The Artistic Legacy of Joseph Banks display: 15 highlights
This free display of artworks and manuscripts explored the life and interests of Joseph Banks (1743-1820) through some of his extraordinary collections.
Banks was one of the most influential people in British science in the late 1700s. With the help of a large inherited fortune, he dramatically changed how many people understood the natural world and used its resources. Find out more about the life of Joseph Banks.
The display could be seen in the Images of Nature gallery from 17 May to 17 September and from 18 September to 13 January 2022.
Display highlights until 13 January 2022
Joseph Banks made his name sailing on Captain James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific from 1768-1771. Many of the artworks in his collections give an insight into this expedition. Cook's ship - HMS Endeavour - first sailed to Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun.
Banks funded others to join the voyage and assist with his scientific work, including two artists and a botanist. With the occasional help of local people, they collected many plants and recorded them visually. The voyage marked a new approach to Western scientific study and was an important event in European exploration. However, it eventually led to colonial exploitation and expansion, which had a negative impact on Indigenous people, many of whom lost their land, culture and lives. Learn more about the HMS Endeavour voyage.
Cook captained two more voyages to the Pacific, but Banks did not travel on these. Instead, he acquired plants and drawings and supported the publication of accounts describing the expeditions.
This portrait shows Joseph Banks in his old age and at the peak of his influence. He appears as president of the Royal Society, Britain's oldest scientific institution, and wears the star-shaped insignia of the Order of the Bath. King George III granted this honour to mark Banks's contribution to British science, having already made him a baronet.
Sarah Sophia Banks made this handwritten copy of her brother's journal. It records the first voyage Joseph Banks took, aged 23, to the east coast of modern-day Canada. The experience Banks gained on this ten-month journey was vital for his future work, enabling him to study, collect and preserve nature while on an expedition abroad.
Display highlights from 17 May to 17 September
During his lifetime, Banks's collections were among the most comprehensive accounts of the natural world. His rare manuscripts, artworks, preserved insects, shells and pressed plants formed the basis of the Museum's collections and are central to its origins.
This manuscript, acquired by Joseph Banks, describes local uses of medicinal plants from Kerala, southern India. It was written by Salvadore Rodrigues, a hospital assistant, in Portuguese and the Keralan language of Malayalam. The Western world often learned from Indigenous knowledge and some medicinal plants became valuable exports as a result.
This manuscript contains over 200 illustrations of plants, whose medicinal uses and properties are described in the volume to the left. They were found around the English settlement of Anjengo, now Anchuthengu, on the southwest coast of India. Joseph Banks exchanged plants with India, then home to outposts of European trading companies.
Although Banks's passion was for plants, he supported many areas of science. He was president of Britain's oldest scientific institution - the Royal Society - and was an adviser to King George III. Banks also advocated for the British colonisation of Australia, after sailing there on HMS Endeavour as a young man. He lived at an age when British science and colonialism were closely linked though trade, travel and the exploitation of natural resources. In time, the impacts on many Indigenous people, such as Australia's Aboriginal population, were catastrophic.
This watercolour of a dingo was used to create the animal's first description by Western scientists. The unknown European artist was possibly one of the naval officers who sailed on the first fleet of ships transporting convicts to establish a penal colony in Australia. The collection of artworks was later purchased by Joseph Banks.
The Scottish explorer Mungo Park was one of the first Europeans to explore West Africa. Supported by Banks, he also travelled to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, where he painted this fish. On his return, he presented a scientific paper in which he described eight species of Sumatran fish new to Western science.
Assistant to the ship's surgeon, William Wade Ellis created these illustrations on Captain James Cook's third Pacific voyage (1776-1780), which searched for a passage from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic. They are from a collection of artworks of animals made during the voyage, later bought by Joseph Banks.
Few scientific results were published after the expedition returned to Britain, partly due to Cook's death. At great effort and expense, Joseph Banks published an account of the journey out of loyalty to his friend.
American naturalist William Bartram was one of the first to take an interest in ecology - the study of how organisms interact with each other and their environment. This drawing, showing a group of animals, might relate to this. Due to their scientific importance, Joseph Banks purchased Bartram's drawings and two of his travel journals at auction.
With Joseph Banks's support, botanist John Bradby Blake travelled to southern China, where he made use of Indigenous knowledge to collect seeds of valuable plants, such as this lychee, to send back to Britain. European naturalists regularly used local artists to record plants and animals, but their names are often unknown and their contribution to Western science not adequately acknowledged.
Display highlights from 18 September to 13 January 2022
This painting of a lizard is from a collection of artworks made by an unknown artist, who had sailed on the first fleet of ships transporting convicts to establish a penal colony in Australia. The artworks were later purchased by Joseph Banks.
Georg Forster painted this plant after collecting it on the remote Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. He travelled there with his father, aged just 17, on Captain James Cook's second Pacific voyage, from 1772 to 1775. Joseph Banks did not take part in the voyage but purchased Forster's paintings afterwards.
This is a mottled petrel, in flight over the Antarctic Ocean. Forster's depictions of birds that live by the ocean were some of the first to be made by a European during a journey to the southern hemisphere.
Kew's first resident artist, Franz Bauer, painted this plant collected in South Africa and grown at the gardens. Under Joseph Banks's guidance, Kew Gardens was internationally recognised for its scientific research on plants. Valuable plants were brought here from around the world to be grown, studied and distributed to British colonies overseas.
Johann Jacob Dillenius, Professor of Botany at Oxford University, created the original illustrations in this volume. Many were published in his book Historia Muscorum, in which he recorded all the 'lower plants', such as mosses and algae, known at the time. Banks purchased the volume at a sale of drawings.
This volume contains watercolours of fossil fish and plants from Monte Bolca, Italy. The site was one of the first places known by Europeans to contain well-preserved fossils in natural materials transported by wind, water or ice. Joseph Banks's librarian Robert Brown studied fossilised plants and may have inspired his interest in them.
Banks's collections of pressed plants, shells, books, artworks and manuscripts are still studied today. This legacy tells us about the history of collecting, scientific endeavour, colonialism and the desire to understand and classify the natural world.
The display can be seen in the Images of Nature gallery from 17 May to 17 September and from 18 September to 13 January 2022. All visitors must book a free ticket in advance.
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