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THOMAS BANKS, R. A.
The labours of the sculptor, in many respects, come recommended to the favour of mankind by means more interesting, and consequences more important, than any other branch of the fine arts. The painter represents his subject beautifully enough : he preserves the air of each form, and every complexion of the face, but he is restricted in the delineation of his subjects, and must always flatter when at the highest pitch of success; the sculptor, on the contrary, is the impartial modelist of nature, and gives the whole exhibition perfect in every part, and true to every aspect. In proportion, therefore, as the study of the fine arts refines a people, reflects lustre on the history of the country to which they belong, and advances the pursuit of all that is useful in society, the profession of the sculptor becomes paramount. How eminently the little state of Athens thus rose to fame is universally attested; and how nobly the genius of her citizens has been preserved in sculpture, few memories can be so transient as to have forgotten. History preserves, by admirable descriptions, a knowledge of the greatness of nations, the mightiness of men, the beauty of women, and the influence of talents ; but there is no record which, in the course of nature and events, can endure so long, or identify its purposes so generously as the faithful imagery and living example presented in statuary. Thus it is that we gather, not only a finer, but a more correct idea of the wealth, the resources, and energy of the Athenians from the Elgin marbles, than from any other source. Contemplating those venerable relics, we cede Herodotus to Praxiteles, and yield Thucydides to Phidias.-And thus in short of all arts and all attainments, sculpture alone deserves the style of immortal.
In England, sculpture followed in the steps of painting, and may be said to have been only naturalized amongst us by the institution of the Royal Academy. Before that period foreigners alone were patronized, and by consequence, the only works of any merit to be found in our public buildings up to the eighteenth century, are the productions of a foreign chisel. For although Cibber by his figures of raving and melancholy madness before the gates of Bedlam, and Bird by his statues for St. Paul's, may be instanced as, in some degree, competitors with Sir John Thornhill and Hogarth ; yet the inferiority of talent revealed by the former, leaves the award of priority, without disputation, among the painters. With Reynolds and the Royal Academy, a new era took its rise : artists of every description and the first excellence, sprung up in numbers; works of genius abounded, and the prosperity of a few years sufficed to elevate the character of the nation upon a level with the fame of every other modern people, for the only pursuits in which Great Britain had not previously emulated the world.
Among the gifted body of men who contributed towards this happy state of things by the exercise of superior abilities, and are moreover entitled to celebration for the virtues of their private lives, Thomas Banks, the royal academician, has conspicuous pretensions. He was the eldest son of William Banks, landsteward to the Duke of Beaufort, and was born during the year 1735. Thus he stood next to Bacon in order of time, but ranked equal with him in degree of merit: the fortunes of a higher patronage gave a wider scope to the abilities of the former, but the influence of commensurate genius reflected rival honours upon the productions of the latter. Evincing an aptitude for the operations of art at a very early age, Banks was bound apprentice to Kent, the architect, a man of extensive practice and popular consideration. A more decided passion, however, soon emboldened him to direct his efforts to sculpture. He became one of the first pupils of the Royal Academy, and was rewarded with many distinctions during the progress of his initiatory studies. After gaining the usual prizes, he was elected on the foundation to travel to the Continent, and complete his education by an acquaintance with the classical remains of Italy, in which country the society supplied their students with the means of support, for a space of three years. Banks found that period too
short to satisfy the enthusiasm of his researches; he outstayed the time, and forfeited his stipend.
Being thus compelled to look after other patronage, he addressed his labours to the notice of his countrymen visiting Rome, and by their interest was enabled to forward several examples of his art home to England, under very flattering circumstances. Of the pieces thus presented to the world, three have been particularly praised:-a bass-relief in marble, representing Caractacus brought prisoner with his family before Claudius, which was purchased by the Duke of Buckingham, and now ornaments the entrance hall of his Grace's seat at Stowe ;-a marble figure of Psyche stealing the golden fleece, designed as a portrait of the Princess Sophia of Gloucester, and still in her Royal Highness's possession ;-and an allegory of Love tormenting the soul, in a figure of Cupid catching a butterfly. Many admirers were speedily attracted to these productions, and many beauties commended in them; and the emulous sculptor was rewarded by finding the symmetry of his forms, the grace of his contours, and the delicacy of his general work, compared with the exquisite relics of those ages to which his attention had been exclusively directed.
