In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Scientific Gusto versus Monsters in the Basement
  • Jonathan Lamb
Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765–1820, 6 vols., ed. Neil Chambers (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007). Pp. 3088. $1181.73.
Neil Chambers , Joseph Banks and the British Museum: The World of Collecting, 1770–1830 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007). Pp. xiv, 195. $99.00.

Like John Buchan's Lady Flambard, Joseph Banks had a multitudinous mind. Banks, an ardent botanist, cut his teeth on two important expeditions in the 1760s—Constantine Phipps's navigation of the Arctic portions of North America's eastern seaboard and James Cook's first voyage to the Pacific. His interests did not stop there. He was actively engaged in discussions and experiments concerning theories of air, the practice of ballooning, mining technology and metallurgy, volcanoes, astronomy, earthquakes, the minting of coin, explosives, fen-draining, patent stoves, steam engines, electricity, sailcloth, rubber, vaccination, the effects of heat, and tinned food, to name only some of his specialties. Among his correspondents appeared the luminaries of two generations: Linnaeus, Benjamin Franklin, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, Sir William Jones, Lord Monboddo, Sir William Hamilton, William Herschel, Baron Cuvier, Baron von Humboldt, Joseph Priestley, Arthur Young, William Scoresby, Helenus Scott, and Charles Babbage. But he was equally at home exchanging information with more familiar letter writers, such as his agricultural favorite, Thomas Andrew Knight, and his most frequent and assiduous correspondent, Sir Charles Blagden, the secretary of the Royal Society. With these companions he can sound like Bouvard to their Pecuchet, as between them they run the gamut of hot topics: "We are quite satisfied on the Subject of Goose Livers. . . . I know nothing of Steam boats but by hearsay . . . your Potatoes with violet Colord Flesh are well known here. . . . I have procurd your Brocoli seeds. . . . Rennie has begun another bridge which will cross the Thames opposite Guildhall [End Page 309] . . . . This extraordinary instance of vegetable superfoetation, which produces one child endowed with the qualities of two Fathers, is to me a matter of almost infinite curiosity. . . . We have just Receivd some Skulls from the Catacombs in Peru" (Chambers, Scientific Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks [hereafter cited by volume and page], VI, 161, 163, 171).

Benjamin West's portrait of Banks, painted in 1771–72 shortly after he got back from the South Seas, expresses very well the two sides of his character. It shows him surrounded by artificial and natural curiosities, the trophies of his investigations on the other side of the world. But he is himself dressed in a tapa cloak, probably Tahitian, making a flamboyant gesture of exotic appropriation, as if this were an opportunity for not only displaying knowledge but also performing it. The things themselves are presented both as evidence and as props, food for the mind and a dramatic challenge to the eye. Banks himself confronts the spectator as a collector of specimens, a scientific investigator, and simultaneously as a virtuoso or connoisseur, wrapped up in things that are pleasurable and wonderful to the senses. Banks's equivocal role in the picture was borne out not only by the spate of scandalous prints and mocking verse produced by satirists such as James Gillray and Peter Pindar that cast him as the botanizing Aeneas of the Pacific, but also by his professional affiliations. In 1766 he was elected to the Royal Society and to the Society of Antiquaries. Antiquaries, as we are reminded frequently these days, were the forerunners of those later collectors who were able to set out specimens in their correct order or class; but antiquaries themselves were a more amateur and associative bunch for whom taste played a more important role in their work than tabulation, and for whom an imagined relation to ancient structures and artifacts was the premier impulse, not the cool desire of knowledge (see Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707-2007, catalogue of the Royal Academy and Antiquaries of London exhibition, 2007). Banks followed consciously the footsteps on the great antiquarian William Stukeley when in 1780 he started excavating barrows in the vicinity of Revesby in search of druidical remains. In 1774 Banks was elected to the Council of the Royal Society; in the same year he joined...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 309-320
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.