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Portrait of Mr Banks

The book that Joseph Banks burned

Matthew Fishburn
An eccentric French nobleman, a letter about Cook’s Endeavour voyage and an enduring bibliographic mystery come together in the Library’s Banks collection.

In December 1771, some five months after the Endeavour had returned to England, Joseph Banks took up his pen to write a long letter.


‘My Dear Count’, he began, ‘the abstract of my Voyage, which I have so long promis’d you, I at last begin to write’.


Mr Banks, c. 1773 / after a painting by Benjamin West
Joseph Banks' letter to the Count Lauraguais

This letter was the most complete account of his adventures in the Pacific that Banks ever committed to paper, and as neat a précis of sailing on Cook’s first voyage as one could hope to read. It was sent to the dashing French noble Louis-Léon-Félicité de Brancas, Comte du Lauraguais (1733–1824), who was then living a few blocks away in Cavendish Square. Lauraguais was one of the most extravagant figures of the age and a scientist of some note, an enthusiastic and knowledgeable participant in the discussions hosted by Banks and Daniel Solander at Soho Square.

Very little has been published on Lauraguais, who now seems destined to be remembered as the lover of one of the greatest stars of the Paris opera, Sophie Arnould. He lived to be 91, not only surviving the Terror but living long enough to see the Bourbon Restoration, and in his long life he was, by turns, a soldier, a courtier, a chemist, a playwright, a horse-fancier, a book-collector, an economist, and much else besides. 

Portrait of the Comte de Lauraguais
Portrait of the Comte de Lauraguais. Source: Château d’Arlay, Jura, France.
It is barely exaggerating to say that stories accumulate around the Comte too fast to be fact-checked, whether it is the rumour that he poisoned his own horse in an attempt to fix a match race around the Bois de Boulogne, the story that he once had a more staid rival for Arnould’s affection arrested for attempted murder (on the grounds that it was physiologically possible to die of boredom), or the report that he had dissected one of his dead coachmen as an experiment. 

One of the most adroit pen-portraits of the Comte was written by Erasmus Darwin, who had known the Comte since 1766. Darwin described the French nobleman as a man of science who ‘dislikes his own Country, was six months in the Bastille for speaking against the Government’ and ‘loves every thing English’. On reflection, Darwin added, ‘I suspect his Scientific Passion is stronger than perfect Sanity.’ 

Banks could not have guessed it as he sent his letter, but he had unwittingly launched an enduring bibliographical mystery. With the benefit of hindsight, it is not difficult to guess what happened next: capitalising on the fact that Banks was the toast of London, Lauraguais — not known for missing the main chance and a confirmed pamphleteer — soon went to a printer with a view to publishing the letter.

Given that an anonymous and rather sensational account of the Endeavour voyage published a few months earlier had already been a bestseller, there can be little doubt that a book published under Banks’ name would have sold the doors off. Of course, the publication never came off: it was being set up by the printer when Banks, as he wrote, ‘seized the impression and burn’d it’. 

The story of this thwarted publication might well have been lost were it not for an important group of papers held in the Library since the 1930s. The Library holds the original handwritten letter Banks sent to Lauraguais; a remarkable — and slightly bonkers — companion letter in French by Lauraguais regarding the scientific discoveries made on the voyage, which the Comte clearly intended to publish as a supplement to the letter; and the neatly printed proof of the letter itself, with neither title page nor any other preliminary pages.

Even in this fragmentary state, it is possible to see that the book being planned by Lauraguais would have been a slim but attractive quarto. In 1989 the Library acquired a significant postscript to the story with the purchase from Sydney booksellers Hordern House of a short letter by Lauraguais in which he begged Banks to allow the book to go ahead, a plea which fell on deaf ears. 

The abandoned book is a small but important part of the story of the dispersal of the Banks papers, a treasure-trove of manuscripts and letters which was passed around between various descendants and possible biographers for over 60 years after the death of Banks in 1820, right up until the British Museum flatly declined their purchase in 1884.

