The story of Banks's engravings of plants collected during Cook's first voyage ties together the rise of scientific exploration in the eighteenth century, the status connected to publishing monumental works, and the life and ambitions of Joseph Banks. Based on specimens and drawings created during Cook's first voyage, the original project stalled and the work that had been completed by the time Banks died, including 743 copperplates, were donated to the British Museum. Banks's project is easily seen as tragic: a visionary with immense resources who undertakes a massive project, only to fall short and the unfinished materials left to languish in cabinets, shuffled from place to place. The current publication is tied to a recent attempt to change that narrative, to finish the monument and complete Banks's vision. As Studholme notes in his conclusion, ‘The colour prints from the Alecto edition complete the record’ (p. 311). Some might hope, however, that the images will one day also be accessible in a high-quality digital format, a project beyond what Banks could have envisioned.
The coloured reproductions throughout the book, including the paintings and sketches in the essays, are the greatest strength of the publication. The core of Banks' Florilegium is a selection of 147 plates reproducing the engravings as initially created in the complete full-colour edition produced by Alecto Historical Editions and the British Museum in the 1980s. The Alecto edition, published as separate leaves, was comprehensive, limited to a hundred copies, and very expensive. In the Thames & Hudson edition, the quality of the reproductions helps to establish why the botanical engravings commissioned by Banks are exemplary. The portrait plates were reproduced at roughly 75 per cent of the original (p. 21), the landscape plates with a smaller ratio. It is unfortunate that the landscape plates were not reproduced sideways in the book, which would have increased the quality of the reproduction, even if the image would then have not aligned with the text on the verso side. Likewise, for those with access to the original Alecto plates, it is possible to see some loss of detail, especially in the fine engravings around complex flowers. Nevertheless, the reproductions are impressive.
Around the engravings, the authors have included introductory and concluding articles as well as notations for each illustration. The three articles flesh out the importance of the project. David Mabberley explores the botanical elements. Here, Banks is a visionary who employs skilled people, such as Parkinson and Solander, as a team. Mel Gooding, an art historian, offers two pieces. The first piece offers a heroic frame for Banks's life: the wealthy aristocrat who eschewed the typical European grand tour in the name of Enlightened science. Gooding's second article details the making of the Florilegium from 1772 to 1990, although the first half focuses on Parkinson's work while on the ship. Parkinson's impact on the project was profound: he completed 269 watercolors and 674 precise drawings, as well as countless sketches, all of which form the foundation for the later engravings. Finally, Joseph Studholme, a cofounder of Alecto Editions, recounts how the modern printing process was undertaken.
The first articles are written as popular introductions to Cook's voyage and Banks's vision. However, they fail to engage with, or even hint at, the scholarly debates regarding Banks and the nature of Cook's voyages in general. There are references to some standard books on the voyages, but there is no discussion of important works such as Bernard Smith's, whose work on the relationship between art and Cook's voyages is foundational to the scholarship. In fact, a general limitation of the articles included in the book is that the reader is not led to many outside sources to expand the conversation. Even the work of J.C. Beaglehole is barely mentioned.
As it celebrates Banks's accomplishments, the book likewise re-creates the triumphalist imperial frame in which those accomplishments occurred. Tupaia is not mentioned. Banks's desire to collect tattooed human remains is not mentioned. It is assumed that European presence in, and ultimately control over, the region is unproblematic. The section with engravings derived from the Society Islands, for instance, is headed ‘French Polynesia’, a strange term in this context that arose years after Banks was active. Likewise, the Europeans are rarely at fault. This is not a story themed as a fatal impact or as part of an expansionist political project. There is no real impact. Banks and the voyage are all tied to scientific accomplishments, most of which occurred on the Endeavour or back in Europe. In celebrating Banks's project, the complexities of the encounters are lost.
The notations connected to each engraving provide basic scientific information and sometimes details on the plant's history, distribution and uses. Unfortunately, many of these notations are limited and do not provide readers with references to further information that would deepen the entry. For instance, there is a reference to a single journal article on the effects of ava (p. 86) and no additional reading offered for the sweet potato (p. 84). Another unfortunate limitation in the notations for the engravings is the very small number of Parkinson's initial sketches included (examples on pp. 208, 212). More on the development of the representations for images could have been interesting, as Bernard Smith did for the landscapes and portraits.
Understandably, the illustrations are the focus of Banks’ Florilegium. This is, ultimately, an art book tied to a scientific vision. The engravings are amazing and do justice to Banks's monumental project. However, the lack of appeal to the larger literature connected to Cook and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European navigation, botany and art is a missed opportunity to engage the readers in conversations beyond the book. The illustrations are amazing. The project is worthy. However, its worth exists in a social and political context where Banks, as a wealthy aristocrat, was able to commission other people to do much of the work, and was able to rely on the British Admiralty to provide him with the resources to begin the project in the first place. This was Enlightenment science, but it was not innocent. The fact that an amazing engraving of the breadfruit plant, and many others, could be printed does not complete the record, but it is certainly an important part. Thus, whatever its limitations, the book is an important addition to any collection concerned with the history of botany, science and the people connected to Cook's voyages.