Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, from all of us in the Eton College Collections.
Native to New Zealand, the evergreen tree Metrosideros excelsa is also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree for its bright crimson flowers, which are at their peak in mid to late December. This fine line engraving, showing a branch of the tree, was made after a drawing by artist Sydney Parkinson (1769–1770) and is one of the 743 engravings of plants which comprise Sir Joseph Banks’ remarkably ambitious Florilegium; a project that would not be fully realised for 200 years.
In August 1768, when the then Lieutenant James Cook (1728–1779) set sail on his first voyage to the Pacific Ocean aboard HMS Endeavour, his crew was mainly comprised of sailors and Royal Marines. Also aboard, however, was the young naturalist Joseph Banks (1743–1820). At his own expense, Banks brought with him the botanist Dr Daniel Solander, an assistant, two artists and his servants.
The artists were both Scottish: landscapist Alexander Buchan and botanical illustrator Sydney Parkinson. Banks’ intention was for Buchan to undertake topographical sketches and portraits, while Parkinson made natural history drawings during the voyage. The Endeavour would travel to Tahiti, the Pacific islands, New Zealand and Australia. However, Buchan died some 8 months into the journey as a result of his epilepsy. Parkinson was consequently left to make at least 1,300 drawings recording the ship’s remarkable findings, which greatly expanded Western scientific knowledge of the South Pacific.
Banks and Solander encountered the flowering Metrosideros excelsa tree in New Zealand at the Purangi Estuary (where they landed between 5th and 15th November 1769) and at Tōtaranui (15th January to 6th February 1770). Parkinson made detailed outline sketches with colour references for each plant collected, before Endeavour departed New Zealand on 31 March 1770.
In preparation for the return journey, the ship stopped at Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia), capital of the Dutch East Indies, where repairs could be made. It was here that Parkinson contracted malaria and dysentery. He died at sea on 26th January 1771.
Back in the UK, four further artists were employed by Banks to work up finished drawings from sketches made on the voyage and the dried specimens collected. Under Banks’ supervision, the 743 plates of the Florilegium were engraved after the drawings of Parkinson and others by a team of 18 engravers, over a period of 13 years. On Banks’ death, the resulting plates were bequeathed to the British Museum.
Although small editions from some of these plates had been published before, it was not until 1979 that Alecto Historical Editions and The British Museum began a collaboration to publish a limited edition of 110 full sets. The first volume was issued in 1980; the final volume coming ten years later.
The embroidered panels that decorate the stall cushions, book cushions and kneelers within Eton College Chapel were made between 1959 and 1964. They are the result of a textile project initiated as part of a wider programme of restoration at the chapel, following a period of damage and neglect sustained through two world wars.
The designs are mostly by textile artist and embroiderer Constance Howard (1910–2000). Howard studied at the Royal College of Art in London under artists Eric Ravilious (1903–1942) and Edward Bawden (1903–1989). She later taught dress design and embroidery, and created a large textile hanging for the country pavilion of the Festival of Britain (1951). Artist and former Eton Art Master Robin Darwin (1910–1974) stressed the importance of employing a professional textile artist for the Eton project and with his help, Howard, then the Head of Textiles at Goldsmiths college of art, was commissioned as chief designer. Her role also involved planning the project, offering direction to the other designers involved and checking the quality of the completed needlework.
The needlework was carried out by some 180 friends and relations of Etonians past and present; mostly, but not exclusively, women. Together they created over 200 textile panels. To cover the cost of the materials, the volunteers were each asked to contribute £3. They were then sent all they needed to realise a design, including coloured wools, canvas and needles, along with clear instructions, which encouraged them to add their own initials at one corner.
Howard’s designs for the embroidery panels are in a limited palette of colours; all on a dark blue background. They include the Provost’s Stall Cushion, showing two angels supporting the arms of King Henry VI, Founder of the College; the ‘Sun and Moon’ Stall Cushion, one of eight individual designs for the cushions of regular stalls; the ‘Tree of Life’ Book Cushion; and a simple Star Kneeler, part of a set designed for the Memorial Chapel of Eton College Chapel.
On the completion of the project, in May 1964, a three-day exhibition of the textiles was held at the premises of the Embroiderers’ Guild in Wimpole Street, London.
By Philippa Martin, Keeper of Fine and Decorative Art