Painted portrait of Sarah Sophia Banks, Angelica Kauffman.

Sarah Sophia Banks 

Collector of coins and printed ephemera

Sarah Sophia Banks (1744–1818) was based in London and collected prints and printed ephemera, coins, medals and tokens.

There are more than 15,000 objects related to Sarah Sophia Banks in the British Museum.

Early years

Banks created a collection like no other, documenting the time she lived in. Going to the theatre, to see friends or shopping, Banks saw the value in even the smallest witness to these transactions and interactions, a record of daily life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her collection was initially bequeathed to her sister-in-law, Dorothea, who immediately donated it to the British Museum.

The daughter of William Banks, the MP for Grampound, Banks probably began collecting in her teenage years. Later, she was heavily influenced by her close association with her brother, with whom she lived, the great botanist Sir Joseph Banks. 

Sir Joseph was probably the most influential man of science of the day, and a Trustee of the British Museum.

Coins, medals, broadsheets, newspaper clippings, visiting cards, engravings, advertisements and playbills – these small and often short-lived items today give us a historically invaluable window on the social world of the elite society in which the Banks siblings moved.

Sir Joseph Banks

Sir Joseph Banks was exceptionally famous. He'd been Captain Cook's companion on Cook's voyages to Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. Later, Sir Joseph was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as President of the Royal Society, so it was possible for Sarah Sophia Banks to access scientific and scholarly circles which were otherwise usually closed to women.

Cowrie shells

Sarah Sophia Banks followed local and international developments and her collecting scope ranged widely. Banks didn't travel but people brought back objects for her collection.

One example is Mungo Park, who provoked hostility while exploring West Africa. When Park reached the kingdom of Bambara, the king gave him 5,000 cowrie shells – the local currency – to leave the area. Upon arrival back in London he gave his remaining four shells to Banks.

They can be seen today in Room 1 (the Enlightenment Gallery).

Later years

Banks documented her collection thoroughly, bringing order to the varied objects, and laid the groundwork for future curators of her collection. She's known to have been highly selective and exchanged many items with other interested collectors.

Banks organised her collection taxonomically and systematically. A favourite method of organisation was the scrapbook which reflected contemporary creations of anthologies and lexica for publication.

Banks died in 1818 and bequeathed her collection to her sister-in-law, Dorothea Banks, who immediately donated the collection to the British Museum and Royal Mint Museum. Banks' collections can now be seen in the British Museum, British Library and Royal Mint Museum.

Further reading

  • Catherine Eagleton, Collecting African money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and her collection of coins (Museum History Journal, 2013) 
  • Catherine Eagleton, Collecting America: Sarah Sophia Banks and the 'Continental Dollar' of 1776 (Numismatic Chronicle, 2014)
  • Antony Griffiths and Reginald Williams, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: User's Guide (1987)
  • Arlene Leis, Sarah Sophia Banks: Femininity, Sociability and the Practice of Collecting in Late Georgian England, Volume I (University of York, 2013
  • A Pincott, The book tickets of Miss Sarah Sophia Banks (1744–1818), in The Bookplate Journal, New Series, Vol. 2, No. 1, (2004)