Born in London, Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) was the son of William Banks, a wealthy landowner of Revesby Abbey, Lincolnshire. He was educated at Harrow School, Eton College and the University of Oxford. At school he became intensely interested in botany and at university he devoted most of his time to natural history rather than classical studies. His father died in 1761, leaving him with the means to pursue his scientific interests, as well as enjoy the cultural life of London. In 1766 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and at the same time he became friendly with the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander, who was on the staff of the British Museum. In that year Banks was the naturalist on an expedition to Labrador and Newfoundland.

In 1768, on the recommendation of the Royal Society, Banks joined the Endeavour on the expedition to the Pacific led by Lieutenant James Cook. He was accompanied by Solander, another botanist Herman Sporing, the astronomer Charles Green, two artists, Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson, and two servants. For nearly three years Banks and his associates collected natural history specimens, made drawings, compiled vocabularies and kept journals as they voyaged to South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, the eastern coast of Australia, New Guinea and the Cape of Good Hope. They discovered about 1400 new species and on their return to England in 1771 the reception given to Banks overshadowed that of Cook. Banks was to have accompanied Cook on his second voyage, but his ambitious attempts to reorganise the expedition antagonized Cook and the Admiralty and they parted company. Instead, Banks made a short journey to Iceland.

At the age of 30, Banks’s career as an explorer and naturalist had come to an end. For the rest of his life, he was the supreme organiser, patron and government adviser on all matters connected with science. He became President of the Royal Society in 1778 and held the position until his death. He was made a baronet in 1781 He served on government bodies such as the British Museum, Royal Observatory and the Board of Longitude, was the virtual director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and was active in learned societies such as the Society of Antiquaries and the British Institution. He maintained a vast correspondence with scientists throughout Europe, North America, India and at colonial outposts.

Banks had a keen interest in Australia from 1770, when he landed at Botany Bay and Endeavour River, until his death. In 1779 and 1784 he recommended Botany Bay as the site of a penal settlement. He took a strong interest in the naval expeditions led by William Bligh, George Vancouver and Matthew Flinders, advised the Government on colonial appointments, corresponded with all the early governors of New South Wales, and in particular encouraged naturalists and artists such as Robert Brown, George Caley and Allan Cunningham.


Most of the papers of Joseph Banks held in the Library were received in 1909 as part of the Petherick Collection. They had been purchased by E.A. Petherick in 1886 at a Sotheby’s sale in London. The Nan Kivell Collection, which was purchased in 1959, contained a number of letters of Banks and other letters have been bought from dealers or at auctions. The papers of Lord Sandwich were acquired at a Sotheby’s sale in 1985.

The drawing of Banks by George Dance and many of the engravings of portraits were purchased from Rex Nan Kivell in 1959. The miniature portrait was bought from the Sydney dealer Anne McCormick in 1986. The painting by John Mortimer was bequeathed to the Library by Dame Merlyn Myer and was received in 1987. Banks’ Florilegium was acquired between 1981 and 1990.



(i) Papers of Sir Joseph Banks (MS 9)

The collection of papers of Sir Joseph Banks held at MS 9 is an artificial collection, as it was assembled from a number of sources. Most of the letters had originally been acquired by E.A. Petherick at a sale in 1886, when the vast Banks archives was being dismembered by Lord Brabourne. Petherick bought 20 lots. The correspondence had been split by the auctioneers on an alphabetical basis, which explains why most of the writers represented in the collection had names starting with B, C, F, K and P.

The collection contains 31 draft letters and manuscripts written by Banks himself. They include his draft memorials to the Viceroy of Brazil in November 1768, during the voyage of the Endeavour, his thoughts on the manners of Tahitian women, and various accounts arising from the visit of Omai to England in 1774-76. The letters received by Banks date from 1757, when he was a schoolboy at Eton, to 1819, the year before his death. The correspondents include Lord Bathurst, David Collins, Allan Cunningham, Alexander Dalrymple, Johannes Forster, Captain John Hunter, Philip Gidley King, Lord Morton, Lord Nelson, William Paterson, Arthur Phillip and John Webber. Of particular interest are the ‘Hints’ of the Earl of Morton on dealings with Indigenous peoples (1768) and the letters of Hunter and King on conditions in New South Wales and Norfolk Island.

The Nan Kivell Collection contains two groups of letters of Banks (MS 4141, MS 4246). The letters date from 1803 to 1820 and do not refer to Australia or the Pacific.

(ii) Papers of Lord Sandwich (MS 7218)

The 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was First Lord of the Admiralty in 1771-82, was a close friend of Banks. His collection of papers in the Library (MS 7218) consists mostly of letters relating to the publication in 1784 of the official account of the third voyage of James Cook. There are nine letters written by Banks to Sandwich in 1782-84.

