Erasing Parkinson

Maybe it’s the fact that I am beginning to apply for grants to complete the research I started in 2004. Maybe it’s due to the new software I’m using (Scrivener) to help myself organize a dozen years’ worth of notes, footnotes, and random ideas. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been writing (manically) to distract myself from a hundred other anxieties. In any case, I’ve managed–for the first time–to devise a full outline of my book with a short description of every chapter, and I have written much of the foreword, which I have titled “Erasing Parkinson.”

When I draw, I do a great deal of erasing (occasionally accompanied by swearing). But erasures were more difficult to accomplish in Sydney Parkinson’s lifetime, because the rubber eraser wasn’t in use until after 1770, when Edward Nairne first used a piece of “gum elastic” to remove graphite from paper. Until that time, light mistakes could be sponged off with a chunk of soft bread; more persistent errors had to be scraped off the surface with a scalpel. The difficulty of erasing may account for the characteristic lightness of Parkinson’s line: the lighter the drawing, the easier it would be to correct mistakes. For a scientific illustrator, accuracy matters; being able to correct inaccuracies easily is an imperative.

But following Parkinson’s death in January of 1771, it was the artist himself who was ultimately removed (albeit temporarily) from the picture. “Erasing Parkinson” discusses the stages of John James Barralett’s reinterpretation of Parkinson’s View of the Ship at Anchor in Matavai Bay from OTaharra, or One Tree Hill. Parkinson’s ink wash drawing depicts the view across Matavai Bay toward Point Venus and the fort erected by the British. The scene appears to be in reverse, as though seen through a Claude glass; the ship is anchored within the breakers in the middle ground between Point Venus and Taharra Hill. Several figures populate the crest of Taharra: a sailor with a roll of barkcloth; a Maohi girl with a basket of fruit; two naturalists (Parkinson’s employer, Joseph Banks, and Banks’s colleague Daniel Solander) collecting plants; and the artist himself, seated at the center under an Etoa (beefwood) tree, sketching the entire scene.

This drawing referenced in the foreword is, I think, one of the most important and personal drawings Parkinson ever made; he used a well-known formula for landscape painting—that of the artist drawing the landscape—to “own” the centrality of his role in the voyage. Parkinson is prominent in the picture, more so than even Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander, and on a level with the ship itself. It’s a very bold statement for a Quaker whom Banks and Cook occasionally counted in company with “the servants”. Alexander Buchan, the landscape painter, had just died of a seizure, and Banks was bemoaning the sudden lack of anyone capable of producing illustrations of people and landscapes. (In SP’s place, I might have been unspeakably insulted!) Parkinson’s brilliant answer was to produce this drawing: one that clearly demonstrates his artistic capacity (and in terms of composition and chiaroscuro far exceeds anything Buchan painted), but also acknowledges his own indispensable role to Banks and to history. From the moment of Buchan’s death (and arguably, even before), the majority of our visual understanding of the Endeavour expedition comes to us as seen and experienced by Sydney Parkinson. In subsequent drawings and sketches, he calls our attention even to those things which might have gone unnoticed by his shipmates (such as a woman making an ancestral offering outside the morai on Raiatea), or those things they might not have wished to see (the dignified, arresting face of the Maori man shot and killed over a trade dispute).

Initially, Barralett copied Parkinson’s original composition of OTaharra fairly faithfully, including all the figures–even the figure of Parkinson. But then (probably at the request of Joseph Banks) Barralett picked up a chunk of bread or maybe one of Nairne’s new-fangled “gum elastics” and rubbed out the center figure, the artist’s self-portrait. In subsequent versions, he changed the identities of nearly all the other individuals depicted in the drawing, too; the Englishmen become Tahitians, and the reality of European imperial presence in the South Pacific was pushed still further from the far-distanced English viewer. Parkinson’s honesty yielded to Banks’s lie. (Rüdiger Joppien and Bernard Smith also discuss this wash drawing, and the subsequent alterations by Barralett, in Volume I of The Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages. While they address the politics of Banks’s desire to remove evidence of Parkinson’s contributions to the voyage, the authors don’t consider the perspective of Parkinson in producing the original.)

My goal for “Erasing Parkinson” is to raise several questions in the reader’s mind (to be answered, I hope, by subsequent chapters!) regarding Parkinson’s life and work, among them: what were his motivations (professional and personal) for joining Endeavour? How did he view his role in the voyage’s research, and how did that differ from his patron’s view of his work? What was the importance of his accomplishments? Why did Banks ultimately request that Parkinson be removed from the picture? Why is it time that we look at Endeavour again, from the perspective of Parkinson (and others) who were gradually removed from, or minimized within, the historical narrative?

I’ve already touched on some of these questions briefly on this blog. But as with most historical questions, it’s difficult to tease out the truth after two and a half centuries of confusing clutter–and, in some cases, deliberate erasures and obfuscations. The overriding goal of Parkinson’s Endeavour is to reveal the artist hidden beneath the palimpsest, and to bring what he witnessed, once again, to the fore.

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