But though Banks's reputation was most favourably nourished by his countrymen abroad, the advantages resulting from his popularity were neither equal to his expectations, nor adequate to his expenses; and he was therefore reluctantly compelled to return to England. Scarcely, however, had he time to establish himself in a connexion, or put forth any fresh work, when a flattering invitation to visit Russia was presented to him from the Empress Catherine. He accordingly set out for Petersburg, taking with him a talented testimonial in the figure of Cupid above mentioned. Immediately upon his arrival, it was purchased by his royal patron, who caused a temple to be erected for its reception, in the gardens attached to her palace at Czarscocelo.
An introduction thus complimentary seemed to promise consequences of similar prosperity ; but Banks was again doomed to experience disappointment. The cold climate of Russia disagreed with his constitution, and he was forced, at the end of two years, once more to return and court the tide of popularity in his native country. The first distinction now offered to him was a fellowship in the Royal Academy, in acknowledgment for which he made a present to the body of a Fallen Titan, which is still to be seen in the Council Room at Somerset House, a striking specimen, of correct anatomy and characteristic energy. A monument for Penelope, the only daughter of Sir Brooke Boothby, in Ashbourne Church, was the next subject of interest offered to his chisel. This is a piece of workmanship which has been vividly applauded for the tenderness of its imagery, and the elegance of its execution. The child appears resting on a mattrass, with its parted hands thrown upwards to the head, and its feet loosely crossed. The only drapery is a thin frock, gently confined by a sash, which is twisted to one side, as if in the impatience of sickness, while every trait of attitude is beautifully disposed to excite a regret that the little creature should have expired in an effort to toss itself into an easier situation. One anecdote of the powerful effect produced by this monument has been mentioned, and deserves preservation. It was first exhibited at the Academy in Somerset House, and it is said that the late Queen Charlotte and her daughters, after contemplating its beauties for some time in silence, burst into tears together, and hurried from the apartments, too much overcome to examine any other display of talents.
A performance as touching in sympathy, but greater in design and moral, was soon after proposed to Banks. This was the colossal statue in marble, of Achilles bewailing the loss of Briseis on the sea-shore, a magnificent undertaking, which the remainder of his life did not entirely suffice to perfect, and which was presented by his family to the British Institution, in Pall-Mall, where it now stands, an ornament simple and grand, in the lower hall. Apposite to the mention of this establishment, it is to be added, that its stone front was designed by Banks, whose . successful hands are also to be recognised in the groups of figures at the entrance: they were executed to illustrate the primitive destination of the building as the Shakspeare Gallery.
The latter years of Banks's career were chiefly devoted to the monuments of Sir Eyre Coote, in Westminster Abbey; and to those of Captains Burgess and Westcott, the one in the south, and the other in the north transept of St. Paul's. Of these labours, however, no particular examination can be desirable in this place, inasmuch as they will be more properly described in that order of the work to which the gallant subjects they commemorate belong.
The death of Banks, after a life of arduous exertion, is now to be recorded: it took place on the 2d of February, 1805, at the honourable age of seventy-four years. A plain tablet, on the ledge of a window in the north aisle of Westminster Abbey, signalizes his merit; and thus the artist, who was so long and so eminently engaged in decorating the graves of others, is himself distinguished only by the simplest of posthumous honours. The inscription reads as follows: In memory of Thomas Banks, Esq. R. A.
And whose character, as a man,
Reflected honour on human nature.
His Spirit is with God.