Sarah Sophia Banks, collector
Sarah Sophia Banks, collector
Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818), sister of Sir Joseph Banks, famed botanist and President of the Royal Society, was like her brother, an avid collector. Born on October 28, 1744, one and a half years after her brother, Sarah Sophia spent much of her childhood and teenage years on the family's estate at Revesby Abby, Lincolnshire, where the Banks family grew up collecting antiquities and objects of natural history. While her brother's collections focused on specimens of natural history, Sarah Sophia gathered predominately man-made materials, including printed ephemera, coins, tokens, and medals from around the world. Her collections, amounting to more than 30,000 objects, were presented to the British Museum upon her death in September 1818 by Sir Joseph's wife, Lady Dorothea Banks. After working through her sizable collections, the curators at the British Museum donated 2000 out of the 9,000 coins, medals, and tokens to the Royal Mint Museum and a portion of her books and printed ephemera to the British Library
While there is no record of when Sarah Sophia began collecting objects, two fashion plates from her collection of pocket-book imagery dated 1760 suggests she began collecting while she was a teenager.1 Later in life, her collections were heavily influenced by her brother's travels and collections of natural history. Between 1768 and 1771, Sarah Sophia corresponded with her brother regularly during his international travels aboard the Endeavour Voyage, where he accompanied Captain James Cook on his first journey to the Pacific. As a natural scientist and botanist on the Endeavour Voyage, Sir Joseph collected natural specimens and descriptions of flora fauna that astounded the scientific community when he returned home to England. Sir Joseph kept all that he had collected from his journey, from which Sarah Sophia helped him organize his collections. After his marriage to Dorothea, he invited Sarah Sophia to live with him and his wife at their house at 32 Soho Square in 1777. Inseparable from her brother and his wife, Sarah Sophia never married and was drawn into the same elite circles as Sir Joseph and Dorothea. Through her close relationship with them, Sarah Sophia was able to form her own connections in order to develop her own collections of coins and printed ephemera, while supporting her brother's collections of natural history.
Although there are direct parallels between the collections of brother and sister, there has been very little analysis on the connections between Sarah Sophia’s and Sir Joseph's collections. Sarah Sophia's collections, in particular, have only been noted occasionally and very little research has been done on them, with the exception of the important work done by Arlene Leis and Catherine Eagleton. As Arlene Leis tells us, “The gift of Sarah Sophia’s collection to the British Museum was the largest and most varied collection of printed ephemera the museum had ever accepted. That it was a woman's collection rendered its acquisition all the more remarkable."2 While John Gascoigne claims that Sarah Sophia's merits made her life "very much an extension of her brother's,"3 the nature of her collections, particularly her scrapbooks, shows the degree to which her collection engaged in a published (for scrapbooks were considered to be published material once compiled)4 and popularly-engaged observation and commentary on the heterogeneous nature of public life and scientific progress.
Sarah Sophia's collecting practice has often been gendered and demeaned, but recent scholarship on Sarah Sophia and her collection has showcased the strategic manner of her collecting, as well as her distinct tastes and taxonomies.5 As Patricia Fara contends, Sarah Sophia "seems to have been a frustrated academic," and "as an adult she was ridiculed for stuffing her pockets with books so that she would never be short of something to read."6 Fara writes, "Had she been a man, her inelegant clothes and studious demeanor would have been praised as signs of her intellectual aptitude. Instead, she was mocked for lacking the appropriate feminine graces."7 While Sarah Sophia's interests at times overlap with those of her brother, her collection demands critical attention on its own for its unique approach to the social life of her period.8
As a woman of fashion and a collector, it is noted of Sarah Sophia in A Book for a Rainy Day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833, by John Thomas Smith, that she was known for her "old school dress" and for her "immense pockets, stuffed with books of all sizes."9 Smith writes of Sarah Sophia walking all over town and making inquiries in order to locate objects of collection, like "halfpenny ballads."10 He describes an instance in which Sarah Sophia was offered a large number of tokens for her collection, but, out of that large number, she found "not one" she wanted,11 illustrating the highly selective and itinerant nature of Sarah Sophia's collecting practice. Smith describes Sarah Sophia as "wanting civility" toward a certain person and writes that a "great genius" had arrived early for dinner at her home as she was putting away "knick knacks" and observed to Sarah Sophia that is was a "fine day," to which she responded, "I know nothing at all about it, you must speak to my brother upon that subject when you are at dinner."12 Rather than demonstrating civility, Sarah Sophia was as much engrossed in cataloguing her, "knick knacks," her collection, as her brother would be.
