Gooding, Mel; Mabberley, David; Studholme, Joe.
Joseph Banks’ Florilegium: Botanical Treasures from Cook’s First Voyage.
Thames and Hudson Ltd.
I suspect most readers of this review, as well as me, will not have the £25,000 or so needed to buy a copy of the original Banks Florilegium, produced in 35 volumes by Alecto Historical Editions between 1980 and 1990.1 So it’s for us that this present edition has been produced, in time for the 250th anniversary of the first and greatest of Cook’s Pacific voyages, and for most of us it will be a very acceptable, and acceptably priced, alternative.
This hardcover book is large, about 36 × 27 × 3.5 cm. It weighs 2.5kg, so it is by no means light reading. However the dimensions do allow the prints to be reproduced and displayed at about 75% life-size. I am no expert on the structure of books, so, for an informed opinion, I took it to a friend who binds books for a hobby.
He reported that it is well made, with a proper stitched binding. He could still feel the imprint of the guillotine on the edges of the pages, and we wondered if the paper cover of the front and back boards would wear well; a cloth cover would, perhaps, have been more durable, particularly as there is no dust cover. Perhaps some economies had been made here. Text and photographs are printed on the same heavy weight of paper.
The book begins with an elegant essay on the First Voyage by art historian Mel Gooding. The essay gives a brief history of the voyage, necessarily very much from the botanical and collecting point of view. It is illustrated with pictures and maps, all of which will be very familiar to CCS members. It nicely sets the scene for the next essay, written by Professor David Mabberley.
Mabberley is a botanist well known throughout the world for his work on the taxonomy of tropical plants, so he is well placed to write this brief introduction to the plates, including an explanation of the method of botanical nomenclature, something long forgotten since my schooldays. He also introduces the commentaries that he has written to accompany each plate. He points out that the commentaries may be read singly as captions, or as a continuous narrative. The commentaries include such information as the location and date of collection, botanical remarks, the original name and namer of the specimen, and finally the names of the original artist, the engraver of the plate, and other academic references. They make for very interesting reading. However one point in his essay did slightly irritate: he says that “the aim here is to provide a representative selection of the very best of the engravings”, but he doesn’t say what criteria were used, except that of “economically or ecologically significant species”. I think more should have been said; we are left to take the selection on trust.2
That said, the next section is the meat and bulk of the book, wherein the 147 selected specimens are portrayed with their associated commentaries. Mostly, they are arranged so that the commentaries are on the left hand pages, with the pictures on the facing right hand pages, with one specimen on each pair of pages. Occasionally there is a group of pictures preceded by the relevant notes. The reader is left to infer for himself why this change in the layout occurs—I found no explanation. The pictures are usually given the full page, without margins. Regrettably, the pictures appear a bit “flat”. This is not surprising, as they are photos of prints from engravings of watercolour pictures of specimens collected 250 years ago.
These comments aside, I have been steadily reading through the book. In the few months since I obtained my copy I have reached number 82, bastard rosewood (Synoum glandulosum). I look forward to many more months of gentle and enjoyable reading.
So to the last sections of the book. Another essay by Mel Gooding deals with the history and work involved in the years after the voyage, taking the narrative up to the present. This is followed by an interesting account by Joe Studholme, of Alecto Historical Editions, of the printing of the Banks’ Florilegium. He sets out the technique of the printing process, and the difficulties that were encountered and overcome. Finally, the book ends with a Concordance, Bibliography, Index of Plants and the Acknowledgement and Sources.
In conclusion, this book is a very worthy “second-best” for those of us who have neither the means nor the inclination to acquire one of the original print editions. It is a timely reminder of the remarkable scientific achievements of that first, unique, never-to-be-repeated voyage of discovery.
1.Cook’s Log, page 662, vol. 12, no. 2 (1989).
2.Ian Boreham asked the publisher about the criteria for selection of the prints (150 out of 743 originals) and was told they were as follows:
- First, to show a representative selection of plants from each landfall
- Together we (publisher and authors) made a selection of 150 of the brightest and most visually appealing flora
- David Mabberley refined our selection with an eye for the most important or interesting specimens from a botanical viewpoint, enabling him to write across the broad spectrum of flora that were gathered, including their significance or modern application today.
- We included some prints that demonstrate the skills of the engravers, working from original watercolour sketches; and we have also included an example of modern engravings commissioned to replace the 5 plates that were lost since the 18th century.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 21, volume 41, number 1 (2018).