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The Great South Sea Caterpillar transform'd into a Bath Butterfly (Sir Joseph Banks)
, 1795 (printed 1851)

by James Gillray

etching, hand-coloured (sheet: 47.7 cm x 29.7 cm, image: 34.5 cm x 24.5 cm)

King George III was a great admirer of Joseph Banks and had supported his appointment as President of the Royal Society in 1778. In 1795, Banks was created Knight Grand Cross in what was then formally known as the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath. He was the first civilian accorded this honour, which was bestowed in recognition of his services to natural science and exploration. In this cartoon, James Gillray implies the continuing royal favouritism of Banks, mocking it as undeserved: Banks flaunts his Order (of which he was said to be inordinately proud) while the sun, symbolising the king, effects his metamorphosis from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Gillray’s characterisation of Banks as a ‘crawler’ is typically cruel: Banks’s gentlemanly geniality, as well as his extraordinary experience of the world, conduced to his elevated social standing; while his achievements as a naturalist were widely acknowledged by leaders in the field of science. In 1835, publisher Henry George Bohn acquired Gillray’s original plates from the family of Hannah Humphrey, the publisher for whom Gillray worked exclusively from 1791, and with whom he lived for 20 years. Bohn later used the plates to produce two luxurious volumes from which this and many other impressions were later removed and, at times, passed off as originals.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Gift of Douglas Stewart Fine Books 2013
Accession number: 2013.95