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Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, c. 1814

Thomas Phillips

oil on canvas (frame: 104.4 cm x 93.2 cm, support: 76.5 cm x 75.5 cm)

Sir Joseph Banks KGB (1743–1820), occasionally characterised, justly, as the ‘father of Australia’, was the powerful President of London’s Royal Society for more than forty years, from 1778 to 1820. Banks grew up on his father’s Lincolnshire estate and sharpened his interest in botany at Eton and Oxford. At the age of twenty-five, he suggested to the council of the Royal Society that they recommend him for inclusion on the voyage of the Endeavour, commanded by James Cook. On the three-year trip, he and Daniel Solander collected hundreds of specimens of plants and animals of the South Seas. For the rest of his life Banks was one of the sparkling stars of Enlightenment London. It was he who endorsed New South Wales as a site for a penal settlement; he was a patron of Matthew Flinders and others; and he corresponded zestfully with all the early governors of New South Wales. From 1788 to about 1810, though Banks held no official post (there was no ‘master plan’ for the settlement of the Colony, nor Department to administer it) he was a continuous advocate for the colony and his role as effective head of Australian affairs was widely acknowledged. Late in life, Banks’s chief interests were the development of superior sheep varieties and the drainage of the Lincolnshire fens to create pasture. It is largely down to Banks’s personal enthusiasm for merino sheep that specimens of the breed were established in Australia within a couple of decades of English settlement. John Macarthur was able to purchase seven rams and three ewes at the first public auction of merinos, supervised by Banks, near the Pagoda at Kew Gardens on 15 August 1804. Six of the beasts survived to land at Sydney on 7 July 1805. As a result, in years to come, England’s irksome dependence on European wool would be eased.

Thomas Phillips (1770–1845) painted Banks several times, and duplicated more than one of his own portraits of the great man. In this one, Banks sits with fen drainage plans to hand, wearing the uniform of the Lincolnshire Supplemental Militia, set off with the insignia of the Red Ribbon of the Order of the Bath which was awarded to him by his friend and fellow sheep enthusiast, King George III (‘Farmer George’) in 1795.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2011

Accession number: 2011.18

Currently on display: Gallery Three (Robert Oatley Gallery)

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Artist and subject

Thomas Phillips (age 44 in 1814)

Sir Joseph Banks KCB (age 71 in 1814)

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