By Lucasta Miller, Weekend Telegraph, 10 July 2004
‘ I have heard of Purse=pride and birth=pride and now we have place=pride,’ wrote Byron in 1811 of his Cambridge friend, William Bankes. Even before he had taken possession of his family seat, Kingston Lacy, the young Bankes was passionate about its decoration, trawling the shops of Leicester Square for carved wooden bedheads and other fashionable gothic furnishings. Yet the great irony about this obsessive collector was that he would spend the last years of his life in exile, forbidden by law from visiting the home he loved after he was caught in flagrante with a guardsman in Green Park.
Bankes was born in 1786 , scion of a Dorset family whose forebears included the redoubtable Mary Bankes, who held Corfe Castle against besieging roundheads during the Civil War. Caring parents had given him a happy childhood – apart from his years in the piranha pool of Westminster School and he went up to Trinity in a spirit more of hedonism than ambition. Fitting up his rooms in the manner of a Roman Catholic chapel complete with choristers – “what the devil does Mr Bankes do with those singing boys,” asked a contemporary- campness seems to have been in his sensibility even then.
Nonetheless there was nothing effete about the swashbuckling way in which he approached the next stage of his life, a version of the grand tour that went impressively further than might have been expected of the average aristocratic youth. Travels in Spain- from which he took home spoils of the recent Peninsular war including some splendid Murillos – were followed by explorations in Egypt and the Levant where he disguised himself as an Albanian, drank the local tipple Booza, fell in with the extraordinary Italian adventurer and Muslim convert, Giovanni Finati and fell out with Lady Hester Stanhope. Bankes also transformed himself into a serious Egyptologist making pioneering discoveries and sending home the rather unweildy souvenir of a huge granite obelisk, which was eventually erected on the lawn at Kingston Lacy.
Back in England, Bankes’s career in politics – he sat twice as a Tory MP, more out of noblesse oblige than personal ambition, was less distinguished than that of his high-minded father. He was clearly a better raconteur than orator ( the verdict of a fellow MP on his maiden speech:” ranting, whining, bad actor in a barn speaking a full tragedy part mixed up with the drawls and twangs of a Methodist preacher.”) It was in 1833 during his second period in Parliamnet that he was first arrested in suspicious circumstancesin a public lavatory with a certain Private Flowers. On that occasion he was acquitted owing partly to the roster of VIPs he called as character withnesses ( the Duke of Wellington for example recalled in defence that when Bankes was robbed of his watch in Madrid he made “so manly a resistance that I gave him one of mine.”)
After the embarrassment of this escapade, Bankes retired from public life. With the death of his father, he was then master of Kingston Lacy and began to turn his mind and money to remodelling it with the help of the earchitect Charles Barry, adding for example a luxuriant staircase of Carrara Marble. His reputation as an arbiter of tastebecame such that in 1841 his opinion was sought on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament. But then disaster struck- he was daught in the act of indecently exposing himself which led to his being outlawed after fleeing to the continent on his lawyer’s advice. At that time sodomy was still a capital offence.
His property was settled on his brothers to avoid it being sequestered by the state and Bankes settled in Venice. from where he continued to collect. commission and design beautiful objects to send back to the house he was forbidden to see again . Family legend has it that he did indeed make one such journey, possibly with the help of local smugglers , before his death in 1855. This is the first biography of William Bankes and it shows that his story- poignant and colourful by turns – well deserves to be told.