Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Sarah Sophia Banks: Collecting ephemera in late Georgian England. Guest post by Arlene Leis

Dr Arlene Leis wrote her doctoral thesis on the paper collections of Sarah Sophia Banks, housed at the British Museum and the British Library. We are privileged to post her scholarly article on these important collections which contain 18th and early 19th century ephemera, including exquisite engraved trade cards. The Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum also holds the (perhaps better-known) Heal Collection of trade cards

The Prints and Drawings room at the British Museum holds a fascinating collection of ephemera amassed by Sarah Sophia Banks (1744-1818), sister of the celebrated botanist and President of the Royal Society Sir Joseph Banks.  While Sir Joseph is a well-known collector of natural history whose collections helped shape the foundations of the Natural History Museum, Sarah Sophia, also an avid collector, has remained for the most part in her brother’s shadow.  This, fortunately, is beginning to change. 

After Sarah Sophia’s death, Sir Joseph’s wife Dorothea donated parts of the collection to the British Museum and Royal Mint, where they form part of the foundation collections at both institutions.[1] Her paper collections are now divided between the British Museum and British Library.[2] When the ephemera collection first arrived at the British Museum on 23 November 1818, it was appraised at just £150, but John Thomas Smith, Keeper of Prints and Drawings observed that it provided many examples of ‘the first efforts of our Celebrated Engravers’.[3]  In fact, the gift of Sarah Sophia’s collection to the British Museum was the largest and most varied collection of printed ephemera the museum had ever accepted.[4] That it was a woman’s collection rendered its acquisition all the more remarkable. 
Sarah Sophia and her brother shared an early passion for collecting.  Based on the dates that she wrote next to the items in her collections, she appears to have started gathering ephemera at the young age of ten. Her collection encompasses over 19,000 articles of printed material, including trade cards, fashion plates, admission tickets, visitor cards, book tickets, press-cuttings, satirical prints, frontispieces, commemoration prints, election cards, lottery tickets, ballads, political caricatures (English and French), invitations, maps, portraits, playbills—and much more.[5]  As a woman with the financial means with which to pursue her own interests, Sarah Sophia purchased many of these items herself.  She also exchanged artefacts with other collectors, while other objects were gifted to her, often exploiting her brother’s national and international scientific networks.  During her lifetime, most of her collections were kept at the Banks’s residence in 32 Soho Square, London; however, a few items were also housed at the Banks’s family seat in Reevesby Abbey, Lincolnshire. 

Fig. 1 (C) National Gallery of Ireland

A miniature painting of Sarah Sophia dating from 1768 may have been a token of affection between her and her brother (fig.1). The picture was painted by the fashionable artist Nathaniel Hone the elder. It portrays Sarah Sophia, twenty-four years old, in a conventional head and shoulders view. She wears a light pink dress with dainty lace trim. The pearl earrings and necklace that are tied around her pale neck signify her status. Tiny pink roses are pinned to her hair. It is not known for whom this picture was painted, or to whom it was presented, and Sarah Sophia does not appear to have had any suitors at any time during her life. Miniatures, such as this, were often commissioned to alleviate the pains of absence, and also to affirm love and friendship. Its small size makes the picture suitable for transport. Given that her brother was to leave England to travel with James Cook on his South Pacific voyage the same year the miniature was painted, Sarah Sophia may have presented it to him before his departure. 

Some scholars have labeled Sarah Sophia a ‘hoarder’, but she was creative, selective and highly strategic in her collecting practices. Her paper items were inventoried, systematized and displayed in a variety of specific ways, pressed and pasted into portfolios and onto mounts that she created herself.  The visitor tickets in her collection, for example, reveal the particular ways in which Sarah Sophia explored different modes of taxonomic ordering.  The cards are glued with wet adhesives to sheets of paper measuring 18 ¼ x 23 ½ inches (fig. 2). 
Fig 2  (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. C.1-193-219
Fig. 3 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. C.1-193-219

Next to each ticket, she writes the year she received it. The mounts are then folded vertically to create folders, the contents of which are recorded in pen on the outside (fig. 3). She starts by ordering mounts of cards in a hierarchical fashion according to the social status of the original holders. Her mounts of ‘nobility’ begin with ‘English Earls’ and continue all the way down to ‘Irish Peers’ and then ‘British Persons’.  These catagories of cards are pasted into columns and family groupings reminiscent of a family tree. Other cards are classed simply as ‘blanks’; visitor cards that were never used or were taken from engravers’s books.  The names on ‘blanks’ were always signed; not machine printed.  Her wide ranging ‘blanks’ are grouped onto mounts according to their style or subject, highlighting their use of  ‘Birds’, ‘Squares’, or ‘Figures’(fig. 4), amongst other stylistic characteristics.

Fig, 4 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings C. 2550-2570
Cards classified as ‘foreign’, deriving from Europe and beyond, are organized by the country in which they were produced and circulated.  The images on these cards often represent monuments or landscapes known to those areas. Organising cards according to class and geographical location, Sarah Sophia drew upon the same type of biological classifications her brother used to organise his collections of natural history, such as the Linnaean system.  However, collecting ephemera also enabled Sarah Sophia to devise her own distinct taxonomies, organizational methods and tastes through which she developed a unique cultural identity that distinguishes her from her brother.
Fig. 5 (C) British Museum. C.1-734
 Sarah Sophia’s paper collections undermine the conventional boundary between public and private. Some items she collected are personal in nature, such as a visitor card with her name and address (fig. 5) or an admission ticket her brother obtained upon visiting the British Museum. (fig. 6).
Fig. 6 (C) British Museum. D.1-832-855

Although Sarah Sophia included family artefacts, she also recorded the history of her time. Items in her print collection often commemorate important public social events, such as one album of ephemera she created dedicated to the Grand Jubilee of 1814 that took place in Green Park, St. James’ Park and Hyde Park in memory of the ‘Glorious Peace’ and Wellington’s victory over Napoleon. Another album pays tribute mostly to Lord Nelson’s life, including his victories and his funeral. Both albums are now housed in the British Library.

