Past Exhibitions

Thomas Banks (1735-1805): Britain’s first modern sculptor

An exhibition at Sir John Soane's Museum from 21 January to 9 April 2005

Supported by the Henry Moore Foundation and Daniel Katz Ltd

Thomas Banks (1735-1805) was a brilliantly gifted sculptor and one of the most influential artists of his time. His work ranged from exquisitely carved reliefs to dramatic neoclassical compositions 'of the epic class' that pushed marble to its limits. His greatest works had such emotional power that they reduced onlookers to tears but his radical political beliefs secured his position as the scourge as well as the toast of the English art establishment. To mark the bicentenary of his death on 2 February 2005, Sir John Soane's Museum is organising the first ever exhibition on Banks and his work.

Joshua Reynolds admired Thomas Banks (1735-1805) as 'the first British sculptor who had produced works of classic grace'. To mark the bicentenary of his death on 2 February 1805, Sir John Soane's Museum is organising the first ever exhibition of Banks' sculptures. Best known for his exquisitely carved bas-reliefs of historical and poetical subjects, Banks was inspired by his close friend the painter Henry Fuseli to reinvent the neoclassical male nude in dramatic compositions that push marble to its limits.

After seven years in Rome in the 1770s, moving in Fuseli's international circle of artists, Banks succeeded Falconet as sculptor to Catherine the Great in St Petersburg. Returning to Britain in 1782 he produced some of his most original and influential sculptures as church monuments. When his model for the tomb of Penelope Boothby (Ashbourne, Derbyshire) was exhibited at the Royal Academy such was its pathos that Queen Charlotte and the royal princesses wept, as did the child's father, Sir Brooke Boothby, when he visited Banks' studio.

Regarded by fellow artists as 'a violent democrat' Banks was arrested on suspicion of treason in 1794: in 1803 the last work he finished, a bust of Oliver Cromwell, was ordered removed from the Royal Academy exhibition as 'an improper object'.

The exhibition will also reveal how Sir John Soane's Museum was London's first permanent public gallery of contemporary sculpture, complementing contemporary critical debate over the latest unveilings of monuments in Westminster Abbey and St Paul's Cathedral. Banks was a close friend of Soane, and the eleven works by him which remain in the Soane museum today were the first modern sculptures that Soane collected. Despite his radical political views Banks was regarded in his own day as the equal of his celebrated contemporaries John Flaxman and Sir Francis Chantrey.

New colour photographs, specially commissioned for the exhibition, will present Banks's finest church monuments afresh as works of art. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition, by Julius Bryant, the Guest Curator of the exhibition, will be the first study of the artist to be published since 1938.
Catalogue available from Museum shop

Links to Thomas Banks related sites