GILLRAY, James (1756-1815)
[BANKS] The Great South Sea Caterpillar, transform’d into a Bath Butterfly
London : H. Humphrey, July 4th 1795 (the Bohn restrike of 1851, under authority from Gillray’s widow). Etching, printed in black ink, from one copper plate; hand-coloured (350 x 250 mm); numbered 410 upper right. Fine.
One of Sir Joseph Banks’ greatest admirers, George III, had wielded his influence to secure for Banks the position of President of the Royal Society. Banks had also been created a Knight of the Bath for his contribution to the advancement of scientific knowledge, the first civilian to be invested in the Order. In this biting satirical cartoon, Banks is depicted wearing his Royal Order. The warmth of the sun, which symbolises George III, is shown as being responsible for Banks’ metamorphosis from a caterpillar into a butterfly. Up until this time the Royal Order of the Bath had only been given to statesmen or military figures, and what angers Gillray is the perceived royal favouritism being demonstrated towards Banks.
‘Description of the New Bath Butterfly taken from the Philosophical Transactions for 1795 – “This Insect first crawl’d into notice from among the Weeds & Mud on the Banks of the South Sea; & being afterwards placed in a Warm Situation by the Royal Society, was changed by the heat of the Sun into its present form – it is notic’d & Valued Solely on account of the beautiful Red which encircles its Body, & the Shining Spot on its Breast: a Distinction which never fails to render Caterpillars valuable”.’
Any unpopularity Banks suffered at this time was relatively shortlived, however, as his capability and achievements continued to be recognised by his peers in the field of science.