Sydney Parkinson was a natural history and topographical painter. Joseph Banks took him on Cook's Endeavour voyage to the Pacific (1768-71) where he was a natural-history draughtsman. Parkinson died of fever and dysentery at sea in 1771. He was only twenty-six.
natural history and topographical painter, was born in Edinburgh, younger son of Joel Parkinson, an Edinburgh brewer and a Quaker, and his wife Elizabeth, brother to Stanfield and Elizabeth. In the preface to Sydney’s posthumous Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas (1773) Stanfield provided most of the known information concerning his brother’s early life. Their father, reluctant about insisting upon the payment of debts owed to him, left the family in straitened circumstances at the time of his death. Sydney was apprenticed to a woollen draper, but chose rather to develop his talent for drawing 'flowers, fruits, and other objects of natural history’. There is no direct evidence that he received any formal art training; if he did, it is surprising that his brother, who certainly sought to place him in as favourable a light as possible, makes no mention of it.
Given his growing interests, however, it is quite possible that Parkinson had seen something of the work of William de la Cour, who ran a school of drawing and design in Edinburgh from 1760, even if he did not take lessons. It is likely too that he saw something of the landscape watercolours of Edinburgh artists active in the 1760s, such as John Clark, Alexander and John Runciman and Jacob Moore, and he was possibly influenced by Paul Sandby who worked extensively in Scotland from 1747 until the early 1750s while employed on Colonel David Watson’s great topographical survey of the Highlands. Sandby was also active in London during the early 1760s when Parkinson was living there. Indeed, they were fairly close neighbours in Soho, Sandby living in Broad Street, Carnaby Market during the 1760s, and the Parkinsons in Windmill Street off the Tottenham Court Road.
It is not known precisely when the Parkinsons settled in London, but Sydney exhibited a painting of flowers on silk at the Free Society of Artists’ exhibition in 1765, giving his address as Queen’s Head Court, Windmill Street. The following year he exhibited two more flower pieces on silk and a drawing in red chalk from the same address.
Scottish friends assisted the family. One of the most influential was Dr John Fothergill, son of a Yorkshire Quaker, who had established himself in London after graduating in medicine in Edinburgh and is likely to have known the Parkinson family in Edinburgh Quaker circles during his student days. Certainly both Sydney and Stanfield looked upon him as an old friend. Fothergill developed a great interest in botany and was well known for his philanthropic activities. It may well have been Fothergill who first introduced Sydney Parkinson to the London circle of natural historians.
Shortly after his arrival from Edinburgh, Parkinson also came into contact with James Lee, another Scot, from Selkirk near Edinburgh; he drew plants on vellum for him and taught his daughter Ann to draw and paint flowers. She was then fifteen and he about twenty-one and he seems to have grown rather fond of her, for in his will, made before his departure in the Endeavour , he left her his painting equipment. Lee was the proprietor of the Vineyard nursery, Hammersmith, and it was probably Lee who introduced Parkinson to Joseph Banks early in 1767.
Parkinson worked continuously for Banks until embarking in the Endeavour in August 1768, making drawings of birds and insects collected by Banks during his visit to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1766. About this time too, he copied a number of paintings which had been executed for Gideon Loten, a former governor of Ceylon. Several were later used to illustrate Thomas Pennant’s Indian Zoology . When Banks joined Cook on the Endeavour voyage to the Pacific (1768-71) he took Parkinson with him as his natural-history draughtsman. Parkinson not only made drawings of plants and marine life encountered on the voyage but a great number of coastal views and drawings of native peoples and landscapes. Indeed he was responsible, apart from charts, for most of the visual documentation associated with the voyage. He died of fever and dysentery at sea, at the age of twenty-six, on 26 January 1771.
In his will, made on 10 July 1768, Parkinson described himself as a painter residing in the parish of St Anne, Soho. An engraved portrait of the artist appears as a frontispiece to his Journal , and a self-portrait, which research by Dr Lysaght suggests is authentic, was presented to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1896, apparently by a descendant of the family. Another branch of the Parkinson family, also Quakers, lived at Newcastle-on-Tyne. It included his cousin Jane Gomeldon, to whom Sydney wrote from Batavia on 6 October 1770. A woman of considerable spirit and intellectual accomplishment, she appears to have been assembling a private natural-history museum at the time of Parkinson’s death.
Parkinson was indefatigable. Apart from the many drawings of coastal views, natives and landscapes made on the Endeavour 's voyage, now held in the British Museum (Department of Manuscripts), he made 955 drawings of flora – 675 sketches and 280 finished drawings – and 377 drawings of fauna. The latter are housed in the British Museum (Natural History), London.