As you navigate this site, you will be introduced to a few particular aspects of Sarah Sophia's collection: her African coins and her scrapbook on balloons and other curiosities.13 The size and dispersed nature of Sarah Sophia's collection makes it challenging to study. Scholar Kim Sloan notes, Sarah Sophia’s collection "has not been catalogued in detail or much written about."14 Through using this online platform as a means of showcasing these aspects of her collection, we hope to provide a manageable and accessible space for the study of the political and social worlds Sarah Sophia documented through her collection. In the future, we plan to add two more exhibits to the site: one on Sarah Sophia's ballooning scrapbook and one on her collection of print illustrations of the London Monster contained within this scrapbook. The Monster, a Welshman named Rhynwick Williams, was convicted of sexually assaulting women in London at the end of the eighteenth century. To understand the racism and white supremacy inherent in the British colonial print matrix, we must not only look beyond canonical literary works; we must also find ways to disseminate scholarship beyond the page and beyond the academic monograph. Our planned exhibits will demonstrate how the narratives of female flight found in the hot air balloon scrapbooks of Sarah Sophia Banks lay a foundation not only for how these narratives offer alternative perspectives on the sweeping beliefs about Enlightenment progress, but also how they code the narrative of female agency as inherently white. Sarah Sophia Banks and her collections offer significant links connecting The Monster, print culture, women’s narratives, and the imperial ambitions and exploitations of the Banks family.
Through her coin collection, consisting of more than 9,000 coins, medals, and tokens collected in the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth centuries, Sarah Sophia created "an ethnography of Britain with direct parallels to her brother's collection."15 Leis argues that Sarah Sophia's coin collection "seems to have complimented her brother's dedication to reforming British coinage."16 Sarah Sophia's collection, however, remains distinct in its objects and formation. Neil Chambers argues that Joseph Banks's interest in coinage "derived from a formidable knowledge not only of their history but also of the contemporary economic and monetary arrangements of the realm."17 Unique as a female collector of coins, a pursuit generally considered to be "for gentlemen and antiquaries,"18 Sarah Sophia demonstrates through her collection not only her own "formidable knowledge" of the subject of coinage and antiquity but also her own perspective on the geopolitical structures of her time. Her unique geographical approach to the organization of coinage, noted by scholar Catherine Eagleton to be rather new in Sarah Sophia's period and distinct from her brother's empirical strategies, reflects the geographical and cultural constructions of eighteenth and nineteenth century conceptions of global power and space. It is these constructions that shape Sarah Sophia’s collecting practice and organizational methods, which we explore in the mapping of a sample of her African coins.
Likewise, her scrapbook on ballooning and other curiosities, housed in the British Library, presents the mania for the hot air balloon from the perspective of a female collector intimately connected with the voyages of discovery championed by Joseph Banks. As such, Sarah Sophia's scrapbook on ballooning traverses the line between fancy and science, destabilizes norms of masculine collecting and scientific endeavour, and illustrates feminine commentary on the relationship of science to the imagination. Additionally, it demonstrates an intense interest and investment in the sensational that broadens the scope of our understanding of science in the life of the public during this period of growing specialization, highlighting the function of spectacle and performance in the pursuit of improvement, progress, and national identity. While women’s collections of printed ephemera can offer us alternative narratives on public phenomena to those constructed by men, we aim to demonstrate through Sarah Sophia Banks’s collection of ephemera related to The London Monster, within her scrapbook on ballooning and other curiosities, how these narratives also participated in constructing ideas of femininity as white, pure, and in opposition to the exploited bodies of Indigenous women.
Through displaying these aspects of Sarah Sophia's collection, we hope to demonstrate the relevance of her collection, in both its organization and content, to modern information processing and media culture. Sarah Sophia's process of cutting, arranging, and pasting was, as Leis argues, ultimately a means to "construct, record, and circulate a wide range of aesthetic values and visual standards of taste."19 Across the various aspects of her collection, from the heraldry, to the coins, to the scrapbooks and printed ephemera, one can trace a theme of interest in not only print culture, public access to and interest in historical events, but also the performative aspects of ceremony and the spectacle of fashionable life, and most importantly, in the objects and subjects of public interest themselves.
