Characteres generum plantarum, quas in itinere ad insulas Maris Australis, collegerunt, descripserunt, delinearunt, annis MDCCLXXII–MDCCLXXV.

London: B. White, T. Cadell, & P. Elmsly, 1776.

4to (305 x 240mm), pp. [i]-x (dedication, verso blank, title, verso blank, address to the dedicatee), [2 (index)], [i]-viii (preface), [2 (errata, verso blank)], 150 (p. 72 misnumbered ‘48’), [2 (index)]; 78 engraved plates [after Georg Forster], numbered 1-38, 38a-38b, 39-51, 51a, 52-75 (23 bound upside-down); some light spotting and occasional marking, deckles dusty, small marginal stain affecting some ll.; contemporary [?original] paper-backed blue boards, uncut, a few quires unopened; a little marked, rubbed, scuffed, and bumped, skilfully rebacked retaining paper spine, endpapers replaced, nonetheless a very crisp, uncut copy, retaining the errata leaf; provenance: [?]early 20th-century pressmark label on spine.


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First edition. Johann Reinhold Forster (1729-1798) and his son Georg Forster (1754-1794) travelled on Cook’s second voyage of 1772-1775 as naturalists, and their Characteres generum plantarum was the first botanical work about the voyage to be published and one of the earliest sources for European knowledge of the plants of Polynesia and Australasia – indeed, ‘it has been said to be the foundation of our knowledge of New Zealand, Antarctic, and Polynesian vegetation’ (Hill). As Henrey explains, ‘[t]he work is botanically important as containing a large number of new generic and specific names relating to plants of Australasia and Polynesia. It appears that in the preparation of this undertaking the Forsters were able to use the fine natural history library belonging to Sir Joseph Banks, and to seek the advice of his librarian Daniel Carl Solander. Furthermore, they had free access to the Banks and Solander collections made on Cook’s first voyage [...] to the Pacific, and to Solander’s manuscripts’ (II, p. 167).

The descriptions of the plants were by Anders Sparrman (1748-1820), a Swedish botanist and student of Linnaeus, who travelled with Cook; the illustrations were by Georg Forster (who was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of this work); and the book’s publication was overseen by Johann Reinhold Forster. A folio edition of eight copies followed this first, quarto edition later in 1776, of which some copies are misdated 1775 on the title-page (Stafleu & Cowan, apparently mistakenly, treat these as two separate editions).

Beddie 1385; BM(NH) II, p. 596 (erroneously calling for only 75 plates); Henrey 718; Hill 627; Hocken 2013; Holmes 17; Hunt 649; Kroepelien 463; Nissen, BBI, 644 (erroneously calling for only 75 plates); O’Reilly and Reitman 2469; Pritzel 2981 (erroneously calling for only 75 plates); Rosove 139a (‘very scarce’); Sabin 25134 (‘Forms part of a complete set of Cook’s voyages’; erroneously calling for only 75 plates); Stafleu & Cowan 1826.

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