Financial Times Magazine, 03 July 2004
When William John Bankes- scholar of ancient Egypt, Member of Parliament, art expert and travel writer- fled into exile in 1841 at the age of 54, he lost more than his homeland and his dignity. He also lost his remarkable house, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, which he had spent years embellishing and furnishing with works of art as well as planting a two-mile avenue of trees in memory of his mother. Bankes had been caught in flagrante with a young guardsman in a London park. Facing the death sentence, he took the time honoured route of Englishmen in such circumstances: grabbed his hat, jumped bail and sailed for the more understanding climate of the continent.
Anne Sebba’s fascinating book is more than the portrait of another rich gay dilettante in Venice buying up everything he can get his hands on, however: it is the portrait of an obsession- for collecting, and for a house in which to house that collection.
Although Bankes could not legally go back to Kingston Lacy, he never stopped treating it as if he lived there, or one day would again. For 15 years he travelled all over Italy issuing drawings and plans and commissions to baffled stonemasons, sculptors, gilders, frame-makers and painters . Meanwhile he bombarded his family and steward with letters containing meticulous descriptions of what was to be done with the objects when- if -they finally arrived in Dorset.
Sebba illuminates this bizarre but brilliant project by bringing Bankes out of the footnotes to which history consigned him and back to life. His house still stands: his collection is in it.