We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Banks, Thomas (1735–1805), sculptor, was born on 22 December 1735 in Kennington, south London, and baptized in St Mary, Lambeth, on 18 January 1736, the eldest of the three sons of William Banks, later landscape gardener, land steward, and surveyor to the fourth duke of Beaufort at Badminton in Gloucestershire, and his wife, Mary.


Educated in Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire, Banks first worked for his father, who was then supervising building works at Badminton under William Kent. According to the sculptor John Flaxman, Banks's father was an architect and taught his son the principles of the profession and how to draw. His younger brother Mark became an architect with the board of works. Aged fifteen or nineteen (the date is uncertain as until 1803 he believed he was born in 1739) Banks returned to London to be apprenticed to the mason and woodcarver William Barlow. He may have assisted Barlow with chimney-pieces for the Mansion House, London, and with wood-carving for the house of the Rt Hon. Henry Pelham in Arlington Street. Banks spent his evenings studying drawing and modelling in the studio of Peter Scheemakers in Vine Street, Piccadilly. Here he met the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, and both were able to study the clay and marble copies that Scheemakers had brought back from Italy.

On completing his seven-year apprenticeship, Banks enrolled for life classes at the St Martin's Lane Academy. His marriage on 31 August 1766 to Elizabeth Hooton (1748–1834) brought him a modest income from land in Mayfair. By 1769 the sculptor Richard Hayward probably employed Banks as his assistant in Piccadilly. Between 1763 and 1769 Banks earned considerable sums in prize money from the Society of Arts for ambitious sculptures of historical subjects. According to the only account of his life published while he was alive (European Magazine, 18, July–December 1790, 23), Banks decided to become a sculptor rather than remain a mason carver in response to premiums then on offer. In 1763 he was awarded a premium of 30 guineas for a bas-relief in Portland stone, The Death of Epaminondas. In 1765 he won a premium of 25 guineas for a marble relief, The Ransoming of Hector, and in 1769 he received a premium of 20 guineas for a life-size clay statue, Prometheus and the Vulture. The award of 20 guineas in 1766 for a Design for Ornamental Furniture confirmed his versatility and potential employment beyond sculpture. He also exhibited at this time with the Free Society of Artists, showing The Ransoming of the Body of Hector in 1767 (presumably the marble relief completed two years before) and models of The Judgment of Paris in 1768 and of Perseus in 1769. From 1769 to 1772 he is recorded living in New Bird Street, Oxford Road (on the north side of the present Oxford Street).

In 1769 Banks moved his allegiance to the new Royal Academy of Arts and on 30 June was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. His younger brother Charles (c.1745–1795) also enrolled as a student that year; he won the gold medal in 1774 and became his brother's assistant. At the academy exhibition of 1769 Thomas Banks exhibited two models, Aeneas and Anchises Escaping from Troy and the same subject ‘in another point in time’ (as stated in the exhibition catalogue). In the first election for associateships of the Royal Academy, held that year, he was unsuccessful, yet he won the academy's gold medal for sculpture with the bas-relief The Rape of Proserpine. He also received £10 from the academy as the first instalment of a stipend to study in Rome. The first sculptor to receive the Rome scholarship, he did not depart until 1772. In 1771 he exhibited at the academy a portrait study in chalks of its first porter and model, John Malin (RA), probably after a death mask, together with a model for a monument showing A Cherub Decorating an Urn. In 1772 he showed a model for a sculpture of Mercury, Argus and Io.

Visits to Italy and St Petersburg

Banks arrived in Rome with his wife on 22 September 1772. He may have intended to settle there in the hope of finding international patronage among the gentlemen on the grand tour for the historical and poetical subjects for which he had received prizes, but little employment, in London. His daughter, Lavinia, was born in Rome in 1774, and he remained a further four years after his academy stipend expired in 1775, returning to England only after protracted physical and mental illness caused by unreliable patrons, including Frederick Hervey, bishop of Derry, later fourth earl of Bristol. His reputation rests, essentially, on five surviving works from these years. Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘pronounced him the first British sculptor who had produced works of classic grace, and said “his mind was ever dwelling on subjects worthy of an ancient Greek”’ (Cunningham, 3.86).

Banks first sent back to the academy an oval marble relief, Alcyone Discovering the Dead Body of her Husband Ceyx (Leeds City Council, Lotherton Hall, Yorkshire), exhibited at the academy in 1775, and in 1778 he showed there a marble bust of a lady. Between these years he produced three marble reliefs: Caractacus before Claudius (priv. coll.); The Death of Germanicus (priv. coll.); and Thetis and her Nymphs Rising from the Sea to Console Achilles for the Loss of Patroclus, together with the terracotta statuette Achilles Arming (both V&A). These works illustrate the two great influences on Banks in Rome: the carving techniques of the Italians, discovered with the assistance of Giovanni Battista Capezzuoli, and the Romantic classicism of Henry Fuseli and the international circle in Rome that included George Romney, Nicolai Abildgaard, and the sculptor J. T. Sergel.

