An important and rare set of twelve George III Australian red cedar collector's cabinets
Lot 591W
An important and rare set of twelve George III Australian red cedar collector's cabinets
Sold for AU$ 300,000 (US$ 227,081) inc. premium

The Owston Collection

25 Jun 2010, 10:30 EST


Lot Details
An important and rare set of twelve George III Australian red cedar collector's cabinets An important and rare set of twelve George III Australian red cedar collector's cabinets
An important and rare set of twelve George III Australian red cedar collector's cabinets
each enclosed by a pair of doors veneered in finely figured timber and with cut corner bandings in Australian rosewood within narrow ebony stringing, the spandrels inlaid with star motifs in ebony and lightwood, each interior fitted with five glass-top specimen drawers with numerical index stamps, lacquered brass D-handles and apparently contemporary index card frames,the doors locking top and bottom with a single full length lock, the cabinets now mounted in pairs in six cedar cases above a matching pair of cabinets enclosing shelves, the whole flanked by reeded canted corners, the Banks cabinets with paper label to top, 'Geological Department', one door replaced, 57cm wide, 40cm deep, 57cm high (22in wide, 15.5in deep, 22in high). the cabinets overall: 129cm wide x 45cm deep x 134cm high (50.75" wide, 17.75" deep, 52.75" high). (12)


  • Provenance:

    Sir Joseph Banks, 1st Baronet, GCB, PRS (1743-1820) to house his geological specimens in his Library and Herbarium at 32 Soho Square, London circa 1785-90, thence by descent to
    Robert Brown FRS (1773-1858), who was bequeathed Banks' Library and Herbarium.

    Gifted by Robert Brown to the British Museum, Great Russell St, London, in 1827. The British Museum separated the collection on the formation of the British Museum (Natural History), South Kensington in 1887, (now known as the Natural History Museum).

    Sold Christie's, South Kensington, Furniture, Wednesday May 9th, 1984, on behalf of The British Museum (Natural History) in separate consecutive lots 55-60.

    Purchased by the current owner from J B Hawkins Antiques, Sydney, 23rd May 1984.


    Sir Joseph Banks' biographer Mr H. B. Carter documented these specific cabinets in a letter dated 5th July 1984:

    'The 12 Banks cubes were sold by the British Museum (Natural History) at Christie's, South Kensington. The Banksian Archive at the Natural History Museum retain two of the least damaged specimens of these cubes as they were kept back by the Museum & are now in the Rare Books Room of the General Library owing to the efforts of Maldwyn Rowlands Chief Librarian at the Museum & myself [H. B. Carter - writer] from possible destruction by the Department of the Environment when they had been emptied of fossil specimens during the change to new quarters of part of the Department of Palaeontology...If the cubes were made later than 1776 then they certainly belong to the period of Banks' occupancy of No.14 New Burlington Street (1767-1777) & from which he moved over the summer of 1777 to No.32 Soho Square. I would think it is highly probable that they were made after his return from the Endeavour voyage in 1771, most likely in the years 1773-1776 when the regime at New Burlington Street had stabilised after his return from the Iceland voyage in December 1772. After the move to Soho Square in 1777 & the advent of Jonas Dryander in July that year as a working associate of Banks the back premises fronting onto Dean Street became the home of the Library & the Herbarium until after Banks's death when Robert Brown inherited their use & converted the stables under the Library into his own domestic accommodation. The Banksian Cubes which are now part of the General Herbarium at the Natural History Museum & established the storage system there are slightly larger than your pieces & of course differ in the detail of their accommodation for the mounted plant specimens. Who made them & when I have not yet been able to determine & for neither of these types have I found any documentary details. I shall figure both types as illustrations in my biography as also the cabinet for the insect & shell collection which passed to the Linnean Society in 1805 & eventually came to rest in the Department of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge'.

    In an earlier reference one of the Banks' cabinets is discussed in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, dated April 1st 1914, titled 'Gift to the Gardens';

    'A natural history cabinet formerly the property of Sir Joseph Banks has been presented to the Museum & Herbarium of the Botanical Garden. The gift has been made through the kindness of the trustees of the British Museum (National History), London, who were moved by Dr.L.Fletcher, M.A., F.R.S the director, and who in his turn was approached by professor Liversidge, LL.D., F.R.S., for many years Professor of chemistry in the Sydney University'.

