Parkinson, Sydney

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(b, Edinburg, Scotland, ca, 1745; d. at sea 26 January 1771)

natural history drawing.

Parkinson, a young Scottish artist, who died on the return voyage of the Endeavour after the disastrous stay for refitting at Batavia (where nearly everyone on board contracted malaria or dysentery or both), was an extremely gifted and versatile draftsman and colorist. His beautiful and accurate drawings of the plants and animals collected on Cook’s first voyage round the world, his studies of exotic landscapes, their peoples, and artifacts, together with Joseph Banks’s collections and manuscripts, combined to make that voyage one of the most memorable in the annals of scientific discovery.

Sydney was the younger son of Joel Parkinson, an Edinburgh brewer, and his wife Elizabeth Nothing is known of his education—not a not a very formal one since he signed himself both Sydney and Sidney—but in his teens he was apprenticed to a woolen draper. He seems to have had innate aptitude for drawing. His brother Stanfield wrote in the introduction to his posthumously published journal that from an early age “taking a d.elight in drawing flowers, fruits and other objects of natural history, he soon became as proficient in that stile of painting as to attract the notice of the most celebrated botanists and connoisseurs in that study.”

When Parkinson was about twenty his widowed mother moved to London, where he exhibited with the Free Society in 1765 and 1766. About that time he was engaged by another Scot, James Lee of the Vineyard Nursery, Hammersmith, to teach his favorite daughter Ann, some thirteen years old. It was to her that Parkinson bequeathed his “utensils” and some botanical paintings that remained in the possession of the Lee family until 1970. The paints and brushes have been lost, but the paintings are now in the National Library, Canberra; Ann’s paintings, considered by the great Danish entomologist J. C. Fabricius to be the best British natural history drawings of the day, are in the library of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Early in 1967 Lee introduced Parkinson to Banks, and from then on the young artist worked extensively on Banks’s collections, first on the plates (now in the British Museum [Natural History]) of the Loten collection from Ceylon, then on the invertebrates, fishes, and birds collected by Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. These drawings of Newfoundland animals, and of other exotic species in Banks’s possession, many of which are still unidentified, are in the Print Room, British Museum.

Banks himself wrote in warm terms of Parkinson’s industry in the Endeavour. During the voyage the young Scot made nearly 1,000 drawings of plants, about 300 of animals ranging from pellucid coelenterates to tropical birds, all of which may be seen in the British Museum (Natural History); he also executed some 200 topographical and ethnographical drawings, now in the Manuscript Room, British Museum. Parkinson also recorded Polynesian and other vocabularies whenever the opportunity arose. In some cases his lists exceeded those compiled by Banks, who, more cautiously, recorded only ninety-one Tahitian words against Parkinson’s 300. Parkinson also listed eighty-one Tahitian plants, with their economic uses as fish poisons, dyes, medicines, textiles, and as building material. These lists appeared in the illegally published edition (1773) of his completed journal (which was lost) when his brother Stanfield attempted to forestall the official account of the voyager. A second edition appeared in 1784. A self-portrait in owned by the British Museum (Natural History); an engraving of him at an earlier age forms the frontispiece to his journal.


The illegally published edition of Parkinson’s journal is Sydney Parkinson, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas in His Majesty’s Ship the Endeavour (London, 1773, 2nd ed. 1784). See also F. C. Sawyer, “Some Natural History Drawings Made During Captain Cook’s First Voyage Round the World,” in Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, 2 (1950), 190–193; J. c. Beaglehole, ed., The Journals of Captain James Cook, I, The Voyage of the Endeavour (Cambridge, 1955); and The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 2 vols. (Sydney, 1962); A. M. Lysaght, Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766 (London, 1971); A. M. Lysaght and D. L. Serventy, “Some Erroneous Distribution Records in Parkinson’s Journal of a voyage to the South Seas,” in Emu, 56 (1956), 129–130; W. F. Miller, “Sydney Parkinson and His Drawings,” in Journal of the Friends’ Historical Society, 8 (1911), 123–127; and E. J. Willson, James Lee and the Vineyard Nursery (London, 1961).

Averil M. Lysaght

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Parkinson, Sydney

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