Images of a Man of Science

Patricia Fara investigates how the many paintings, prints and cartoons of Joseph Banks, botanist, explorer and scientific administrator, influenced public attitudes to science in the early 19th century.

The first and last major portraits of the British botanist Joseph Banks (1743-1820) show very contrasting versions of the scientist as hero. In 1773, Benjamin West displayed Banks as a romantic young explorer, still in his twenties, recently returned from his voyage as James Cook's botanical collector on the Endeavour, wrapped in a Pacific cloak and surrounded by exotic objects. Forty years later, Thomas Phillips portrayed the solid statesman of British science, wearing decorations bestowed by the king, sitting amid the ceremonial trappings of the Royal Society.

 

 

...one of the staple manufactures of the empire. Wherever the British settle, wherever they colonise, they carry and will ever carry trial by jury, horse-racing, and portrait-painting.

He might similarly have regarded Banks as an imperial product. Although he is little known in Britain, Australian chauvinists have adopted him as their national founding father, and he is renowned throughout the Pacific as a scientific explorer.

 

Through his portraits, Banks contributed to transforming the stereotype of the English male traveller, from the foppish aristocrat degenerating on his Grand Tour into the masculine hero risking his life for the sake of England and of science. In the 1770s, he fashioned himself as an energetic yet learned voyager, the gentlemanly participant in a characteristically English male metropolitan culture. By the time he died, he had manoeuvred the Royal Society into an influential position, and had restyled his own image as the authoritative organiser of British expeditions of scientific exploration.

 

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