That remarkable project serves as the basis for the Thames & Hudson edition. Philip Watson, Commissioning Editor, Museum Division, remembers how he learnt of its existence only some two decades later: “I knew straightaway there was something exceptional about the prints – it seemed peculiar that in 200 years it hadn’t come into book form.”
He set about making that idea a reality, locating Studholme, by then retired, who welcomed the idea, as did the Natural History Museum. “Selecting 150 plates from Alecto’s 743 was fascinating. Some of us were interested in the brighter, more unusual-looking plants, we were led by eye and curiosity, while guided in the botanical sense by David Mabberley, the eminent Banks specialist. There were limits set by pragmatism and publishing interest, but the 150 chosen represent every landfall, and in the order of the voyage itself,” Watson recalls. Mabberley has contributed new botanical commentaries to each image, with the edition completed by two essays by art historian Mel Gooding, and an afterword by Studholme that recalls the process of creating the Alecto edition.
“It started in a smaller way, persuading colleagues, and gradually gathered steam as others became involved,” Watson remembers. “For example, Thames & Hudson in Melbourne were tremendously enthusiastic, given Banks’ journey and his links with Australia; so was the Folio Society. There will be an Italian edition, too. It’s always gratifying when others become interested in an idea that you start off with – in such a way, it becomes much more than a passion project.”
Whether you treat the Florilegium as a record of science, as the fact-oriented naturalist himself would surely have chosen to, or as an artistic document, as seems so tempting today, the importance of Banks’ voyage and discoveries is undeniable. “As for their impact in scientific terms,” Watson concludes, “it was David Attenborough who said that the specimens that Banks brought back were to that generation like the moon rocks were to ours. As exotic and outlandish, but infinitely more beautiful.”