Introduction to The Exiled Collector
By Anne Sebba
On the Blandford to Wimborne road in South West England there is a long avenue of mature beech trees. Then a brown sign: Kingston Lacy. Just beyond is an impressive driveway. Take it, for it leads to an unexpectedly beautiful little Italian Renaissance Palazzo nestling in the heart of the English countryside. The house, now owned by the National Trust, is full of dreams and treasures collected by a man of extraordinary talent and tragedy, William John Bankes. Bankes planted the two and a quarter mile avenue of seven hundred and twenty six trees in memory of his mother, living proof of one man’s concern to leave his mark in this corner of the world.
William John Bankes was a traveller, archaeologist, artist and connoisseur. He was a handsome charmer blessed with a sensitive eye, a full wallet and an acquisitive nature who indulged his amateur and disorganised hobby of procuring Egyptian and European art all his adult life. But one night in 1841 Bankes, a former Member of Parliament, was caught with a guardsman in Green Park. In 1841 sodomy was a capital offence and men were still hanged for it. Bankes jumped bail and swiftly handed over his house and grounds, everything that he loved so much, and escaped into exile. The government, taking advantage of an archaic law, declared him an outlaw, which gave them the right to seize his possessions.
He settled eventually in Venice, forbidden by law from visiting the house his family had owned for generations but which had been his for a scant seven years. It was his one real – and requited – passion in life. And so he continued to embellish this house, transforming it by remote control from Italy. He bombarded his willing steward and two barely compliant brothers with constant directions. Meanwhile, he travelled all over Italy discovering stonemasons, gilders, carvers and other craftsmen, commissioning them to copy what he had already drawn for them. Sending back crate loads of alabaster, marble, stone and woodcarvings – several whole ceilings – became an obsession for him. There was too much for one house. Often the measurements were slightly out or shipments arrived with their contents smashed, causing deep anguish.
Collecting is intimately entwined with memory. The true collector acquires objects because of their excellence and beauty but also because of their power to transport to a time of real or imagined past. Most collectors take pleasure from living with their possessions, in gazing upon them, enjoying the memories they evoke. This straightforward pleasure was denied William Bankes during the fourteen years of his exile. But his ferociously sharp memory enabled him to find others. Sending consignments home along with detailed instructions of how the objects were to be arranged and displayed was his way of reminding himself of a time and place that meant so much to him. According to family myth, William evaded the law and did return occasionally, but only between the hours of sunrise and sundown on Sundays. His descendants maintained that he landed his yacht on what had once been his own property at Studland Bay and delivered to a waiting steward new treasures that he had purchased abroad. This, so the story went, he was allowed to do because of an ancient indulgence to outlaws arising from the obligation of Catholics to hear Mass on Sundays.
It is a wonderful tale. The wayward son who cannot bear to abandon the ancestral home to which he has devoted his life, takes advantage of a legal loophole to continue transforming it even when he is a fugitive from justice. It is a powerful myth too, and, if I am honest, is the silky strand of William Bankes’ life history that ensnared me most powerfully into its web some years ago. But I no longer believe the story to be entirely true. Historians insist there is no such “ancient indulgence”. More likely, it was part of the process of romanticising William in Bankes’ family history. Focusing on these courageous and exciting trips was a way of understanding, or avoiding discussion of, his homosexuality by his family. After all, the ancestor who had created this exquisite country house, even though exile, could not be ignored.
Drawn to his story, I spent many hours burrowing among the surviving family papers – most, but not all, now in Dorchester, at the County Record Office – hoping to find evidence of visits home. What I found was tantalising, as I shall show later in this book, if not the cast iron proof I had hoped for. More significantly, I slowly acquired a surer grasp of William’s personality. He had, after all, wished for his letters and numerous and scholarly memoranda on art and architecture to be preserved. This in itself was revealing since he had been amongst those who, although not directly consulted, had been in favour of the destruction of his friend Lord Byron’s memoirs shortly after the poet’s death in 1824. Occasionally he required his faithful manservant who had looked after him from before the exile, to copy laboriously by hand essays of at least twenty pages to be preserved for posterity. Other times he copied himself or else he asked for letters to be returned to him. He begged his brother George and his sister Anne to keep his papers along with important memorabilia from his ancestors. It was his family in Dorset, nervous, conservative, sensitive to their position in society, who cut, deleted, tore, burnt or in other ways removed sections of his letters they considered embarrassing or worse, criminally compromising. Particularly regrettable this, as it consigned Bankes to the footnotes of history, known, if at all, through the diaries and letters of those much closer to the centre of power. This Bankes was more at ease with objects than people. And so he appears as one on the periphery, slightly foolish at times, with little real contribution to make, often insensitive to those around him, who embroiled himself in scandals and humiliations. His failure to publish an account of his travels led contemporaries to judge him as one who had failed to achieve, his early prominence dissipated in the froth of conversation. But there is another William Bankes, one who deserves to be centre stage for the creation of a beautiful and original house, his one true passion in life.
The surviving letters and myriad memoranda reveal a man of enormous courage, determined to continue the one task that really mattered to him. He had been forced to leave England, aged 54, with this unfinished and, as an outlaw with a threatened death sentence, was alive to the myriad difficulties he would face in completing this from Italy. That he found the resources within himself after the shock and humiliation of his arrest and the serious charges placed against him, communicated to me a man far more steely and interesting than one who would simply load his own yacht with treasures “from time to time” and sail over to Dorset to install them. Constantly aware of the punishment that could be meted out to him and already suffered by other men in his situation, he did not brood but did all in his power over the next fourteen years to make his family proud, not ashamed, of him.
As I puzzled over the small, spidery handwriting in brown ink on tissue thin cream paper in one erudite essay after another, I discovered a man neither embittered nor broken by his experience of an outdated law but, arguably, strengthened by it. I found a man whose youthful confidence had frequently veered towards arrogance but who matured under the strain of banishment so that this confidence became simply a desire to leave behind a glorious artistic monument. I saw a once flamboyant man evidently attractive to women as well as to men, who allowed his obsession to collect for his house free rein as this was his life’s work but who never lost sight of what was possible. Here was a man both in touch with reality and throughout his life ready to take risks; when he knew he was mortally ill he had nothing more to lose by paying one last visit, or perhaps two, to his home. Of this I am certain and it makes for a rather different myth of William John Bankes, but one no less potent nor romantic, since his salvation came through one of the most notorious smuggling families of his day. Most of all, I discovered the pain and emotion involved in one man’s creation of a unique English Country House.