5 October 2017
David Mabberley was the last botanist to serve as the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. His famous predecessors include Charles Moore, who served in that role for 48 years, and his protégé Joseph Henry Maiden, who succeeded him.
My neighbour at Mount Wilson, over a thousand metres in altitude from where we stand, has frequently told me that his alpine garden – with its Sequoias, Cedars of Lebanon and Spanish cork trees – was laid out in the 1880s with assistance from both Moore and Maiden. These men, like David, and his immediate predecessor Tim Entwisle, were first and foremost distinguished botanists.
Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens are now run by a former soldier…And David’s tenure in office was cut short by a politician, who came and went – as politicians do – and who has now retired into rural obscurity. Almost two hundred years after its establishment by Governor Macquarie, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney were deprived of the professional stewardship which they have always had, and always deserved. And the public is the poorer. The Royal Botanic Gardens are not parks but are, or should be, important independent scientific institutions.
When David departed his post in 2013, his loss was so keenly felt that there was an outpouring of sadness. Can I share with you one expression of grief – posted on the internet – from someone who was clearly a devotee, but perhaps also a rough diamond:
‘OMFG heartbroken for the Gardens from this, I have heard wonderful things about this bloke.
Do you know if he will be staying in Australia? I mean, I have fuck all chance of ever meeting the bloke, but I would so love to, when I found some early editions of his Plant Book I was lovestruck for life. The latest edition of this book has been described as pure plant porn by some genetics buddies of mine.’
The Plant Book by the way, is a world-renowned portable dictionary of vascular plants. It is now in its fourth edition and has become known as Mabberley’s Plant Book.
Let me turn to David’s new book. It is in fact a joint venture. Mel Gooding has provided important historical context about the extraordinary first voyage of the Endeavour, the ‘grand project’ on which Banks embarked to make his florilegium on his return to London, and its finalisation only in 1990 – a hundred and seventy years after Banks’ death. And Joe Studholme tells the tale of chance, dedication and technical skill that led to the transformation of the 738 original eighteenth-century copper-plate engravings and plates into perfect colour prints.
But David’s contribution is the indispensable central core. Over nearly three hundred pages, he takes you on a journey through 181 of the prints, each of which he has personally selected for its economic and ecological interest. The exquisite prints are accompanied by David’s description of the essential features and characteristics of the chosen plants – in language that is compact, always informative and above all felicitous. Its light precision matches and enhances the painstaking detail of the prints.
The prints and the plants they depict track the dates and the path of the voyage – from Madeira across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, to Tierra del Fuego and around Cape Horn, across the Pacific to Polynesia, the circumnavigation of New Zealand, along the east coast of Australia to Endeavour Bay and Lizard Island, and finally to the dreaded Java. When the little ship set out to sea from Batavia, it was a ship of the dying and the near-dead. The voyage home would last another three months but there were no more pictures. Among the casualties was Sydney Parkinson, the artistic hero of the voyage.
This is a book for the ages; one to be inherited but not lent; to be treasured and kept safe.
Please join with me in raising a toast to David Mabberley, and to Thames Hudson, for producing a book that is itself a work of art.
5 October 2017