    The cabinet is 1ft 10 1/4in square in the front with a depth of 1ft 3 5/8 in. It has five sliding drawers, the tops of each being enclosed in glass, framed. The drawers are secured by two doors, which are fastened by two bolts worked by one turn of a key.

    The greater portion of the cabinet consists of New South Wales cedar, the two panels being veneered with a beautiful piece of root cedar, surrounded by a narrow strip of ebony, with stars inlaid at the corners, composed of plane tree wood and ebony. The frames of the glass are made of New South Wales rosewood. The frames of the doors and the fronts of the drawers are composed of a harder wood, which J.H.Malden, the director of the Botanic Gardens, has not yet been able to identify.

    The cabinet is one of a number constructed for Sir Joseph Banks for the museum in his dwelling house in Soho-square, London and passed to the nation by bequest on his death in 1820.

    It is well known from various sources that the first products of the vegetable, animal and mineral kingdoms (such were the phrase) were forwarded from New South Wales to Sir Joseph Banks, who had reports prepared from the scientific and economic points of view.

    This cabinet bears no date, but it is not difficult to imagine two things-first, that the wood of which it is composed was one of the early products of the forests of the Hawkesbury River, or of the Coal River (afterwards known as the Hunter River) and secondly that Sir Joseph Banks kept within it Australian botanical, zoological or geological specimens, or all three. But there is no doubt whatever that this cabinet and its contents were often handled by Sir Joseph Banks, who was interested in Australia to a remarkable extent in the early years of settlement'.

    Sir Joseph Banks 1743-1820

    Sir Joseph Banks was an English naturalist, botanist and patron of the sciences. He took part in Captain James Cook's first great voyage, on the Endeavour (1769-1771) and is credited with introducing a vast variety of plants to Europe, such as eucalyptus, acacia and mimosa, with the genus Banksia being named after him. The expedition circumnavigated the globe and visited South America, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Java. He was a member and secretary of the Society of Dilettanti (1778-1797) and was the leading founder of the African Association. He also became an informal adviser to King George III at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. When the Endeavour set sail there were only 600 species at Kew, by 1813 it had 11,000 species, mostly collected by botanists encouraged and supported by Banks.

    On 30th November 1778 Banks was elected as President of the Royal Society, a position which he held for forty one years. He was made a baronet in 1781 and in 1795 received the order of Knights Commander of the order of the Bath. Two years later he was admitted to the Privy Council. In 1793, his name was given to the Banks Islands, a volcanic group of islands near Vanuatu in the Pacific.

    Banks had a privileged upbringing, his father; William was a wealthy Lincolnshire squire and a member of the House of Commons. Joseph was educated at Harrow and Eton and in 1760 was enrolled as a gentleman-commoner at Oxford University, where he hired a botany tutor for himself and his friends. At the age of 21 he inherited the large estate of Revesby, Lincolnshire and became the local squire and magistrate. While based at his mother's Chelsea home he attended the Chelsea Physic Garden of the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries and the British Museum, where he acquired many influential friends and acquaintances.

    The Banks Library and Herbarium

    In 1766 Banks was elected to the Royal Society whilst on a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador to collect specimens from Eastern America. On his return in 1767 he acquired a house at 14 New Burlington Street to house his growing library of natural history specimens. He wanted his collection to become a 'Museum of the South Seas', with a desire to opening similar displays at the British Museum.

    A letter by the Rev.W.Sheffield, Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, to Rev. Gilbert White in 1789 records Banks' collection at his New Burlington Street address:

