Joseph Banks: A Life

Patrick O'Brian

Introduced by Peter Campbell

An inspired biography of the great naturalist and explorer, by the author of the much-loved Aubrey-Maturin novels.

Published price: US$ 62.95


Joseph Banks: A Life

Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was a naturalist, an explorer, President of the Royal Society and ultimately one of the most influential figures of the 18th century. As a young man he accompanied Captain Cook on his first great voyage of discovery to the South Seas, New Zealand and Australia. Returning with thousands of specimens of plants and animals, accounts of native peoples, and drawings and charts of a previously unknown continent, its achievements transformed Europe’s knowledge of almost half the world and made Banks a national hero. For the rest of his life, he played a major role promoting science and discovery in an expanding empire.

Production Details

Joseph Banks: A Life book
  • Three-quarter-bound in cloth with a Modigliani paper front board
  • Blocked and printed with a design by Chris Wormell
  • Set in Adobe Caslon Pro
  • 440 pages
  • Frontispiece and 24 pages of colour plates
  • 9˝ x 6 ¼˝

An inspired biographer

Patrick O’Brian is the best-selling author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of naval historical novels set during the Napoleonic Wars. O’Brian drew on the life of Banks when writing the series; his much-loved main characters were influenced by the botanist, and references to the real Banks can also be found throughout the books. With his meticulous research skills and a genuine affection for his subject, O’Brian is an inspired biographer. He uses generous extracts from Banks’s journals, believing that the man’s own words would bring the reader ‘directly into touch with Banks’. The extracts reveal his sense of wonder, his ebullience and his powers of observation, summoning a time when the field of natural history still contained marvellous worlds to be discovered. On observing crabs on the Great Barrier Reef, Banks writes: ‘The first was ornamented with the finest ultramarine blew conceivable with which all his claws and every Joint was deeply tingd; the under part of him was a lovely white, shining as if glazd and perfectly resembling the white of old China.’

‘O’Brian has done the reading public a service by unwrapping so elegantly and wittily a great man previously known only to specialists and academics. The book is a crackerjack’

With his skilled narrative hand, O’Brian steers the reader through stormy seas and unknown waters, supplying a vivid picture of all the hardships and thrills of life on a ship, from descriptions of the cramped conditions to the realities of the food and the weather. The captain shared his cabin not just with Banks, but also a doctor and the draughtsmen employed to document their finds, and many of the bird specimens shot down were, once catalogued, served up for dinner – on one occasion, even albatross was on the menu. Reflecting the wealth of knowledge collected and collated by Banks, this edition features 24 pages of researched colour images, including beautiful botanical and natural history paintings from the Endeavour voyage, as well as maps and nautical drawings. The binding, designed by Chris Wormell, nods to a life packed with curiosities. Peter Campbell, critic for the London Review of Books, has written an introduction praising the pleasing aptness of O’Brian as the biographer of the great explorer and botanist.

About Patrick O’Brian

Patrick O’Brian (1914–2000) was best known for his Aubrey/ Maturin series of historical novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, the first of which, Master and Commander, was published in 1969. In addition to novel-writing, O’Brian was a biographer (Joseph Banks, 1987; Picasso, 1976) and translator. After the Second World War, he settled in the South of France and translated many works from French into English, among them the novels of Simone de Beauvoir and Henri Charrière’s memoir Papillon. He received a CBE in 1997.

Find out more about Patrick O’Brian here

About Peter Campbell

Peter Campbell (1937–2011) was a designer and critic. He worked for BBC Books for a number of years in the 1960s and 70s, and designed and edited Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (‘that prince of editors,’ Clark referred to him in his acknowledgements), Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and David Attenborough’s Life on Earth, amongst others. From 1979 onwards he was the resident designer and art critic for the London Review of Books. He was one of its most prolific contributors, writing mostly about art, but occasionally covering other subjects in which he had an abiding interest, science and natural history in particular.


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Review by anon on 15th Dec 2016

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"A fascinating biography of a remarkable man, in a beautiful Folio edition. No need to say more."

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