Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Banks, Thomas (1735-1805)

BANKS, THOMAS (1735–1805), sculptor, the first of his country, according to Sir Joshua Reynolds, to produce works of classic grace, was the eldest son of William Banks, the land steward and surveyor of the Duke of Beaufort. He was born in Lambeth on 29 Dec. 1735. He is said by Flaxman to have been instructed in the principles of architecture, and to have practised drawing under his father, ‘who was an architect.’ Banks was sent to school at Ross, in Herefordshire. At the age of fifteen he was placed under Mr. Barlow, an ornament carver, and served his full term of seven years' apprenticeship. Barlow lived near Scheemakers, the sculptor, and after working at Barlow's from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. the youth studied at Scheemakers' from 8 to 10 or 11. He was employed by Kent, the architect. At the age of twenty-three he entered the academy in St. Martin's Lane, and between 1763 and 1769 obtained at least three medals and premiums from the Society of Arts. One of these honours was awarded for a bas-relief of the ‘Death of Epaminondas’ (1763) in Portland stone; another for a bas-relief in marble of ‘Hector's Body redeemed’ (1765); and a third for a life-size model in clay of ‘Prometheus with the Vulture.’ The last is praised by Flaxman as ‘boldly conceived, composition harmonious and compact.’ This was in 1769, the year of the first exhibition of the Royal Academy; and in 1770 Banks's name appears as an exhibitor of two designs of ‘Æneas and Anchises escaping from the Flames of Troy.’ In the same year he obtained the gold medal of the Academy for a bas-relief of the ‘Rape of Proserpine.’ In 1771 he exhibited a cherub hanging a garland on an urn (in clay), and a drawing of the head of an Academy model. The ability shown in these works and the ‘Mercury, Argus, and Io’ of the next year procured him a travelling studentship, and he left his house in New Bond Street, Oxford Street, and went to Rome, where he arrived in August 1772. He was now thirty-seven years old, and had married a lady of the name of Wooton, coheiress of certain green fields and flower gardens which have since been turned into the streets and squares of Mayfair. The portion of his wife and some assistance from his mother (his father being dead) placed him above the fear of want, and enabled him to prolong his stay in Italy for seven years. In 1779 he returned and took a house in Newman Street (No. 5), which he retained till his death. During his absence he exhibited two works only at the Royal Academy—a marble bas-relief of ‘Alcyone discovering the Body of Ceyx’ in 1775, and a marble bust of a lady in 1778; but the following are reckoned by different authorities as amongst the works of his Roman period: A bas-relief of the ‘Death of Germanicus,’ bought by Thomas Coke, Esq., of Holkham; another of ‘Thetis rising to comfort Achilles,’ probably the original of the fine work in marble presented by his daughter, Mrs. Forster, to the National Gallery in 1845; ‘Caractacus and his Family before Claudius,’ in marble (exhibited 1780); a portrait of the Princess Sophia of Gloucester as Psyche plucking the golden wool model exhibited 1781 Love seizing the human soul in the form of a butterfly The last was brought home by the artist unfinished and is probably the marble statue of Cupid which was exhibited in 1781 In this year finding little encouragement in England he went to Russia taking this figure with him which was bought for 380l. by the Empress Catherine who gave him the Armed Neutrality as a subject to be done into stone He is said to have executed this and other works at St Petersburg but either because the climate did not agree with him or from discontent at his prospects in Russia he returned to London in 1782 when he met with considerable encouragement From 1780 to 1803 his name is absent three times only from the catalogues of the Royal Academy—in 1786, 1790 and 1801 In 1784 appeared (in plaster) his grand figure of Achilles enraged for the Loss of Briseis which was afterwards presented by his widow to the British Institution where it stood in the vestibule till the alteration of the gallery in 1868. It is now (1885) in the entrance hall of the Royal Academy at Burlington House. In this year (1784) he was elected an associate and the year afterwards a full member of the Royal Academy As his diploma work he presented his finely conceived figure of the 'Failing Titan.' This work is sufficient to show that Banks was gifted with unusual imagination of a poetic kind but there was little encouragement in England for works of this order and though he continued to model them for his own pleasure his commissions till the end of his life were confined to busts and monuments Colonel Johnes, of Hafod in Cardiganshire, did indeed engage him to execute the 'Achilles enraged' in marble but this friend and patron changed his mind in favour of 'Thetis dipping Achilles' with Mrs Johnes as Thetis and Miss Johnes as the infant hero Many of Banks's works were burnt at a fire at Hafod In Westminster Abbey there are monuments by Banks to Dr Watts Woollett the engraver and Sir Eyre Coote. The last is celebrated for its life size figure of a Mahratta captive which was exhibited in 1789 In St Paul's are his monuments to Captains Hutt, Westcott and Rundle Burgess. His figure of Shakespeare which long adorned the front of Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery afterwards the British Institution in Pall Mall has been removed to Stratford. Other important works of his are the monument to Mrs Petrie in Lewisham Church, the model for which called 'Pity weeping at the Tomb of Benevolence,' was exhibited in 1788; and another to Penelope Boothby in Ashbourne Church, Derbyshire. The latter represents the sleeping figure of a child of six, and the queen and her daughters are said to have burst into tears on seeing it at Somerset House in 1793. Banks was also the author of the statue of Lord Cornwallis at Madras, of General Coutts (executed for the India House) and of the monuments to Mr. Hand in Cripplegate Church and to Baretti in St Marylebone Old Church. Amongst his busts may be mentioned Horne Tooke, Warren Hastings (now in the National Portrait Gallery) Mrs Cosway and Mrs Siddons as Melpomene. His last exhibited work 1803 was a bust of Oliver Cromwell. At the International Exhibition in 1862 besides the 'Falling Titan,' 'Achilles enraged' and 'Thetis rising to console Achilles,' there was a work called 'Achilles putting on Helmet,' belonging to Mr E. H. Corbould. At his death his studio was full of sketches of poetical subjects chiefly Homeric many of which are praised by Allan Cunningham..

Few incidents are recorded in the life of Banks. He was the friend of Hoppner, Flaxman, Fuseli, and Horne Tooke, and was arrested on the charge of high treason about the same time as Tooke and Hardy. It is said that his practice suffered from suspicion of his revolutionary tendencies. He was noted for his kindness to young artists and was of special service to young Mulready. Banks is represented as tall erect silent and dignified with a winning address and persuasive manners. He was religious and strict in his manners frugal of habit, but liberal to others. He made a fine collection of engravings and drawings by the old masters, which, after his death came into the possession of his daughter Mrs Forster and have since been divided between E.J. Poynter R.A., and Mrs Lee Childe. He died on 2 Feb 1805, and was buried in Paddington churchyard. Flaxman delivered an address to the students of the Royal Academy on the occasion of his death and there is a plain tablet to his memory in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey.

[Cunningham's Lives; Nollekens and his Times; Flaxman's Lectures; Redgrave's Dict.; Gent. Mag. lxxvi 816, 924, and lxxxi (pt. ii.) 617; Royal Academy Catalogues; Fagan's Collectors' Marks; Cat. of International Exhibition, 1862.]

C. M.