- Museum number
Object: Mr Banks
Object: Sir Joseph Banks Bt President, F.A.S. Trust Br. Mus. Ac. Imp. Petrop. R...
Portrait after Benjamin West (Staley 586; Usher Gallery, Lincoln); standing whole-length to front wearing and displaying Tahitian cape, with botanical books and weapons on floor at right, South Sea island spears and implements at left; curtain and pillar behind. 1773
- Production date
Height: 613 millimetres
Width: 377 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Text from Jenkins & Sloan, 'Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and his collection', BM 1996, cat.40a:
Although they did not begin to correspond until 1777, [Sir William] Hamilton would have been aware throughout the previous decade of Banks's activities as a natural historian, particularly as a botanist, in Newfoundland, New Zealand, Tahiti, South America and Iceland. The discoveries made during Cook's voyage on the 'Endeavour' from 1768 to 1771 had already been published, detailing not only the adventures but also the work done by Banks, who was accompanied by two artists and the assistant librarian of the British Museum, Dr Daniel Solander. Banks's portrait was painted after his return in 1773 by Reynolds and West, each artist emphasising different aspects of his accomplishments. Reynolds showed him as a wealthy young man of letters, working on discoveries made on the other side of the globe; while the young American, Benjamin West, concentrated on Banks the natural historian and collector of objects representative of the culture and customs of exotic peoples.
Mathematics and astronomy were well established as the primary subjects of interest in the Royal Society in 1766, the year that both Banks and Hamilton became members, but thanks to Banks's efforts, botany and zoology were to become the subject of more serious and systematic study as the century progressed. Natural history, much like antiquity, was still a study for virtuosi, and since much of the activity centred around collecting, the Royal Society already had a substantial museum of natural history. When the British Museum was opened in 1759, however, the Society's activities in this field were subsumed into the Museum's, which the members regarded as naturally complementing the Society's own.
Hamilton played a role in the encouragement of the study of botany and zoology, searching out curious specimens of plants and especially of fish around the Bay of Naples, which he sent regularly to the British Museum. But Hamilton's greatest contribution to the broadening of interest in natural history lay in his empirical observations of the activities of Mount Vesuvius and the entire volcanic area around Naples and Sicily, and in his regular gifts of different types of volcanic rock, minerals and fossils which he also sent regularly to the British Museum. Banks was 'ex officio' a trustee of the British Museum from 1778, the year he was appointed President of the Royal Society, and under his influence, until his death in 1820, the Museum continued to collect widely, "maintaining the undifferentiated culture of the virtuoso" (Gascoigne, p. 117) - a culture shared by Hamilton, but widened even further by his own earlier addition to the Museum of a foundation collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. Hamilton failed, however, in his efforts to encourage the Museum in the collection of old master paintings and the finest examples of Roman sculpture. Although he offered them the opportunity to purchase first his Correggio and then the 'Warwick' vase, "the old dons" - he complained - "do not so much as thank me when I send a work of art" (Morrison, no. 61).
Joseph Banks, like Hamilton, was a member of the Society of Dilettanti, his portrait included on the right of the group with Lord Fortrose and Charles Greville (1838,0714.47 and 1902,1001.5483). Banks and Hamilton corresponded several times a year, nearly every year from 1777 and particularly in 1785-8, when Banks found a gardener, John Graefer, to send to Naples to assist Hamilton in the creation of an English Garden for the Queen of Naples at Caserta. Banks continued to assist Graefer through the 1790s (Dawson, 'Banks Letters', p.391, no. 58).
Hamilton's last letter to Banks, written only two months before his death, returned to a favourite subject on which the two men had corresponded over the years. In his letter of January 1802, Hamilton called Banks's attention to the danger of ships being struck by lightning, and implored the Royal Society to take measures to have ships fitted with lightning conductors (Dawson, 'Banks Letters', p. 392, no. 64).
See also 1831,0520.55
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1996, London BM, Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton, cat.40a
2007 Mar-Jun, Beijing, Palace Museum, Britain meets the World
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number