A letter from Sir Joseph Banks to William Herschel

Item author: Sir Joseph Banks
Item date: 30 December 1783
Grant Value: £1,100
Item cost: £2,200
Item date acquired: 2015
Item institution: Herschel Museum
Town/City: Bath
County: Somerset

Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820) was the most important botanist of the 18th and early 19th centuries and a close contemporary of William Herschel.  He accompanied Captain Cook on The Endeavour on his first expedition to Brazil, Tahiti and New Zealand in 1769–1771 and held the position of President of the Royal Academy for over 40 years from 1778.  He was awarded a Baronetcy in 1781.

This letter is an important document for any museum or institution with an interest in William Herschel, as it represents one of the earliest pieces of correspondence between the eminent botanist and the amateur astronomer. It is dated 1783, a couple of years after William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus from the garden of the house in Bath, which is now the Herschel Museum. By 1783 William and his sister Caroline had left Bath for Datchet, near the Court at Windsor, where Herschel held a unique position as the King’s Astronomer. The earliest recorded letter between them dates to November 1781 and in it Joseph Banks is informing William Herschel that a recommendation has been made to the Council of the Royal Society for the award to him of the prestigious Copley Medal for Scientific Achievements.  There appear to be a couple more letters from Sir Joseph Banks written in 1782, which highlight his recognition of William Herschel’s achievements, and the naming of the new planet.

The letter demonstrates an affectionate concern for William and the hope that a pair of worn shoes will be of great use to him in his work; and Banks takes the opportunity to praise the accuracy and quality of his telescopes.

Letter from Sir Joseph Banks to William Herschel, 1783. Image courtesy of the Herschel Miuseum.
Letter from Sir Joseph Banks to William Herschel, 1783. Image courtesy of the Herschel Miuseum.