Postage Stamp of Sydney Parkinson

The Postage Stamp of Sydney Parkinson, issued in 2018, marks the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s famous voyage of discovery.

The voyage of discovery was a sailing expedition aboard HMS Endeavour. It was the first to make European contact with Eastern Australia, map New Zealand and accurately observe the transit of Venus. On the ship were 100 men including astronomers, artists and scientists, among them the Scottish Quaker and botanical artist Sydney Parkinson.

Many Quakers from the 17th to 19th century were drawn towards the natural sciences and botany, the study of plants, because they did not require a university degree. Being a Quaker at this time in history meant they were often barred from accessing a higher education and so many of those with with a scientific interest found themselves working in the natural sciences where a degree wasn’t always necessary.

Also, botany fitted well with many Quaker principles. Curiosity and a care for the natural world as well as building a knowledge of plants and their medicinal qualities meant Friends were drawn to the forefront of this new science.

Sydney Parkinson (c1745 – 1771), began his career by drawing plants in London. The Quaker scientist John Fothergill recommended Parkinson to join Captain Cook’s crew as one of two illustrators who would draw plants they found on the voyage. Unfortunately the other illustrator died during the early stages of the voyage and it fell to Parkinson to do all the work by himself.

In total the voyage lasted three years and Parkinson sketched over 900 specimens and painted nearly 300 illustration of plants that had never been seen before in Europe. He also wrote a journal entitled, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in his Majesty’s Ship the Endeavour.

On the return leg of the voyage HMS Endeavour stopped at Jakarta for repairs and many of the crew fell ill. Parkinson was one of them and he died and was buried at sea. His journal, however, survived the journey and was given to the British Museum.

The Spread of Knowledge

The network of Friends across Britain and the new world meant that there many links in building the knowledge of botany. Recording and classifying plants came as natural skills to the highly organised Society of Friends.  Also wealthier Quakers were able to fund Friends who needed to travel in order to further their research.

An example of the Quaker botanical network in action is when William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, transported several trees from Britian to his garden in order to grow them alongside existing indigenous trees. These included fruit trees and nut trees such as walnut and hazlenut. The idea was to encourage the planning of, in his words, ‘a green country town.’ Most houses that were built in his new settlement included a plot of land that had space for a small orchard and trees were needed. As a result many streets were named after trees such as Chestnut, Mulberry and Vine, which still survive today.

Other notable Friends that worked botany include William Bartram (1739 – 1823), an illustrator, William Weston Young (1776 – 1847) who found his drawings appear on pottery and Graceanna Lewis (1821 – 1912) who drew 50 water colour representations of leaves of forest trees of Pennsylvania, which won national recognition.

In 1787 the Quaker William Curtis started the Botanical magazine, which is still in existence today. The magazine was designed to educate and inform both those in the field and the general public on new discoveries. Teaching about the natural world and environmental concerns became an area the Quakers became experts in. Curtis created a Botanic Garden in Lambeth, London, and other botanic gardens founded by Friends sprang up in Britain and America.

The postage stamp of Sydney Parkinson was one of six in a set issued by Royal Mail to commemorate the 25oth anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage.

Full set of stamps

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