In 1779 Banks recovered from his illness sufficiently to visit Naples, and in May he returned to England with his family and Maria Hadfield (at whose marriage to Richard Cosway in 1781 he was a formal witness). In 1780 he showed at the academy his marble relief of Caractacus before Claudius, prior to installing it opposite Christophe Veyrier's Darius before Alexander in the entrance hall at Stowe, and a bust of the painter Benjamin West, Banks's neighbour in Newman Street. The following year he exhibited two other works begun in Rome and finished in London: a portrait of Princess Sophia of Gloucester as Psyche Plucking the Golden Wool and a statue of Cupid (formerly Pavlovsk Palace, Russia). Lord Bristol had commissioned the latter in marble in early spring 1778 but left it in Banks's hands.

Still determined to find patronage for sculpture of poetical and historical subjects, Banks set out alone for St Petersburg in June 1781 with the statue of Cupid, hoping to sell it to Catherine the Great. In this he succeeded, and he also received commissions for a portrait of Catherine the Great and a bas-relief, The Armed Neutrality, emblematic of the current political standing of Russia, which did not favour Britain. He returned to London in 1782, to his family's surprise, probably as a result of the declining political climate. He may also have been prompted to come home by a commission for a monument to Thomas Newton, dean of St Paul's Cathedral, to stand in the cathedral, which he began immediately upon his return (formerly St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside). Newton had encouraged a scheme, led by Reynolds, for decorating St Paul's, and it seems likely that Reynolds secured Banks the commission.

Church memorials

Banks's ambitions for sculpture found some fulfilment in his church memorials, which, unlike those of contemporaries such as Bacon and Flaxman, are all individual designs and do not tend towards standardization. In 1783, through the architect George Dance, the East India Company commissioned Banks to produce the vast monument to Sir Eyre Coote, still in Westminster Abbey, completed in 1789. In this otherwise traditional sculpture, the life-size heroic nude figure of a Mahratta Captive (exh. RA, 1789) received particular praise. At the academy exhibition in 1784 Banks had shown a colossal sculpture, Achilles Enraged for the Loss of Briseis (British Institution vestibule 1805–68; RA entrance hall until 1899; presumed destroyed c.1920). This full-size plaster helped secure his election as an associate of the Royal Academy in November and as a Royal Academician three months later, in 1785. As his diploma piece he deposited the marble Falling Titan (RA), which his daughter later stated to be based on sketches Banks had made with Fuseli in Rome. In 1789 his high-relief Shakspeare between the Dramatic Muse and the Genius of Painting (New Place gardens, Stratford upon Avon), for the entrance façade of Boydell's Shakspeare Gallery in Pall Mall, London, received general acclaim. Banks's last known surviving work of a poetical nature is the portrait of Mrs Johnes and her infant daughter as Thetis Dipping the Infant Achilles in the Styx (1790; V&A). Thomas Johnes of Hafod in Cardiganshire commissioned it after he had withdrawn his order for a marble of the Achilles Enraged.

The most celebrated of Banks's church memorials is the recumbent effigy of Penelope Boothby (St Oswald's Church, Ashbourne, Derbyshire), the only child of Sir Brooke Boothby. When the model (Sir John Soane's Museum, London) of the six-year-old girl, apparently sleeping, was exhibited at the academy in 1793 it prompted Queen Charlotte and her daughters to burst into tears. Other important memorials include the reliefs commemorating Isaac Watts (1779) and William Woollett (1791) (both Westminster Abbey) and that to Mrs Petrie (1795; St Mary's, Lewisham). His monuments in St Paul's Cathedral to Captain Richard Burgess (1802) and Captain Westcott (1802–5) attracted criticism for their combination of portraiture with heroic nudity.

Later years

Portrait busts by Banks are exceptional in their intellectual intensity. More than thirty-five are recorded, the most accessible and admired of which today are Warren Hastings (1790–91; marble, India Office Library; bronze, NPG) and Dr Anthony Addington (1791; marble, V&A). His last exhibited work, a bust of Oliver Cromwell (priv. coll.), was ordered to be withdrawn from the exhibition of 1803 to avoid embarrassment to the Royal Academy. Banks had been arrested on suspicion of treason in 1794 when the artist Joseph Farington noted in his diary (16 January 1794): ‘Banks is a violent democrat’ (Farington, Diary, 1.144). Farington's observation was made after noting Banks's failed attempt to be appointed librarian at the academy. His known political sympathies must have harmed his career. Since 1780 he had exhibited annually at the academy, missing only three years (1786, 1790, and 1801). Regularly elected a visitor to the Royal Academy Schools, he served on the academy council, exhibition hanging committee, and schools committee, as well as on the committee for monuments in St Paul's Cathedral, but he was not selected from a shortlist presented to George III for the keepership in 1803.

