Natural history artist

Sydney Parkinson was employed by Sir Joseph Banks to travel with him on the Endeavour voyage. Parkinson was the first European artist to visit Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti.

Self portrait, Sydney Parkinson. Oil on board, c1770. Original held at the Natural History Museum.

Self portrait, Sydney Parkinson. Oil on board, c1770. Original held at the Natural History Museum.

Early life — Humble origins

Sydney Parkinson was born in 1745 in Edinburgh, Scotland. After receiving a basic education, he was apprenticed to a draper in preparation for a future career as a fabric merchant.

In keeping with his Quaker roots, Parkinson considered personal industry to be a great virtue, which led him to continue studying drawing even while apprenticed.

Eventually he became proficient enough at drawing flowers and plants that he decided to pursue a new path. He moved to South London in 1766, where he soon met the young Joseph Banks. Upon seeing the quality of Parkinson’s work, Banks hired him to draw plants at the botanical garden at Kew.

His time on the Endeavour — A botanical illustrator

Parkinson was again hired by Banks in 1768, this time as a botanical illustrator (or draughtsman) to draw the plants on the Endeavour’s upcoming voyage to South America, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.

Parkinson worked on board the ship in a small cabin surrounded by specimens. He made thousands of drawings of plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander over the course of the voyage.

Working conditions, however, were not favourable for the artist. Tropical temperatures, cramped quarters and a rocking ship made it difficult at times to draw, and according to some accounts, swarms of bugs would sometimes eat the paint as Parkinson worked. Nevertheless, Parkinson was prolific. A diary entry from Banks in May 1770 indicated that despite these adverse conditions, Parkinson had completed 94 sketches in only 14 days. Over the course of his time on the Endeavour, Parkinson produced a total of more than 1,300 drawings and paintings.

Death and legacy

When the Endeavour arrived in Batavia—now Jakarta—Cook decided to make more repairs to the ship. During their stay in Batavia, however, many members of the crew contracted tuberculosis, malaria and dysentery. Scores of crew members died including Parkinson, who passed away on 26 January 1771 and was buried at sea. He was 26 years old.

In 1773, Parkinson’s papers and drawings were published under the title A Journal of a voyage to the South Seas, with a second enlarged edition printed in 1784.

Parkinson was the first European artist to set foot on Australian soil, to draw Australian landscapes from direct observation and to draw portraits of Indigenous Australians.

While Parkinson remained a somewhat obscure historical figure during the 18th century, he is today recognised as a master among botanical artists and a key contributor to the Endeavour voyage. Ficus parkinsonii was named in his honour and reproductions of his artworks can be found in books and museums throughout the world.