The Cook Voyages - HMS Endeavour, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery

Halcyon leucocephala, grey-headed kingfisher

Halcyon leucocephala, grey-headed kingfisher. Annotated watercolour painting by Georg Forster, made during James Cook’s second voyage to explore the southern seas, 1772-75.

Captain James Cook's pioneering journeys across the Pacific in the eighteenth century changed the course of science. They also provided us with a superb visual record of this period of exploration.

The HMS Endeavour voyage (1768-1771) was the first devoted to scientific discovery. Cook and his crew, which included naturalist Joseph Banks, accumulated a mass of natural history and ethnographic material that astonished the scientific establishment.

Endeavour voyage

The Library holds all the surviving botanical artwork from Cook's first Pacific voyage. The artists Sydney Parkinson, John Frederick Miller and Frederick Polydore Nodder, among others, are represented. Their sketches and watercolours are part of a collection of illustrations produced during and after the voyage, between 1773 and 1784. Of the three artists, only Parkinson sailed on the Endeavour, making the first sketches of the plants they encountered and collected. After Parkinson died on the return leg of the voyage, Banks commissioned artists in London to produce finished watercolours of his sketches.

In the early days of the voyage, Parkinson was able to keep up with the pace of discoveries and produced finished illustrations. Later on, however, he became over whelmed by the volume of new specimens being discovered, and could only sketch and colour in the significant features of each plant. He did just enough to give a scientific overview of each plant specimen before it wilted and lost its colour. 

The Endeavour’s plant and animal specimens and their associated artwork and documents were once in the British Museum's famous Banksian collection. They moved to the Natural History Museum when the British Museum's Department of Natural History relocated to the newly opened South Kensington Museum in 1881

Resolution and Discovery voyages:

In 1772, Cook captained the HMS Resolution on a voyage to find land mass in the southern seas, sailing alongside Captain Charles Clerke on the HMS Discovery. Cook was accompanied by the naturalists Johann Reinhold Forster and his son Georg. Georg sketched and painted many of the plants and animals they encountered and collected, while most of the views and landscapes produced were the work of Resolution's official artist, William Hodges (1744-97).

Georg’s works, along with Parkinson’s sketches and completed paintings from the Endeavour voyage, were donated to the British Museum in 1827 as part of the Banksian collection.

A number of the images in the Cook voyages collection have been digitised and are freely available online.  

Summary

Composition: Illustrations, engravings, watercolours, manuscripts

Focus: Botany

Authors/Artists:

  • James Cook
  • Joseph Banks
  • Sydney Parkinson
  • Daniel Solander
  • Johann Reinhold Forster
  • Georg Forster
  • William Hodges

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