heath such as Bauera capitata by Ann Schinkel, or Comesperma ericinum by Tanya Hoolihan, to spectacular and intriguing native orchids such as Dendrobium discolour and Pterostylis revoluta by Louise Saunders. They range from showy tropical trees such as Dillenia alata by Edwin Butler to unusual herbs such as Pseuderanthemum variabile by Beverly J Irwin. Native species from well-known genera such as Hibiscus meraukensis by Jennifer Foster-Hamilton and Hoya australis by Lindsay Watts are also featured.
© 2020 Botanical Artists’ Society Queensland