    '... it would be absurd to attempt a particular description of what I saw there; it would be attempting to describe within a compass of a letter what can only be done in several folio volumes. His house is a perfect museum; every room contains an inestimable treasure. I passed almost a whole day there in the utmost astonishment, could scarce credit my senses... I will endeavour to give you a general catalogue of three large rooms. First the Armoury; this room contains all the warlike instruments, mechanical instruments and utensils of every kind, made use of by the Indians in the South Seas from Terra del Fuego to the Indian Ocean...It may be observed here that the Indians in the South Seas were entire strangers to the use of iron...nor did our adventurer find the natives of this part of the globe possessed of any species of wealth which would tempt the polite Europeans to cut their throats and rob them. The second room contains the different habits and ornaments of the several Indian nations they discovered, together with the raw materials of which they are manufactured...Here is likewise a large collection of insects, several fine specimens of the bread and other fruits preserved in spirits; together with a compleat hortus siccus of all the plants collected in the course of the voyage. The number of plants is about 3000, 110 of which are new genera, and 1300 new species which were never seen or heard of before in Europe. What raptures must they have felt to land upon countries whether everything was new to them! Whole forests of nondescript trees clothed with the most beautiful flowers and foliage, and these too inhabited by several curious species of birds equally strangers to them. I could be extravagant upon this topic; but it is time to pay our compliments to the third apartment. This room contains an almost numberless collection of animals; quadrupeds, birds, fish, amphibian, reptiles, insects and vermes, preserved in spirits, most of them new and nondescript...Add to these the choicest collections of drawings in Natural History that perhaps enriched any cabinet, public or private...987 plants drawer and coloured by Parkinson; and 1300 and 1400 more drawn with each of them a flower, a leaf, and a portion of the stalk, coloured by the same hand; besides a number of other drawings of animals, birds, fish, etc. And what is more extraordinary still, all the new genera and species contained in this vast collection are accurately described, the descriptions fairly transcribed and fit to be put to the press. Thus I have endeavoured to give you an imperfect sketch of what I saw in New Burlington Street....'

    Banks was appointed to join a scientific expedition to the South Pacific on the Endeavour (1768-1771). Whilst in Australia, Banks, the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander and the Finnish botanist Dr.Herman Sporing Jr. made the first collection of Australian flora with Banks returning to England in 1771. He then withdrew, at the last minute, an opportunity to sail on Captain Cook's second voyage to the Pacific. However, Banks organised his own expedition to Iceland in 1772, which was a modest success. On his return he began work on his Florilegium and started organizing his collections, which were catalogued between 1796 and 1802.

    Banks at 32 Soho Square and The Banks Cabinet-maker

    In March 1777 Banks married Dorothea Hugesson and moved to a large house at 32 Soho Square, London, which became a centre of scientific activities. He developed his great library and natural history collections at the back of the premises, overlooking Dean Street, with the help of a succession of librarians, firstly Daniel Solander, Jonas Carlsson Dryander and finally Robert Brown. There is little evidence to show that Banks redecorated 32 Soho Square after purchasing it from Sir George Colebrooke, but there are some surviving accounts for his household for the years 1785-1790, which are now in the Sutro Library, San Francisco. There are a number of references to money paid to various building tradesmen for repairs to the house, with much larger bills for 1785 larger than other years, so may relate to the work on the library buildings at the rear of the property.

    Banks' method of mounting and storing in cabinets was at the time innovative and since has become a standard model for museum collections. It seems logical to assume that the cubes were made by a well known cabinet maker, who could undertake the specifications of a large commission from an influential patron.

    Unpublished information has come to light in documents in the collection of the Sutro Library, uncovering an interesting set of accounts paid to the Swedish cabinet maker Christopher Fuhrlong, for the years 1785 to 1789 for work carried out at 32 Soho Square. Although no specific cabinet work is mentioned, the summary of yearly expenses total a substantial amount. This could be for Sir Joseph Banks' personal furniture, perhaps following the style that Furhlong is usually associated with, neo-classical forms with high quality inlay work, rather than the restrained specimen cabinets which would have been constructed around this time, this is open to speculation. The accounts are itemised as follows:

    HE 1:1 "Soho Square Expences [sic] 1785"; sheet headed "Furniture": "Paid C. Fuhrlong for Cabinet Makers Work 40.1.6"

    HE 1:2: "Soho Square Expences [sic] 1786; sheet headed "Furniture": "Paid Christopher Fuhrlong for Cabinet Work 20.2.-."

    HE 1:4: "Soho Square Expences [sic] 1788"; sheet headed "Furniture": "Paid Christ.[superscript r] Fuhrlong for Cabinet makers work --.12.--";

    Christopher Furhlong (b. circa.1740-d.after 1787), is listed in G.Beard & C. Gilbert Dictionary of English Furniture Makers 1660-1840, pp. 323-325, he was brother-in-law to Georg Haupt and both probably trained in the Parisien workshop of Simon Oeben. Furhlong was an accomplished inlayer and his clients included the Prince of Wales, at Windsor Castle and Lord Howard at Audley End. He was employed by the Dilettanti Society (of which Banks was a member) between 1780-83. Furhlong was previously last recorded in 1787, when he held a stock-in-trade sale at his Gerard St premises and in the same year moved to 12 Gt Russell St, interestingly there is no mention of Furhlong in the Sutro accounts for 1787. His last trade card is headed by the Prince of Wales' feathers and inscribed, 'C.Furhlong Cabinet-maker, Inlayer and Ebeniste to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, No. 12 Great Russell Street, Bloomsbury, Makes and sells all kinds of Inlaid work, executes all Orders in the Upholstery Cabinet-branches in the most modern taste with punctuality and dispatch on the lowest terms.'

