Sir Joseph Banks KGB (1743–1820), occasionally characterised, justly, as the ‘father of Australia’, was the powerful President of London’s Royal Society for more than forty years, from 1778 to 1820. It was he who endorsed New South Wales as a site for a penal settlement; he was a patron of Matthew Flinders and others; and he corresponded zestfully with all the early governors of New South Wales. From 1788 to about 1810, though Banks held no official post (there was no ‘master plan’ for the settlement of the Colony, nor Department to administer it) he was a continuous advocate for the colony and his role as effective head of Australian affairs was widely acknowledged. Late in life, Banks’s chief interests were the development of superior sheep varieties and the drainage of the Lincolnshire fens to create pasture. It is largely down to Banks’s personal enthusiasm for merino sheep that specimens of the breed were established in Australia within a couple of decades of English settlement. John Macarthur was able to purchase seven rams and three ewes at the first public auction of merinos, supervised by Banks, near the Pagoda at Kew Gardens on 15 August 1804. Six of the beasts survived to land at Sydney on 7 July 1805. As a result, in years to come, England’s irksome dependence on European wool would be eased.
Thomas Phillips (1770–1845) painted Banks several times, and duplicated more than one of his own portraits of the great man. In this one, Banks sits with fen drainage plans to hand, wearing the uniform of the Lincolnshire Supplemental Militia, set off with the insignia of the Red Ribbon of the Order of the Bath which was awarded to him by his friend and fellow sheep enthusiast, King George III (‘Farmer George’) in 1795.