Wednesday - 23 July 2014

The bad boy of obsessive collecting

29 June 2004Written by ATG Reporter

The Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House by Anne Sebba, published by John Murray. ISBN 0719563283 £22.50hb.

THE National Trust's bland website description of Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne Minster in Dorset, gives no indication of the scandals, intrigue, spoiled boy storyline and everlasting sadness that are a legacy of one of the members of the Bankes family, owners of Kingston Lacy for 300 years. The NT's leaden prose states that the house contains "... the outstanding collection of paintings and other works of art accumulated by William Bankes. It is famous for its dramatic Spanish Room, with walls hung in magnificent gilded leather, and a collection of Egyptian artefacts... working estate... rich diversity of flora and fauna... Iron Age hill-fort of Badbury Rings" . No hint there then of a man whose life was ruined by sexual misdemeanour, who was hounded out of England and lived in exile, largely in Venice, and whose one passion was his obsessive collecting for the house he no longer owned. 

William John Bankes was the son and heir of wealthy landowner Henry Bankes, who represented the family seat in Parliament for 50 years and was "... one of the most respected backbenchers in the Commons". William was a different story. 

Educated at Wesminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was part of a crowd given to lavish expenditure and eccentric behaviour. It was at Cambridge that William met Byron, who said of him: "He was the father of all mischiefs."

"A rattling, grinning, fellow," Bankes was proud, arrogant, patronising, fluent in Italian, a fine classicist - but he had a dangerous temper, a penchant for risk and a total lack of self-restraint. In 1810 he joined his father in Parliament, representing variously Truro, Cambridge University, Marlborough and Dorset. From 1812 onwards, William travelled the world on the Grand Tour and from 1815 to 1819 he had a particular passion for Egypt and Nubia, wandering around in Oriental dress recording ancient sites and monuments and amassing a vast amount of notes, plans and drawings (including 1500 of Egypt) now on display at Kingston Lacy. He also bought or rifled Egyptian tombs for artefacts, his most spectacular prize being a massive obelisk discovered at Philae which he later had erected at Kingston Lacy.

Bad boy Bankes then played a dangerous game; firstly having an affair with a married woman, quickly followed by a libel case. His first brush with the law came in 1833 when he and Thomas Flowers, a guardsman, were arrested on suspicion of "attempting to commit an unnatural offence" being found loitering in a public convenience situated in Westminster. At the trial, a phalanx of peers and MPs testifed to Bankes' good character and as the evidence was largely circumstantial the two men were acquitted. The case, however, damaged Bankes and he retired from Parliament in 1834.

When his father died later that year, William started to live out his fantasy - to transform his ancestral home into a monument to past and future Bankeses. Just when William's opinion was being sought on artistic matters of national importance, he was arrested again in 1841. By now 55, the master of Kingston Lacy, "being a person of wicked, lewd, filthy and unnatural mind and disposition", was caught indecently exposing himself to another guardsman, this time in Green Park. Bankes gave a false name to the police and was indicted on five counts; he then panicked and begged for his real name to be suppressed. The law fell heavily on him and he was advised to flee before the trial as sodomy was still a capital offence and a hanging matter. It was an unlikely possibility that if Bankes did not stand trial the Treasury could take steps to declare him an outlaw and that all the property he possessed could be appropriated by the state. But that was exactly what happened. From September 14, 1841 William retained no interest, legal or equitable, in Kingston Lacy, the house to which he had devoted his adult life, and thus he assigned all his estates and chattels to his brothers George and Edward. 

Based in Venice and after five years in exile, Bankes, the obsessive collector, was ready to start sending his first cargo of art treasures home - there would be a dozen altogether - including many pieces of rare marble, Portland stone, Egyptian granite, carved oak panels, pieces of scrolling in oak and paintings acquired for decorative purposes, especially ceilings. In the end, William's buying habits had become a compulsion and hundreds of pieces languished unatttended and hidden at Kingston Lacy, an embarrassing reminder of an exiled collector who visited his childhood home in secret just once more, near the end of his life. 

This is a cracking and detailed tale of a story that the National Trust would not appear to relish. Why don't they publish books like this themselves?

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Written by

ATG Reporter

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