Arts / Joseph Banks steps into the spotlight

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“Beauty Rich and Rare”…. the digitally presented story of the English botanist-superstar, Joseph Banks, who sailed with Cook on his first Pacific voyage (1768 to 1771).

OVER recent years as the name of that gigantic cultural hero James Cook has dominated Australia’s culture wars, a larger-than-life character in the story has sometimes been overlooked.

Now, through a breathtaking, 180-degree digital display (essentially a film done in a multimedia way) the National Library of Australia has taken on the story of the celebrated English botanist-superstar, Joseph Banks, who sailed on the “Endeavour” with Cook on his first Pacific voyage from 1768 to 1771.

The 18-minute “journey” with Banks and his team is now screening three times on the hour from 10am to 5pm and should convert even the most hardened schoolboy to Aussie history and even science.

This writer was simply gobsmacked by the experience. Treasures curator at the library Nat Williams, too.

“I’ve taken my 91-year-old dad, he loved it; my 17-year-old daughter loved it, too,” Williams tells “CityNews”.

“It’s so sensual in its use of sound and light to bring the story of Banks to life.

“You can go to the exhibition [‘Cook and the Pacific’] but that’s more in two dimensions – hundreds and thousands of words have been written about Cook and Banks and their expedition to observe the Transit of Venus, but this does it in 18 minutes.”

“Beauty Rich and Rare” is the enticing title, taken from our national anthem, for an immersive sound-and-light encounter where one can step into the shoes of Banks and his fellow scientists, for scientists they were, exploring the upside down world of the Pacific.

Visitors can surround themselves with imagery of plants, flowers, star maps and navigational charts created by Anthony Bastic, of production company ABG Events, with voice-overs from broadcaster Angela Catterns.

Bastic, who also wrote the script, is a technological polymath best-known as light curator for the “Vivid” festival in Sydney. He had been wanting to stretch in a different direction, to work with real material and to engage with the NLA’s collection.

“We were lucky, we got government funding to help mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in Australia,” Williams says.

Traversing an enormous range of subject matter, from the exquisite beauty of Australia’s native flora and fauna to the scientific equipment needed to observe the transit of Venus, the show, which Williams describes as “a bit like a film, but using new technologies”, travels through ancient observations of the heavens, 18th century navigation by the stars, towards NASA, which named its space shuttle “Endeavour”.

“Cook and Banks were the ultimate improbable dynamic duo; the 40-year-old, hard-working son of a Scottish labourer and this young, six-foot-tall, handsome 25-year-old fellow with the world at his fingertips,” Williams says.

“The duo worked in difficult circumstances. Cook was unused to sharing his quarters with someone else, but unlike Cook, he was born into privilege and he threw £10,000 into the Cook expedition for scientific equipment.

Banks collected everything, often storing scientific samples in the bread bins. He also brought his greyhounds, a complete library and a staff of eight, including naturalists Daniel Solander and HD Spöring and artists Alexander Buchan and Sydney Parkinson.

So who was Banks? A “gentleman commoner” of good family from Lincolnshire, he’d been to Harrow and Eton, where he had been entranced by the beauty of the wildflowers. Like Shakespeare, he was possessed of small Latin and less Greek, and as a botanist was self-taught, having bailed out of Oxford when he found they weren’t teaching botany.

But Banks was to achieve great eminence in his own lifetime. Already a seasoned naturalist when he joined the “Endeavour” expedition, he’d studied and collected rocks, plants and animals in Newfoundland and Labrador during 1766, when he was also admitted to the Royal Society, of which he later became president for more than 41 years.

“He wanted to inform other people, he wanted to push the message about the world’s complexity and fragility, a bit like David Attenborough,” Williams says.

His great ambition was to publish a great “florilegium” (book of illustrations of plants) but he ran out of steam and money, preferring to write thousands of letters on everything, including merino sheep. His correspondents included all the NSW governors from Phillip to Macquarie.

When Banks died in 1820 the florilegium was still unpublished. The 743 copper plates of life-size illustrations by Parkinson were bequeathed to the British Museum and it was 200 years before it was printed. The NLA acquired a full set, with some parts on display in “Cook and the Pacific.”

Despite charges that he was a dabbler, Banks advised King George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, brought 30,000 plant specimens home with him, advocated British settlement in NSW and advised the British government on all Australian matters. He is credited with introducing the eucalyptus, acacia and the genus named after him, banksia, to the Western world.

He was a formidable figure, but one not above a little gentle satire, Williams says. James Boswell described him as “an elephant, quite placid and gentle, allowing you to get upon his back or play with his proboscis.”

“Beauty Rich and Rare”, National Library of Australia, until February 10. Free.

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