The Banks Librarians

3D front cover of Catalogus bibliothecæ historico-naturalis Josephi Banks by Jonas DryanderDevoted readers of the blog (surely there are one or two out there?) will be aware that I have a bit of a thing about Sir Joseph Banks. But this piece is not so much about the great man as about his library, and its two dedicated librarians.

Daniel Solander (1733–82) was born in northern Sweden, and at the university of Uppsala he studied under Linnaeus, who later said that he had treated his pupil like a son. In 1760, Solander went on what was supposed to be a short visit to England, carrying letters of introduction from his teacher which gave him entrée into botanical and scientific circles. He became friendly with Peter Collinson, whose relationship with John Bartram led to the importation of many North American plants into Britain, and with the botanist John Ellis. He learnt English rapidly, and while collecting plants for Linnaeus’ collection at Uppsala, he promoted the use of the sexual classification system in Britain.

His English friends persuaded him not to take up a post in St Petersburg for which Linnaeus had lobbied on his behalf, and instead he began in 1763 to catalogue the natural history collections of the British Museum. For his work, he devised the ‘Solander case’, a rigid hinged cardboard box for keeping loose papers, maps, pamphlets, etc., safely on a library shelf: the design is still in use today.

In the same year, Solander effectively ended his close relationship with Linnaeus: he declined the offer to succeed him as professor at Uppsala, and soon afterwards Linnaeus’ daughter (whom he had hoped to marry) married someone else. Communication between master and pupil then more or less ceased. Solander continued his work at the British Museum until 1782, but in the mean time, in 1767, he had the encounter with young Joseph Banks which was to change his life.

He took part in Cook’s expedition to observe the transit of Venus in 1768, and thus became almost inadvertently the first Swede to circumnavigate the world, though he paid for this with two very severe attacks of malaria. (He is commemorated by Point Solander on Botany Bay and the Solander Islands off the South Island of New Zealand.)

On the expedition’s return, with both men sudden celebrities, Solander became Banks’ librarian, secretary and curator. (See the famous portrait by William Parry (a pupil of Reynolds) of the pair with Omai, the Tahitian whom the expedition brought back and who also became a London celebrity.) He worked in the library at Soho Square, while  continuing his cataloguing at the British Museum (he was made keeper of the natural history collections in 1773) and becoming the curator of the duchess of Portland’s shell collection.

He also found time (heaven knows how) to write a large part of the Hortus Kewensis, published under the name of William Aiton, Gardener to the King, in 1789, by which time Solander was dead. He suffered an ‘attack’ (probably a stroke) at one of Banks’ famous scientific gatherings on 8 May 1782, and lingered for seven days (while the distraught Banks hardly left his side), dying on 15 May.

Meanwhile, the scientific power house at Soho Square had been bolstered by another Swede, Jonas Dryander (1748–1810). He too was influenced by Linnaeus, and was instrumental in negotiating the sale of Linnaeus’ library and herbarium to James Edward Smith. He moved to England in 1777, and succeeded Solander as Banks’ assistant in 1782. He also became librarian of the Royal Society, and vice-president and librarian of the Linnean Society, recently founded by Smith. He seems to have been a more sober man than the convivial Solander (he was described as ‘a dull plodding genius’ – handy for a librarian), but he was equally hard-working.

He too was a major author of the Hortus Kewensis, but his magnum opus (in every sense) was the five-volume Catalogus bibliothecæ historico-naturalis Josephi Banks, published between 1796 and 1800, which we have just reissued. (The wonderful painting of Banks’ library on the cover was supplied by the Natural History Museum. It was the work of Francis Boott (1792–1863), physician, botanist and enthusiast for ether as an anaesthetic.)

The five volumes are ordered systematically. Volume 1 contains ‘General authors’: firstly, works which include topics other than natural history (such as the publications of learned societies around Europe, and travel narratives) and secondly, works on natural history, including the biographies of scientists. Volume 2 focuses on books relating to animals, including humans, particularly their physiology, maladies and economic functions. Volume 3 lists Banks’ collection of books on botanical subjects, including works on the medical and economic applications of various plants. Volume 4 lists books pertaining to geology and mineralogy, including works on the medical and economic applications of minerals and metals. Volume 5 contains a list of works from the first four volumes indexed by author, as well as a supplementary list of those items that were acquired after the publication of the previous volumes.

It was acclaimed as ‘a lasting monument of erudition, perseverance and sound judgment’, and Smith said that ‘a work so ingenious in design and so perfect in execution can scarcely be produced in any science’. When Dryander died (also in Soho Square) in 1810, Banks wrote, ‘I have lost my right hand man … my chief pleasure, that of my library, is reduced almost to a shadow’.

Famously, the library and herbarium were dispersed after Banks’ death by his last librarian, Robert Brown (1773–1858), who was left the printed books for the duration of his lifetime; they were to go to the British Museum thereafter. Brown, however, having tried but failed to write the biography of his patron, agreed to the transfer of the collection to the Museum in 1827. Meanwhile, Banks’ own well organised archive of papers was inherited by his wife’s relative Lord Brabourne (whose mother was Fanny Knight, Jane Austen’s favourite niece).

The papers were lodged on loan to the British Museum in 1873, but in 1880 Brabourne claimed them back, and offered to sell them to the Museum for £250. This offer being rejected, they were put on the open market, and widely dispersed, a large number being now appropriately housed in the State Library of New South Wales, in Sydney. Banks’ house in Soho Square was bombed during the Second World War and replaced by a monstrosity, so the only surviving testaments to this amazing agglomeration of knowledge are the sepia painting and the ‘lasting monument to erudition’ which is the catalogue.


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14 Responses to The Banks Librarians

  1. Faisel K says:

    What a wonderful read. Always insightful. Thank you

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  8. Faisel K says:

    Reblogged this on Faisel K's Journal and commented:
    A wonderful read about Daniel Solander (1733–82), the creator of the Solander box and Sir Joseph Banks.

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