“Benjamin Robert Haydon, the artist who helped bring the Elgin marbles to the British Museum, was scathing about portraiture. It is, he declared in 1817, ‘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.’ His list of imperial products might also have included Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who is celebrated as one of Australia’s founding fathers. Although this eminent botanical collector sailed with James Cook to the South Seas and was President of London’s Royal Society for forty-two years, he was pushed into obscurity by his Victorian successors. Towards the end of the twentieth century, Antipodean historians restored Banks’s reputation by showing his crucial role in persuading the British government to invest in scientific exploration.
Banks is important not for his research legacy, but because he was a canny operator who knew how to promote himself as well as making sure that money flowed into science. Despite living before the era of cheap publishing, he excelled at controlling his public image. At six feet and thirteen stone, Banks was an imposing man. James Boswell described him as ‘an elephant, quite placid and gentle, allowing you to get upon his back or play with his proboscis’, although some of his intimate friends regretted that ‘his manners are rather coarse and heavy.’ Whatever the reality, Banks made sure that influential colleagues saw him how he wanted them to. Disingenuously insisting that ‘I do not feel as if Vanity was a Prominent trèe [sic] in my character’, he adopted different guises for his portraits, negotiating with the artists about which engravers should be hired and ensuring that copies were widely distributed.”