...aptly titled, consistently entertaining ... Mr. Musgrave treats us to an extensive, admiring account of his subject’s circuitous route to fame and power ... A designer and historian of gardens, Mr. Musgrave appears to believe that a profusion of carefully cultivated details will yield the maximum overall effect. But with the mercurial Banks, this method doesn’t fully work. Even after more than 300 pages of fact-filled prose marked by a steady penchant for the passive voice...Sir Joseph remains a mystery ... A thoroughly public person, with few tangible traces of an inner life, Banks confused even his contemporaries. They found him to be alternately caring and callous, gentle and coarse, philanthropic and utterly self-centered. He was all these things and yet none of them.
... [an] illuminating biography ... Modern specialists dismiss [Banks] as a jack of all trades, but Musgrave’s claim that he changed our world is not an exaggeration. He helped to lay the foundation of what was to become the British Commonwealth and, at a more domestic level, he changed our gardens. The flowers that fill them are mostly not natives, but the legacy of collectors often employed and financed by Banks.
In order to cover Banks’s many subsequent occupations and interests, Musgrave abandons his chronological approach after the Iceland trip, proceeding instead thematically. This doesn’t altogether work, as many distracting cross-references in the text acknowledge. He nevertheless provides a full, clear-eyed and highly readable account of an engaging, if flawed, man who did indeed do much to shape the world.