2. Arlene Leis, “Sarah Sophia Banks: Collecting ephemera in late Georgian England,” http://ephemeraresources.blogspot.com/2014/06/sarah-sophia-banks-collecting-ephemera.html↩
3. John Gascoigne, Joseph Banks and the English Enlightenment: Useful Knowledge and Polite Culture. Cambridge UP, 1994, p.25.↩
4. Sarah Sophia's scrapbook stands out against her brother’s state of remaining relatively unpublished. Anna Agnarsdóttir argues that Joseph Banks was in fact more published than we often perceive him to be, noting sixty publications, the papers he leant to others and possibly published via others. While Joseph Banks published in practical and not scientific journals, a practice which speaks to his role as a public figure and the dissemination of knowledge in such a way that blurred the public vs. scientific or private, theoretical was of knowing (Hannah Wills), Sarah Sophia engaged in a form of publication entirely built from the published works of others, revealing a unique perspective on the perception of curiosity and scientific spectacle within the popular imagination. Sunne Juterczenka notes that, for Joseph, the "public" meant his wealthy peers; for Sarah Sophia, however, though her audience may have been similar to that of her brother, her interest in the public clearly moves beyond his elite circle in subject matter. We see this with the subject matter of her collections, particularly her scrapbook on ballooning and "other curiosities." Gascoigne claims that even though Joseph Banks didn't publish his Endeavour journal during his lifetime, the collection in his home proved a tangible material space for critical inquiry into scientific discovery (9). This statement not only speaks to the importance of materiality in understanding science in the period as providing a space for both inquiry and sociability, but it also gestures toward the space of his home, curated by his sister, as a space of material connection between the domestic and the masculine quest for discovery.↩
5. Sarah Sophia's collecting strategies are discussed at length by Arlene Leis, in "Cutting, Arranging, and Pasting: Sarah Sophia Banks as Collector," Early Modern Women 9.1 (2014), 127-140; as well as in her works mentioned above.↩
6. Fara, Patricia, Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment, Random House, 2004, p. 15.↩
7. Fara, Patricia, Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment, Random House, 2004, p. 15.↩
8. Leis, Arlene, "Cutting, Arranging, and Pasting," 128, 129; see also Susan Pearce On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition, London: Routledge, 1995: to understand collections like that of Sarah Sophia Banks is to understand social life as a whole (3).↩
9. Smith, John Thomas, A Book for a Rainy Day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833, Ed. Wilfred Whitten, Methuen &Co., 1905, The Project Gutenberg Ebook, p. 229.↩
10. Smith, John Thomas, A Book for a Rainy Day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833, p. 229.↩
11. Smith, John Thomas, A Book for a Rainy Day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833, p. 231.↩
12. Smith, John Thomas, A Book for a Rainy Day, or, Recollections of the Events of the Years 1766-1833, p. 231.↩
13. BL LR.301.h3↩
14. Sloan, Kim, 'Aimed at Universality and Belonging to the Nation: The Enlightenment and the British Museum,' in Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, Ed. Kim Sloan, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003, see notes.↩
15. Sloan, Kim, 'Aimed at Universality and Belonging to the Nation: The Enlightenment and the British Museum,' in Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century, Ed. Kim Sloan, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003, p.12.↩
17. Chambers, Neil, Joseph Banks and the British Museum, p.117.↩
18. Chambers, Neil, Joseph Banks and the British Museum, p.117.↩
19. Leis, Arlene, "Cutting, Arranging, and Pasting," p. 134.↩
Fig1. Sarah Sophia Banks portrait by Angelica Kauffmann. Public domain.
Fig2. Miss Banks in "An old Maid on a Journey" by James Gillray. Notes: (Description and comment from M.Dorothy George, 'Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum', VIII, 1947) The old maid (savagely treated in caricature, cf. (e.g.) BMSat 9619) is said to be Miss Banks, whose collection of prints, &c, was given to the British Museum by her brother, Sir Joseph. If so she wears one of her three riding habits, which she called 'hitem, titem, and scrub'. Grego, 'Gillray', p. 313. Wright and Evans, No. 530. Reprinted, 'G.W.G.', 1830. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Trustees of the British Museum
Fig3. Scrapbook page from BL L.R.301. h.3. "A Collection of broadsides, cuttings from newspapers, engravings, etc., of various dates, formed by Miss Sarah Sophia Banks. Volume 3: Balloons, sights, exhibitions, remarkable characters: Katterfelto the Monster," Victorian Popular Culture, Adam Matthew Digital (electronic resource). CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 The British Library
This project was developed by Dr. Kacie Wills and Erica Y. Hayes. Contact Us if you would like to learn more about this project.