Thursday, 14 December 2017

Bumping into Joseph Banks

Everywhere I went in England during November 2017 I kept bumping into Joseph Banks.
Header Picture on Sir Joseph Banks Society Webpage, www.joseph-banks.org.uk
Banks and botany were not on my agenda when I left Melbourne on 1 November. I was on the trail of my Boulton forebears, significant mail coach contractors in London in the 1780s and 1790s. Tracing their origins, I spent three long days at the Lincolnshire Archives. Yet there was still time to pursue tourist activities in the very historic town of Lincoln and the massive Cathedral at the top of the quaintly and appropriately named road 'Steep Hill' called to me first.
Lincoln Cathedral
The light streaming in through the stained glass windows created a spectacular rainbow effect on the columns supporting the roof of this magnificent building. (A professional photographer would have captured the colours much better than I did.)
Inside Lincoln Cathedral
I turned around from taking this photo and there was Sir Joseph, with an unexpected tribute to him in pride of place, right inside the main door.
Tribute to Sir Joseph Banks, Lincoln Cathedral
A few days later I hired a car. Still pursuing my Boultons, I stopped in the market town of Horncastle – and walked right past the Sir Joseph Banks Centre, just off the main square in the heart of town.
Sir Joseph Banks Centre, Horncastle, Lincolnshire
Of course I crossed the road and discovered that Banks is a local as well as a county and national hero, for his work in draining the Lincolnshire fens, the extensive marshland of his home district, thereby turning it into productive farmland. The centre has created a small garden in his honour.
Sir Joseph Banks Tribute Garden, Horncastle
As I drove south through Lincolnshire towards Norfolk the evidence of his drainage idea was everywhere. The road took me right past his old house at Revesby, although the property’s in private hands and not a tourist destination.

In London I visited the National Army Museum to drop off a copy of my 'Brothers in Arms' book at their library– and there was London’s oldest botanic garden, the Chelsea Physic Garden, almost next door. It's not directly related to Banks, being established well before his day, but it continued the unexpected botanical theme to my travels.
Entrance to Chelsea Physic Garden
The National Archives at Kew is an unavoidable destination for dedicated researchers like me. When you leave the District Line train at Kew Gardens, you choose between turning right to head for the Archives or left and through the railway underpass to reach the Royal Botanic Gardens.
District Line Station at Kew
Naturally I turned left on one of my trips, to visit the living legacy to Joseph Banks, the magnificent gardens at Kew. Inside the Marianne North Gallery there’s a striking picture of a Banksia but photographs are banned. I ventured into the adjacent building, the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art.
Shirley Sherwood Gallery in foreground, alongside Marianne North Gallery, Kew Gardens.
The beautiful painting of Corymbia ficifolia by Australian botanical artist Jenny Phillips grabbed my immediate attention.
Corymbia ficifolia by Jenny Phillips, at Shirley Sherwood Gallery
On a drab winter's day, the colours in her painting were just right when the Gardens were everywhere dressed for Christmas.
Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, late November 2017
The name Joseph Banks means a great deal to Australians like me, because it was his journey with Captain James Cook which led to the selection of Botany Bay as the place to send the first European settlers to Australia. Cape Banks at the entrance to Botany Bay and the Sydney suburbs of Bankstown and Revesby are named after him, as is a high school in Sydney and, of course, the Banksia genus of plants. Gnarled old Banksias are part of the environmental DNA of Sydneysiders.

When I became caught up in family history, I discovered that one of my ancestors sailed past Cape Banks in January 1788 and arrived in Sydney with the First Fleet. Another forebear Dr GeorgeYoung, born nearly 300 years ago, had even had dealings with Joseph Banks (not yet Sir Joseph). Dr Young established the first botanic garden in the western hemisphere, on the island of St Vincent in the 1760s, and in 1773 he was in England for meetings when Banks was setting up the Botanic Gardens at Kew. Dr Young was living in retirement on his St Vincent sugar plantation when the breadfruit tree was brought to the St Vincent Botanic Gardens in 1793 by William Bligh, who’d failed on his first attempt to do so because of the mutiny on the Bounty.  Introducing breadfruit as a source of food for West Indies slaves was an idea supported by Banks.

Banks stated in his will that he was 'deeply impressed with an opinion, which he still continues to hold and believes to be founded in truth, that the establishment of a Botanic-garden cannot be complete unless a resident draughtsman be constantly employed in making sketches and finished drawings of all new plants that perfect their flowers or fruits in it’. For this reason the artist Ferdinand Bauer had been employed at Banks’ own expense for 30 years and Banks donated Bauer’s drawings to the British nation. I discovered these facts when I wrote a book about Dr George Young's direct descendant Margaret Flockton, the first professional scientific botanical artist employed in Australia (in Sydney, from 1901-1927).

I'm thrilled that discussions are currently underway for 'Margaret Flockton: A Fragrant Memory' to be offered for sale at Kew. The book in hardback format sold out earlier this year but the publisher Wakefield Press has plans to reprint it, most likely as a paperback. Orders are being taken, if you're interested in obtaining  a copy.

To cap it all off, when I arrived back in Melbourne in December I discovered that 'The Conjurer’s Bird', a novel by Martin Davies with Joseph Banks as the central character, has finally been scheduled for discussion by my book club group in 2018. I suggested it as a possible title back in 2010 - see my review.