Sir Joseph Banks was a figure of national and international importance during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His father was a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner.
The Banks family had established itself in Lincolnshire, at Revesby, in 1714 when Sir Joseph’s great grandfather, also Joseph Banks, bought the Estate for £14,000 from the Howard family. Although born in London on the 13th February 1743 to William and Sarah Banks, Joseph grew up at Revesby outside Horncastle in the centre of Lincolnshire. He spent his boyhood there, fishing, shooting, swimming, and boating in the fen waters around his home and gained a love for the Lincolnshire countryside and its agricultural and rural affairs which he never lost. Banks inherited his father’s Lincolnshire estates and considerable wealth in 1761 and thereafter he concerned himself not only with his own estates but with the County as a whole, involving himself in promoting various Acts of Parliament for enclosures and drainage of the fens and interesting himself in agriculture, stock breeding, fruit and vegetable cultivation, and local archaeology. In 1794 he accepted appointment to the office of High Sheriff of Lincolnshire.
Banks is probably best known for accompanying Captain James Cook on board the Endeavour on Cook’s classic and first voyage to the Pacific Ocean between 1768 and 1771. The Endeavour explored the coast of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand and Australia; Banks collected and recorded both information on natural history and information regarding the cultures of the indigenous people. In this respect his work was pioneering and much ahead of its time. He was also the first explorer to take specialists to record the landscape, people and natural history and to collect specimens rather than purely surveying the coastlines. Thereafter Banks continued to promote exploration and collecting throughout the Pacific region on an unprecedented scale, his legacy being apparent today in the many type specimens of plants that he bequeathed to the nation, uniquely valuable ethnological collections and the large number of illustrations of Pacific natural history and society that he commissioned.
As a scientist and adviser to the monarch and to ministers, Banks promoted the exchange of knowledge about flora, fauna and human cultures new to Europeans. No less significantly, he planned changes that continue to shape the world today, including the colonization of Australia, the exploration of Polynesia and increased trade and plant exchange with India. His importance in each of these spheres can hardly be overstated. Yet the extent of his legacy is still poorly understood and awareness of the richness of his collections in more than one major discipline is limited.
There is much to be written about the man and his accomplishments but in the main his legacy can be found in the natural history collections that he accumulated. These were instrumental in founding the Natural History Museum.
Through his passion for collecting in this field Banks became a close friend of George III with whom he shared an interest in agriculture and rural affairs. He became instrumental in guiding Kew Gardens to become a place of international significance for scientific and economic botanical study and from 1773 acted as its unofficial director. In this capacity he financed many botanical expeditions to bring back new plants for the Garden’s collections including those by led by William Bligh, George Vancouver and Matthew Flinders.
In 1778 Sir Joseph Banks was elected President of the Royal Society and held this position for 41 years until his death in 1820 promoting the careers of many scientists and steering the course of British science into the early nineteenth century.
Sir Joseph Banks was one of the great men of the Enlightenment and a significant figure on the international stage, his work leaving a lasting mark on our understanding and knowledge of botany and ethnography.
On Banks’s return to England the well known Anglo-American painter and a founder of the Royal Academy. Benjamin West completed a magnificent portrait which is now housed at the Usher Gallery. The portrait shows Banks surrounded by artefacts from his voyage.
Benjamin West is most famous for his large scale historical paintings but unusually also succeeded in portraiture. West was born in Pennsylvania but moved to London after 1763 and became a founder member of the Royal Academy, succeeding Joshua Reynolds as President in 1792. Reynolds had previously painted Joseph Bank’s portrait in 1771 – 1773.
In this conventional portrait Banks poses with a collection of material from New Zealand and Polynesia from his voyage with James Cook on the Endeavour. He is shown resplendent in a fine Maori cloak with a carved fighting staff and canoe paddle on his right. On the left is a large Polynesian adze and crumpled folio pages which may be for pressing plants. The voyage has been described as ‘one of the greatest missions of discovery in history’, and Banks provided £10,000 of his own money to equip the expedition. They crossed from Plymouth at the beginning of their voyage and landed in Madeira, Brazil, Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti and finally New Zealand and Australia.
The tribute to Banks in Lincoln Cathedral reads ‘wide as the world is, traces of you are to be found in every corner’.