I studied art history, anthropology, historic preservation, museum studies, and evolutionary biology in college, and the thesis I produced for a self-designed major (Heritage Studies) dealt with the relevance of scientific specimens (in this case, 19th century birds) as cultural artifacts. My deep interest in Parkinson’s work stems from the fact that his story draws upon the intersections of all those areas that fascinate me so. But here are the other areas in which I am biased in his favor: I am also an enthusiastic writer, scientific illustrator, amateur linguist, and Quaker. I collect (compulsively) all manner of things—natural specimens, artifacts—which spark my interest. Growing up, I didn’t have peers with those interests; I wished very much for someone with whom I could identify. Finding Parkinson in my mid-twenties felt a bit like meeting the sort of person who would have accepted all these traits without explanation, and indeed with a great measure of understanding.
I mention these because I am very wary of how they might color my own interpretation of Parkinson’s work and his personality. In some ways it is an added insight: I can look at his work and know why he used certain techniques, because I have made paints from eighteenth-century pigments and worked drawings on vellum and laid paper using period paintbrushes or a brass porte-crayon. But the intangible things, it is harder and more hazardous to analogize: for instance, I perceive Parkinson as someone who was a bit anxious to please others, even slightly envious of people like his cousin Jane Gomeldon or his employer Joseph Banks, who (with the advantage of wealth as much as confidence) don’t seem to worry what others think of them. Or do I simply interpret him that way because I myself have those traits? When I laugh at one of his self-conscious habits which crops up in his vocabularies (more on that in a future post), it is because I can recall doing something very similar when I was twenty-four and trying to find my sense of self. But I am quite wary of conflation. I may be doing the writing now but I want to let him have his own voice, and that is where I need the most help: so that others who have a strong sense of his personality and achievements can tell me whether I have missed or hit the mark.
So, when I look at Parkinson’s portrait, or study one of his sketches or paintings, or read his Journal or his notebooks, this is what I see:
First and foremost, I see a young man who was trying to find his sense of self. He was astute, perceptive, incredibly intelligent. He was drawn to beauty, to variety, to interesting patterns and textures and to words that were elegant, economical, and true. He had enormous ability which was intriguing for the fact it was still evolving; he was in the process of mastering not only himself, but his art. He was curious, enthusiastic, eager to explore and experiment—occasionally to the point of boldness. He asked hard questions, and tested his own hypotheses. He wavered between reason and fancy, with a naïve sort of charm and a taste for romanticism that surfaced occasionally in sappy ways (see this painting). He struggled to define himself, separate from the expectations of family or the restrictions imposed by socioeconomic class or religion. He had high standards and was exacting, meticulous—something of a perfectionist. He was industrious, driven even to the point of obsession. Parkinson, in my mind, was someone who wanted very much to please others, and (almost as desperately) wished not to care what others thought of him. He was friendly and amiable, but also had a preference for privacy, keeping a small circle of very close friends; he had to retreat frequently into his own space in order to think and reflect. He acknowledged the presence of class structures in society without placing much stock in status (including his own). He had a tendency to become indignant in the face of injustice, but often felt helpless to affect positive change. This made him, at times, both critical and judgmental—and often that criticism was turned inward on himself, as much as outward toward others. He could be self-deprecating and self-effacing, but quite unabashedly proud at other moments. He struggled to reconcile his principles of simplicity with his worldly aspirations. He thought hard about the implications of his thoughts and actions, but even still he occasionally failed (miserably) to correctly anticipate the consequences of his choices. He had a streak of recklessness at times, taking great risks and seeking interesting adventures. He wanted to live deeply, to create something meaningful in his time on earth.
He was a man who was loved beyond measure, so much so that those who survived him were irreparably altered by his loss. His Tahitian name (here) suggests that even near-strangers recognized that they were in the presence of someone very special.
And here is what I don’t see:
I don’t see a young man who was endlessly deferential, who “knew his place” and was content to stay there. I don’t see an artist whose work was merely “adequate” or mostly “unrefined”. I don’t see someone who was simply a skilled employee, the second fiddle to a charismatic genius, without original thoughts or personality of his own. I don’t see someone who was priggish, fettered by conservative morals, a sense of superiority or self-righteousness. I don’t see someone who stayed in the bell tent, painting inoffensive flowers and cutting himself off from the experience of life. These stereotypes persist in the work of modern historians, but to my mind they fly in the face of the historical record of Sydney Parkinson. They don’t do justice to a young man who risked “life and everything else” to challenge his own view of the world.
I would love to hear your take: please feel free to email me at email@example.com.