In addition to the letters in MS 9 and MS 7218, the Library holds a number of original letters written to Banks. The correspondents include Allan Cunningham, James Fleming, Sir John Gore, Mungo Park and Edward Waterson.


Mfm M 469 Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1773-1815 (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Mfm M 596-97 Records of the Linnean Society of London, 1790-1870

Mfm M 686 Vocabularies compiled by Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-71 (School of Oriental and African Studies, London)

Mfm M 692 Correspondence of Allan Cunningham, 1817-39 (Natural History Museum, London)

Mfm M 730-88 Records of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 1793-1928

Mfm M 1192 Correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, mostly from European scientists, 1768-1820 (British Library)

Mfm M 1193 Correspondence of Robert Brown, (British Library)

Mfm M 1903 Papers of Knatchbull Family, 1768-1872 (Kent Archives Office)

Mfm M 1927-37 Records of the Royal Society, 1699-1937

Mfm M 1938 Correspondence of Sir Charles Blagden, 1774-1820 (Royal Society)

Mfm M 2662 Transcripts by Dawson Turner of correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1819 (Natural History Museum, London)

Mfm M 3033-37 Correspondence of Matthew Flinders, 1797-1814 (National Maritime Museum, London)

Mfm G 1901 Letters of Sir Joseph Banks, 1767-98 (Alexander Turnbull Library)

Mfm G 27374-408 Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765-1820 (British Library)

Mfm G 27561-76 Papers of Sir Joseph Banks, c.1700-1823 (British Library)

Pictures and Objects

The Library holds two original portraits of Banks: a pencil drawing by George Dance and a miniature watercolour initialled ‘N.S’. There are also two group portraits. One is an oil painting by John Mortimer, dating from about 1771, depicting James Cook, Joseph Banks, Lord Sandwich, Daniel Solander and John Hawkesworth. The other, a watercolour by Theodore Von Holst (1838), is a copy of the portrait of Banks, Solander and Omai by William Parry (c. 1775).

A large number of prints of Banks are held in the collection. They include engravings from the portraits by Sir Thomas Lawrence, Thomas Phillips, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Russell and Benjamin West. There are also copies of the famous caricatures: The botanic Macaroni (1772) and James Gillray’s The great South Sea caterpillar (1795). Another unkind portrayal of Banks appears in the frontispiece of a rare play entitled The Philosophical Puppet Show (c. 1783). Other engravings in the collection depict Banks’s coat of arms and ‘Spring Grove’, his country house in Middlesex.

On his return to England in 1771, Banks arranged for 738 copper plates to be produced, at enormous cost, from the watercolours that Sydney Parkinson had made during the voyage of the Endeavour. The project to publish the drawings was abandoned and, after the death of Banks, the plates passed into the ownership of the British Museum. In 1900-5 the Museum published in three volumes Illustrations of the botany of Captain Cook’s voyage round the world in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71, in which 328 of the engravings were reproduced by photolithography. A selection of 29 prints were reproduced by Lion and Unicorn Press in a limited edition entitled Cook’s Florilegium (1973), a copy of which is in the Library. In 1980 Editions Alecto began to publish in colour the complete collection of plates. The Library subscribed to the publication, which was entitled Banks’ Florilegium. It was issued in 35 parts, the last part appearing in 1990.

Among the objects in the Nan Kivell Collection is a silver kettle and spirit lamp given to Banks by Queen Charlotte in 1813.

The botanic Macaroni

The great South Sea caterpillar

The Philosophical Puppet Show

Illustrations of the botany of Captain Cook’s voyage round the world in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71

Captain Cook’s Florilegium

Banks’ Florilegium

Silver kettle and spirit lamp given by Queen Charlotte to Sir Joseph Banks


(i) Early editions of writings by Banks

Writings by Banks published during his lifetime are largely confined to a small number of pamphlets on agricultural subjects. They include works on the export of wool (1782), disease in corn (1805), merino sheep (1809) and mildew in wheat (1816).

The Library holds several editions of the scurrilous An epistle from Oberea, Queen of Otaheite, to Joseph Banks Esq. (1774), as well as A second letter from Oberea, Queen of Otaheite, to Joseph Banks Esq. (1774).

