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The Great South Sea Caterpillar transform'd into a Bath Butterfly

Date: 1795
Overall: 300 x 485 mm
Medium: Hand coloured engraving on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Engraving
Object No: 00016867
Place Manufactured:London

User Terms

    Sir Joseph Banks is depicted in this handcoloured engraved caricature as a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly out of a muddy bank. After he returned from James Cook's voyage of exploration in 1771 Banks received much praise and became a favourite of King George III. He was made a Knight of the Bath and a Privy Councillor, the first civilian to be granted this honour by the King. Gillray's engraving is a satirical account of the King's royal patronage and a mocking look at Banks' growing social standing.
    SignificanceThis caricature is representative of Sir Joseph Banks and his social elevation as a member of the Royal Society. It highlights the satire of politically and socially influential public figures or those favoured by the monarchy during the 18th century.
    HistoryJames Gillray was a popular and widespread artist of the Royal Academy whose caricatures of prominent 18th and 19th century figures were highly anticipated by the public. Some politicians even sought Gillray's criticism in an effort to increase their profile. His engravings were displayed in his shop window and bought many passers by.

    Gillray's caricature of Banks was accompanied by a satarised description of a butterfly, written in the style of the Royal Society. Gillray used an excerpt to parody Banks writing 'This insect first crawled into notice from among the weeds & mud on the Banks of the South Sea; and being afterwards placed in a warm situation by the Royal Society, was changed by the heat of the sun into its present form - it is noticed and valued solely on account of the beautiful Red which encircles its body and the shining spot on its breast; a distinction that never fails to render caterpillars valuable'.

    Sir Joseph Banks was born at Westminster, England on 13 February 1743. Schooled at Harrow and Eton he displayed an early interest in the natural sciences. In 1764 after receiving his family's inheritance Banks left Oxford University studying botany and instead spent his time studying plants in the practical world. In 1766 he was on board HMS NIGER when it travelled to Newfoundland and collected many rock and natural specimens. Banks also conducted a number of field trips collecting and studying plants, historic sites and rock formations. In 1766 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

    Banks' most famous survey work was completed as part of the Royal Navy's expedition under Captain James Cook to the Pacific in HMB ENDEAVOUR. Equipped with a large fortune and a wealth of natural history experience Banks was recommended to the British Admiralty by the Royal Society. Banks had a staff of eight in attendance including naturalists Daniel Solander, H D Sporing and the artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson. Between 1768 and 1771 Banks and his staff collected many specimens including seeds, shells, insects, bottled organisms and animals. He took many of the pieces back to England with him and formed an extensive collection of natural history objects.

    Banks' family though wealthy was not noble and he resisted titles including an offer of knighthood in 1795 until it threatened to displease King George III. Banks was well aware of the benefits of cooperating with patrons such as the King to gain support and emminence in his expeditions.
    Additional Titles

    Primary title: The Great South Sea Caterpillar transform'd into a Bath Butterfly

    Assigned title: Caricature of Sir Joseph Banks

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