Eton College more widely known as just "Eton" is a famous English public school, founded in 1440 by Henry VI as a charity school to provide free education to "70 poor boys". Widely known for its history, wealth and alumni including the English naturalist, botanist and patron of the natural sciences, Sir Joseph Banks (1743 - 1820).
To brush up on your history, Sir Joseph Banks accompanied James Cook's round the world voyage on the Endeavor (1768 - 1771) which included Cook's exploration of the "great southern land".
Banks, the Swedish Naturalist, Daniel Solander, and the Finnish botanist Dr Herman Spöring Jr. made the first major collection of flora from this vast land. Over 700 specimens were illustrated by the Scottish botanical artist, Sydney Parkinson and his field sketches were completed by artists subsequently employed by Banks on his return. These illustrations now make up the Banks' Florilegium. The preparation of this Florilegium is another fascinating story as the collection was only published between 1980 and 1991 by Altecto Historical Editions in collaboration with the British Museum (Natural History).
Eton College currently has an exhibition in the Tower Gallery (9 May - 16 October 2022) that was originally intended to mark the 200th anniversary of the death of Banks in 1820.
Entitled "To Botany Bay and Back: The Worldwide Web of Sir Joseph Banks" the exhibition celebrates Banks's global impact through three themes including his key role as a plant collector on James Cook's voyage on the Endeavor.
Although the exhibition was delayed for two years because of the pandemic, ABA members had the unique opportunity to explore this collection organised by one of our education team, Pam Taylor. As a real bonus, our members also got to go "behind the scenes" to view some of the extraordinary prints from Banks Florilegium held in the Eton College Collection. The day turned out to be a celebration of the historical buildings of Eton College with its atmospheric grandeur, Bank's life and the pure artistry of the botanical illustrators and engravers of the 18th century.
Collection curators Catrina and Dan, graciously hosted our visit and went out of their way to welcome us.
The Tower Gallery exhibition brings together phases of Banks life from his earliest days at Eton to his extraordinary impact as an entrepreneur and scientific promoter which included 41 years as President of the Royal Society.
You have to keep reminding yourself that a lot of the items on display were collected over 250 years ago and carried back thousands of miles on a wooden ship only 29 metres long, 8 metres wide with a hold only 3.5 metre deep. In addition to 71 ship's company, 12 marines and 11 civilians there were all the provisions and specimens collected on the three year voyage.
Botanical specimens, were of course, dried and pressed so any subsequent illustrations designed to reflect the plant in its environment relied heavily on any notes made on form or colour when the specimen was first collected.
" Flower - chrome lemon, chrome yellow, cadmium red's crimson.
Buds burnt umber and sepia
Leaves - olive green, prussian blue"
Just two flights of stairs down from the Towner Gallery is the College Library. Six hundred years of history with the fabric and collection to match.
With over 60, 000 items including books, manuscripts, prints, drawings and artefacts, this is a collection of international significance.
"Established as a medieval fellows’ library as part of Henry VI’s original vision for Eton, it is made up of collections reflecting the changing interests of Eton fellows and Old Etonians over nearly 600 years." 1
The Eton Collection has a complete set of the Banks' florilegium published between 1980 -1991 and we were privileged to view some of the extra-ordinary prints.
As described by the publishers the paper is:
" Somerset mould-made 200gsm, acid-free, each sheet watermarked 'AHE , produced in a special
making by the Inveresk Paper Company: 28; × 21 inches (724 × 556 mm)."
and the prints are:
"The engravings are printed in colour à la poupée, up to seventeen colours being worked directly
into a single plate before each print is pulled, with additional water-colour touches in special cases."
What was an eye opener, was the skill of those involved in producing these prints. As described by the publishers Alteco Historical Editions
"The Florilegium plates are unique because Banks insisted that every botanical detail should be cut into the plates so that even when printed in black the impressions could be used for scientific study. Every turn of a leaf or twist of a stem is determined by the width and depth of the engraved line."
When you look at the engraved plate and then the subsequent complimentary print this is clearly shown.
This is also beautifully shown in the figure below where a section of a print has been magnified to demonstrate the attention to detail. What is important to remember is that the illustrations are "scientific" and designed to portray a true representation of the subject that could be used for research purposes. Some of the images are so detailed they were hand coloured in the final colour prints as shown by the stamens in the figure.
With this digital age, where it is so easy to capture and display images it was fascinating to see the intricate work of the modern day printer required to ensure the final prints matched the artistry of the long gone but not forgotten, illustrators and engravers engaged by Banks.
And finally a real treat, Dan popped over to a nearby bookcase and pulled out a slim volume from the shelf. If you are of a scientific bent then as Dan opened the cover to display the frontispiece, this was an absolute treat.
Open on the table was a first edition of one of the more famous books in science - Robert Hookes'
Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies Made by Magnifying Glasses. With Observations and Inquiries Thereupon.
Published in January 1665, Micrographia was the first book to include illustrations of insects and plants using some of the earliest microscopes. It was also the first major publication of the Royal Society. To view a volume first published 357 years ago was indeed a privilege .
These visits are special treats for botanical artists and we would love to arrange for all our members to take advantage of the rich botanical art history scattered across this nation. However, we hope this simple summary gives you some idea of ABA @ Eton, September 2022.
Finally, a massive thanks to Catrina and Dan from the Eton College Collection who made our day so memorable and also Pamela Taylor for first suggesting and then coordinating our visit. It was really appreciated.
The ABA Team - September 2022