The Legacy: Sir Joseph Banks, the naturalist who created Kew

The Lincolnshire landowner who was described by David Attenborough as a 'passionate naturalist' and 'the great panjandrum of British science'.

Sir Joseph Banks didn’t technically found the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew — it was George III’s mother, Princess Augusta, who started a garden there — but he literally sowed the first seeds of it becoming a world centre for plant genetics that employs 400-plus scientists.

Banks sent seeds to Kew from his travels with Capt Cook to the South Seas, described by Sir David Attenborough in 2018 as ‘an epoch-making voyage’ and the first to be undertaken deliberately for scientific exploration, and he became Kew’s unofficial director on his return in 1771. He also returned from Australia with a kangaroo skin with which the artist George Stubbs was able to create the famous painting The Kongouro from New Holland, the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art.

Kew is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some 50,000 plants and its Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, West Sussex, contains about 2.4 billion seeds.

Portrait of Sir Joseph Banks by Joshua Reynolds. Credit: De Agostini via Getty Images

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Specimens collected by Banks led to about 110 new genera and 1,300 new species; his huge collections, including 4,000 insects, reside in, among other places, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum, both of which reflect 21st-century sensibilities by observing that he was of a pro-slavery opinion.

Banks (1743–1820), a wealthy Lincolnshire landowner, was described by Sir David as ‘a passionate naturalist. He eventually became the great panjandrum of British science. You couldn’t do anything in British science in the 18th century unless you had Banks’s approval’. 

As well as his great advancements at Kew, he was also the first British expert on Iceland, and helped organise the notorious voyage of HMS Bounty. He was the agricultural adviser to George III and wrote a paper about merino sheep and how they would benefit the wool industry, and went on to be a founding member of the RHS as well as the longest-standing president of the Royal Society, for 41 years.