(ii) Modern editions of writings by Banks

Beaglehole, J.C., ed., The Endeavour journal of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1771, 2 vols, 1962

Carter, Harold B., The sheep and wool correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1781-1820, 1979

Chambers, Neil, ed., The Indian and Pacific correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1768-1820, 8 vols, 2008-14

Chambers, Neil, ed., The letters of Sir Joseph Banks: a selection, 1768-1820, 2000

Chambers, Neil, ed., Scientific correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, 1765-1820, 6 vols, 2007

Dawson, Warren R., ed., The Banks letters: a calendar of the manuscript correspondence of Sir Joseph Banks, preserved in the British Museum, the British Museum (Natural History) and other collections in Great Britain, 1958

Hooker, Joseph D., ed., Journal of the Right Hon. Sir Joseph Banks Bart., K.B., P.R.S. during Captain Cook’s first voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768-71…, 1896

(iii) Biographies and historical studies

Adams, Brian, The flowering of the Pacific: being an account of Joseph Banks’ travels in the South Seas and the story of his Florilegium, 1986

Cameron, Hector, Sir Joseph Banks, K.B., P.R.S.; the autocrat of philosophers, 1952

Carter, Harold B., His Majesty’s Spanish flock: Sir Joseph Banks and the merinos of George III of England, 1964

Carter, Harold B., Sir Joseph Banks, 1743-1820, 1988

Chambers, Neil, Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770-1830, 2007

Chambers, Neil A., Joseph Banks and the British Museum: the world of collecting, 1770-1830, 2007

Fara, Patricia, Sex, botany and empire: the story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks, 2003

Frost, Alan, Sir Joseph Banks and the transfer of plants to and from the South Pacific, 1786-1798, 1993

Gascoigne, John, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: useful knowledge and polite culture, 1994

Gascoigne, John, Science in the service of empire: Joseph Banks, the British state and the uses of science in the age of revolution, 1998

Holmes, Richard, The age of wonder: how the Romantic generation discovered the beauty and terror of science, 2008

Lyte, Charles, Sir Joseph Banks: 18th century explorer, botanist and entrepreneur, 1980

Mackaness, George, Sir Joseph Banks: his relations with Australia, 1936

Mackay, David, In the wake of Cook: exploration, science and empire, 1780-1801, 1985

Maiden, J.H., Sir Joseph Banks, the ‘Father of Australia’, 1909

O’Brian, Patrick, Joseph Banks, a life, 1987

Smith, Edward, The life of Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society, 1911

Stimson, Dorothy, Scientists and amateurs: a history of the Royal Society, 1949

Taylor, James, Picturing the Pacific: Joseph Banks and the shipboard artists of Cook and Flinders, 2018

Weld, Charles R., A history of the Royal Society, with memoirs of the presidents, 2 vols, 1848


The papers and letters of Joseph Banks are housed in the Manuscripts Collection, mostly at MS 9. The papers in this collection are itemised in a finding aid and have been digitised. The other manuscripts held by the Library have been catalogued individually and some have been digitised.

The microfilms are housed in the Newspaper and Microform Collection. Lists of the Banks Papers filmed at the British Library, Fitzwilliam Museum and Natural History Museum are filed with the other Australian Joint Copying Project lists, which are shelved in the Newspaper and Microform Reading Room. A 112 page guide to the Banks Papers microfilmed by Adam Matthew in 1995, entitled The history of science and technology, part 2, is also held in the Newspaper and Microform Reading Room.

The pictures, including the Banks Florilegium, are housed in the Pictures Collection. The publications are held in the Rare Books, Australian and general collections.

Related collections

The huge archive of Sir Joseph Banks was broken up by Sir Edward Knatchbull, the nephew of Lady Banks, and later by his son, Lord Brabourne. The New South Wales Government bought many of the Australian papers from Lord Brabourne in 1884 and they are now held in the Mitchell Library. Other papers were sold at auction and consequently papers of Banks can be found in numerous libraries in several countries. Some of the largest collections are in the Alexander Turnbull Library (Wellington), British Library, California State Library (Sacramento), Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Natural History Museum (London), Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew), Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Adelaide), State Library of New South Wales, University of Reading Library, University of Wisconsin Library (Madison), Wellcome Library (London) and Yale University Library (New Haven).

A pencil drawing of Banks by Henry Eldridge is held in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


Fara, Patricia, Presidential portraits: Joseph Banks in the National Library, National Library of Australia News, vol. 9 (3), Dec. 1998, pp. 7-10

Gascoigne, John, Banks, Sir Joseph, baronet (1743-1820), Oxford dictionary of national biography, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol. 3, pp. 691-96

Gilbert, L.A., Banks, Sir Joseph (1743-1820), Australian Dictionary of Biography online

Lovell, Jennifer, A Bath butterfly: botany and eighteenth century sexual politics, National Library of Australia News, vol. 15 (7), April 2005, pp. 15-17

Peart, Alan, Banks’ Florilegium, SGAP Journal, vol. 10 (16), Aug. 1989, pp. 439-42

First posted 2008 (revised 2019)