Writing desk believed to have formerly been the property of Sir Joseph Banks

In the immediate aftermath of this notorious decision, the Agent General of New South Wales, Sir Saul Samuel, acquired a large selection of manuscripts for the Library (the ‘Brabourne collection’). Even after this deal, vast quantities of papers remained, and in 1886 Sotheby’s in London had two sales. The first, in March, was interesting enough, but the follow-up in April was a real fire-sale: it featured Banks’ manuscripts and correspondence files by the box load, most lots selling for anything from a few shillings to a few pounds.

The April 1886 Sotheby’s sale definitely included Lauraguais material, and the original Banks’ letter was purchased by Edward Stanhope, a Conservative politician and collateral descendant of Banks. Stanhope bought some 15 lots at the April sale, paying around six pounds (six pounds!) for what would have been an enormous box of manuscripts and other papers. 

It is likely that Stanhope bought the printed proof of the Lauraguais book at the same time, presumably in one of the larger box lots, because it is not specifically mentioned in either of the Sotheby’s catalogues. Certainly Stanhope was the first to recognise the book’s tremendous significance and it was probably his decision to have it bound (the book is preserved in a rather grand late nineteenth-century binding which would suggest as much). 

Stanhope died in 1893, right on the cusp of a period of renewed interest among bibliophiles in the printed record of Cook’s voyages, so it is hardly surprising that the book’s next recorded owner was one of the greatest Pacific collectors, James Edge-Partington. In turn, Edge-Partington’s library was offered for sale in 1934 by the famous London firm of Francis Edwards, and in their catalogue the Lauraguais book is singled out as ‘rare and probably unique’. It was priced at £200, an enormous sum for the time.

Purchased by the Library, it remains the only known copy but, despite quite a deal of bibliographic speculation, the lack of a title-page has made even the most basic details hard to pin down. Precisely when the attempted publication was in the press or even its planned title, have long been riddles. Based on clues in the correspondence between Banks and Lauraguais, and after a good deal of searching through papers of the day, I can confirm with some relief that the book was first advertised for sale in the London Daily Advertiser on 16 April 1772. If Banks had not personally intervened, it would have been published with the not particularly catchy title: 

An Abstract of a Voyage round the World, in a letter from Jos. Banks, Esq., to Count Lauragais, the original of which is lodged in the Academy of Sciences at Paris. With a letter from that nobleman to Mons. d’Alembert, on the Subject of that Voyage, and respective Translations of these Letters; the one into French, the other into the English Languages. 

Joseph Banks' letter to Count Lauraguais


The advertisement does not note a publisher, implying that it was ultimately going to be issued ‘For the Author’, and the printer would almost certainly have been Joshua Jenour, who was the mastermind behind the Daily Advertiser. It would have been only the second book ever published on Cook’s first voyage. 

This unique book has one last secret, which provides an elegant grace note to the story. It has always been considered curious that the book was never recorded in Banks’ library. As it turns out, this is with good reason: at the top of the very upper left margin of the first page there is a tiny manuscript note which was partially lost when the book was trimmed and bound in the 1880s, so that all that remains is ‘: Banks 1773’. 

This does not, however, refer to Joseph, but rather his younger sister Sarah Sophia Banks, an avid collector with a focus on ephemeral printing. Her distinctive hand is unmistakable (especially the use of the colon together with the date), and the note would originally have read ‘S: S: Banks 1773’. Sarah Sophia Banks had a lifelong interest in her brother’s career, and the two siblings were exceptionally close, so the fact that she retained this work is hardly surprising. 

Although the Banks papers were scattered at the end of the nineteenth century, there is at least a poetry in the way the pieces of Lauraguais’ abandoned book have all found their way into the Library, and perhaps there is yet more to be discovered. After all, the advertisement in April 1772 did confirm that the Comte intended to print an extra section in French. 


Dr Matthew Fishburn was the Library’s 2015 Merewether Fellow. He was introduced to the riddle of Lauraguais by Derek McDonnell of Hordern House.

Explore the Banks collection

This article first appeared in SL magazine, Summer 2017–18.