Fig. 7 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings J.2.112

Often her prints poke fun at political figures like Joshua Kirby Baldrey’s satirical print, H-st-gs ho, rare H-st-gs!, which depicts Warren Hastings, governor general of Bengal, wearing oriental dress and pushing a barrow in which sit George III and the statesman Edward Thurlow,  who were both accused of taking bribes from Hastings, whom they were known to support  (fig. 7).   

Fig. 8 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. C.2-15

Sarah Sophia was also interested in the art of advertising; she collected numerous admission tickets, often annotating them with useful information (fig. 8), and her trade cards promoted a broad range of new and improved goods and services. (fig. 9,10, 11). As these few examples demonstrate, her rich and varied repository of graphic culture documents the social, political and cultural occurrences of a particular time.  The collection is thus a vital archival source for anyone interested in history, art and culture. 

Fig. 9 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. D.2.150
 At present, the extensive collection is undergoing rigorous cataloging by a dedicated museum staff. Most of the miscellaneous items of ephemera have been digitized and added to the Museum’s digital image archive (Merlin). There are approximately 3,000 admission tickets and other types of tickets to be entered, along with about 5,000 British visiting cards and 1500 foreign visiting cards.[6] Items from the collection are entered on the collection’s database as presented by Dorothea Banks, with previous owner Sarah Sophia Banks. The items are digitized to high standards, and they are easily searchable. Just go to the link below and type in Sarah Sophia Banks.  You can also search by category of object. Content is continually being added, and already there is enormous potential for further archival research on her collection. 
Fig. 10 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. D.2.3279

Fig. 11 (C) British Museum. Prints and Drawings. D.2.3526

Further Reading

Carter , H. B. Sir Joseph Banks  (London: British Museum), 1988, pp. 16, 23, 32, 34, 35, 115-18, 153-4, 156.
Chambers, N.  Joseph Banks and the British Museum: The World of Collecting, 1770-1830 (London: Pickering and Chatto), 2007, pp. 177-118.
Eaglen, R.J. ‘Sarah Sophia Banks and Her English Hammered Coins’, in British Numismatics Society, 78 (2008), pp. 200-15. 
Eagleton, C. ‘Collecting African Money in Georgian London: Sarah Sophia Banks and Her Collection of Coins’, in Museum History Journal, 6 (2013), pp. 23-38.
Leis, A. ‘Displaying Art and Fashion: Pocket-Book Imagery in the Collections of Sarah Sophia Banks’ in Kunsthistorisk Tidskrift/Journal of Art History, Volume 82, 3, (2013), pp. 252-271.
Pincott, A. ‘The Book Tickets of Miss Sarah Sophia Banks’ in The Bookplate Journal, 2 (2004), pp. 3-30.

John Gascoigne, ‘Banks, Sarah Sophia (1744–1818)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/1301, accessed 17 May 2014] Sarah Sophia Banks (1744–1818): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/1301 

Hansen, Viveka. A selection of early fashion & cloth trade-cards. Blog post by @textilisnet on Sarah Sophia Banks' trade cards relating to the textile industry:http://textilis.net/2014/05/29/a-selection-of-early-fashion-cloth-trade-cards-f-2/

To raise the genius and improve the heart: private theatricals in British culture. Article on important collection of material relating to private theatricals, attributed to Sarah Banks or Charles Burney.

[1] BM Letter Book, 1802-1847, vol. 2, letter 9 (London).
[2] At the British Library see: A Collection of Broadsides, Cuttings from Newspapers, Engravings, etc. of various dates, formed by Miss S.S. Banks.  Bound in nine volumes, London, British Library, General Reference Collection L.R.301.h.3-11. A Collection f Playbills, notices, and press-cuttings dealing with private theatrical performances, 1750-1808 937.g.96.
[3] Central Archive Trustees Papers, Officer’s Reports, vol. 5 1818-1819, No. 1164, Officer Report: John Thomas Smith, Department of Antiquities Print Room’ dated 11 December 1818.
[4] Sloan, K, ‘Aimed at Universality and Belonging to the Nation; the Enlightenment and the British Museum’ in Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the Eighteenth-Century, ed. By Sloan, K. and Burnett, A. (London: British Museum Press), 2003, pp. 12-25.
[5] For a comprehensive list see: A. Griffiths and R. Williams, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum: User’s Guide, 1987, pp.82-84.
[6] Many thanks to Sheila O’Connell at the British Museum for sharing information about the cataloguing project with me.


  1. Thanks for this entertaining article! I'd read about Sophia Banks' collection of balloon-related ephemera in Richard Holmes's book Age of Wonder, but I had no idea her collection was so extensive. I'm off to look for more at the BM's online collections now. I've spent many an hour there, but it's always helpful to know what to search for.

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  3. Great Read!! Fun and Informative....Look forward to reading more about SSB collection!!!

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