In the history of collecting old master drawings in Britain, Banks holds a significant position. For his time, he was unusual in the interest he took in the early Renaissance masters, including Parmigianino and Dürer. Drawings from his collection were later divided between Sir Thomas Lawrence and Banks's great-grandson, the painter Sir Edward Poynter. Partially paralysed by a stroke in 1803, Banks destroyed many of his terracottas that year. He died at his home, 5 Newman Street, London, on 2 February 1805 and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary's, Paddington. A tablet to his honour was the first erected to a sculptor in Westminster Abbey. Flaxman wrote a lecture on Banks immediately after his death, but he was denied permission to deliver it by the academy, who feared that the king would see it as a celebration of a democrat.

Posthumous reputation

The nineteenth century regarded Banks as a founding father of the British school of art. This reputation endured through the prominence of his works and publications such as Cunningham's Lives (1830). Flaxman's ‘Address on Banks’ appeared in the second edition of his Lectures on Sculpture (1838), a volume presented to prizewinning students throughout the century. At a time when churches were the equivalent of today's museums and galleries of modern sculpture, Banks's monuments were seen in Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral, and local churches, particularly in London. His sculptures of poetical and historical subjects could be seen in the National Gallery, the British Institution, Sir John Soane's Museum, and the entrance halls of the Royal Academy and of country houses such as Stowe, Buckinghamshire, and Holkham Hall, Norfolk. The International Exhibition of 1862 included his four best-known works: Falling Titan and the three Achilles subjects mentioned above.

Today, despite the destruction of many London churches and the loss of most of his terracotta sketches, Banks is admired, with his contemporaries John Bacon and Joseph Nollekens, as the leading sculptor of the era of patriotic patronage that saw the founding of the Royal Academy. After the great generation of immigrant artists who had dominated sculpture in the second third of the eighteenth century (including Roubiliac, Rysbrack, and Scheemakers) Banks was the first native sculptor to answer the ambitions of his time. Despite his disappointments with his patrons, his best surviving works are distinguished by a commitment to the spirit of the antique while drawing on wider artistic sources, resulting in an originality that stretched the familiar vocabulary of the fashionable neo-classical style.

Julius Bryant


C. F. Bell, ed., Annals of Thomas Banks (1938) · M. Whinney, Sculpture in Britain, 1530–1830 (1964), 175–82 · N. L. Pressly, The Fuseli circle in Rome (New Haven, 1979), 48–53 · R. Gunnis, Dictionary of British sculptors, 1660–1851 (1953); new edn (1968) · A. Cunningham, The lives of the most eminent British painters, sculptors, and architects (1830), vol. 3. pp. 82–121 · J. Flaxman, Lectures on sculpture, 2nd edn (1838) [for ‘An address … on the death of Thomas Banks’] · L. Stainton, ‘A re-discovered bas-relief by Thomas Banks’, Burlington Magazine, 116 (1974), 327–9 · J. Bryant, ‘Mourning Achilles: a missing sculpture by Thomas Banks’, Burlington Magazine, 125 (1983), 742–5 · J. Bryant, ‘The church memorials of Thomas Banks’, Church Monuments, 1 (1985), 49–64 · J. Bryant, ‘Thomas Banks's anatomical crucifixion’, Apollo, 133 (1991), 409–11 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1421, sig. 148 · letter from Lavinia Forster to George Cumberland, 3 Feb 1805, BL, Add. MS 36500, fol. 110


BL, letters to George Cumberland, Add. MSS 36498–36500, passim


J. Northcote, oils, 1777, priv. coll. · J. Condé, stipple, 1791 (after a bust by T. Banks), BM, NPG; repro. in European Magazine (1791) · J. Northcote, oils, 1792, RA · G. Dance, two chalk drawings, 1793–4, BM, RA · W. Blenkinsop, stipple, pubd 1802 (after J. Northcote), BM · J. Flaxman, chalks, 1804, FM Cam. · R. Cosway, pencil drawing, BM · W. C. Edwards, line engraving (after J. Flaxman), BM, NPG; repro. in Cunningham, Lives · H. Singleton, group portrait, oils (Royal Academicians, 1793), RA

Wealth at death  

left all to widow: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1421, sig. 148