    Banks is recorded as having been 'acquainted with a cabinetmaker of some standing', which could well mean Christopher Fuhrlong, but Susan Stuart in Gillows of Lancaster and London 1730-1840, Vol II, p.142-143 speculates that this anonymous cabinetmaker could have been one of the partner's of the firm of Gillows, either in London or Lancaster. Reference is made in her 'Glossary of Woods used by Gillows of Lancaster 1750-1850' (Ibid. p 139), that Gillows were amongst the first British cabinetmakers to use Casuarina glauca, otherwise known as botany bay wood, beef wood or Australian She-Oak. See also John Hawkins' articles for Australian Antique Collector, part 1 January-June 1983, part 2 July-December 1983, part 3 January-June 1984. Interestingly Susan Stuart also mentions Gillows using kangaroo wood, as used in the specimen work-box made by the firm for Miss Giffard of Nerquis in 1808, (Ibid. plate 684) and suggests a connection between the Gillow firm and the first import of indigenous Australian timbers.

    The first mention of Australian red cedar occurs in the Historical Records of Australia, published 1914-1925 by the Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, Vol I, p.412. This was a published record of the writings of the deputy-judge advocate and lieutenant-governor, David Collins, (1756-1810), who stated that the Master of the Ship 'Fancy', a Captain Dell took to England logs of Red Cedar from the Hawkesbury River in 1795. It is therefore possible that the timber used in the Banks cabinets did perhaps come back to England with Banks in 1771. The decision to utilise newly discovered Australian timbers may well be the first use in English cabinetmaking, fully complimenting the exciting new specimens contained within them.

    The Bequest of the Banks Library and Herbarium

    Sir Joseph Banks died at his house at Heston in June 1820, leaving to his 'indefatigable and intelligent Librarian Robert Brown Esquire... the use and enjoyments during his life of my Library Herbarium, Manuscripts, Drawings, Copper plates, Engravings and everything else that is contained in my Collections usually kept in the back buildings of my house in Kings otherwise Soho Square and fronting on Dean Street... upon this express Condition that he continues to use my Library as his Chief Place of Study in the same manner as he now does and that he assists the Superintendent of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as he also now does and continues to reside in London and does not undertake any new charge that may occupy his time'.

    Robert Brown (1773-1858)

    Robert Brown was a Scottish botanist who made important contributions to botany through his pioneering use of the microscope. In 1800 Banks wrote to Brown to offer him the position of naturalist to an expedition to New South Wales to determine whether New Holland was one or several islands. Brown accepted and then spent time studying Bank's plants in preparation for the journey. On his return he published various papers and species descriptions. In 1810 he published the first systematic account of Australian flora and in the same year he succeeded Dryander as Banks' librarian.

    On Brown's death the collections were to pass to the British Museum, or under Banks' instructions he may even surrender the collections to the British Museum during his lifetime, which in reality was to happen. On Lady Banks' death the lease of Soho Square passed to Brown, where he retained the back part of the house, in 1822 he leased the main part of the house to the Linnean Society, of which he became president in 1849-53.

    Brown died in 1858 at 32 Soho Square, but presented Banks' books and specimens to the British Museum in 1827, he became the first Keeper of the Botanical Department in 1837, after the Natural History Department of the British Museum was divided into three sections.

Saleroom notices

  • Please note: Subsequent to the preparation of the catalogue we have commissioned a microscopic analysis of the timbers used in the construction of these cabinets. This contradicts the original identification by J.H. Malden, Director of the Botanic Gardens and Herbarium,Sydney in 1914. The timbers used in the construction have been identified as mahogany (Swietenia sp.) for the carcasework and flame veneered fronts together with gonzalo alves (Astronia sp.) for the crossbanding. A copy of this report dated 31st May 2010 by Know your wood,Victoria,Australia is available on request.
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