Whenever conversation turns to artists who died tragically young, be sure to mention the Scottish illustrator Sydney Parkinson (1745 – 1771). He was the first European artist to visit Australia, New Zealand and Tahiti, accompanying Joseph Banks on James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific in 1768, in HMS Endeavour. As well as making a pictorial record of plants and animals collected by Banks, he also drew the indigenous Australians encountered on the expedition and made extensive notes of local languages and customs in his journal. Having contracted dysentry at Princes’ Island on the return voyage, he died at sea on the way to Cape Town. He was only 26.
Above are two sketches he made of a kangaroo – the first ever record of this animal made by a European. His botanical and topographical pieces are masterpieces of their kind, but I have always felt that these particular drawings have a strange and compelling animation that somehow sets them apart. Not only do they convey the thrill of the moment, the excitement of discovery. They also cause one to wonder what he might have gone on to achieve had he lived longer. His papers and drawings were published in 1773, by his brother Stanfield Parkinson, entitled A Journal of a voyage to the South Seas. Stanfield described Sydney as “gentle, able and conscientious”, having a “singular simplicity of conduct”, a “sincere regard for truth” and “an ardent thirst after knowledge”. All of that comes across very strongly in the pages of his journal and in his pictures.