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Read an extract – The Exiled Collector

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.

Read an extract – Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother


In 1980 I moved with my husband and new baby from London to New York and settled in Brooklyn Heights . Most afternoons I walked this baby according to English habits in his push chair to gaze idly at the boats on the East River or watch the frenzied activity in the warehouses below. Sometimes we strayed further afield and strolled into Brooklyn itself, a mere block from Pineapple Street to Henry Street .

More than a hundred years earlier another mother on fine afternoons took her small children to Brooklyn Heights . They, too, fed the pigeons and watched the paddle boats, tugs and sailing skiffs on the East River . Sometimes a kind gentleman let them peer through his telescope so they could see right over the low roofs of Manhattan Island. Occasionally, just as I was to do later, they crossed by ferry steamer to Wall Street where the father, Leonard Jerome, self-made millionaire and stock speculator, had his office.

Every biographer craves something that will explain their fascination or obsession with their subject. If only I had known then that the subject of this book was born near and lived in Henry Street. Would I have written about her sooner? I hope not. I believe there is a time, after certain experiences have been digested, that feels right, that gives a writer the confidence to understand, to make connections.

Eventually this baby that I walked in Brooklyn Heights grew to be a soldier and, sent abroad, I confess as I packed up the occasional book to send him, I was conscious that another mother of a soldier had done a lot more and arranged for many more books or hampers of food to support and comfort her son in India.

Often, as I sat buried deep in the Churchill Archives in Cambridge reading the letters from the young subaltern to his newly widowed mother, my thoughts were profoundly engaged with her and her worries. As I type this introduction today I am interrupted by some breaking news: two young British soldiers have been killed in Iraq. I can barely control my own emotions as I think of her anxieties and worries for her two sons as they fought in the Boer War and the bloody battle of Spion Kop, and how she bravely agonised over her elder son Winston’s capture in South Africa. Exactly a hundred years later I am wandering over the grassy mounds of that very mountain, scene of so much destruction and brutal loss of life. How did she cope with the days and weeks of uncertainty when this precious, special son was putting himself in the path of so much danger? But, aware of the dangers of self identification with the subject of my biography, I do not pursue that further. Taking charge of a hospital ship is not in my sights. What remains is a clear appreciation of her steadfast faith in Winston’s destiny, a faith which, crucially, she passed on to him.

Jennie Jerome, an American beauty, infused the Marlborough dynasty with vigour, courage and colour. Jennie, a woman who embraced life with a passion, was an outsider, an original, who did not live by the dusty old rules of the English aristocracy. She had, according to her son Winston, not blood but the wine of life coursing through her veins. A diamond star flashed in her hair matching the sparkle everyone reported in her dark eyes. Tempestuous and quick tempered “that sudden rage, without heat, that never offends,” said one nephew [i] . Another described her as inflammable.

“How Churchillian,” the nieces and nephews took to remarking on occasions of outlandish daring in the twentieth century family. Yet in saying this they were not referring to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, a brilliant strategist in battle and clever tactician in domestic politics, nor his descendants who lived in the fabulous Blenheim Palace, given by a grateful nation to the Marlboroughs following the battle of the same name during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was Jennie, always at the centre of a throng, never alone, her warmth radiating through the room as all eyes turned to admire, they had in mind. For the most beguiling Churchill of them all was not born a Churchill.

Jennie was an explosive personality who fell passionately and instantly in love with the second son of a duke and never looked back. For a short while, Jennie and Randolph became the most brilliant, and extravagant, couple that ever advanced on London .

How that daring love fared in the course of a turbulent twenty year marriage and how it was transmitted to her elder son is, to an extent, the subject of the next 400 pages. The cult of Winston Churchill, the Greatest Briton, the determined bulldog who saved the western world from domination by Hitler has never been stronger. Yet Winston himself, it has been said, had few “Churchillian” qualities as “the Churchills were a dreadful family.” [ii] According to this admittedly partisan view expressed by his cousin, Charlie Londonderry, Winston’s genius and vitality, were both inherited directly through the female line: the former from his grandmother, a Vane-Tempest who became Duchess of Marlborough, the latter from his American mother, a Jerome. It is the women in the Churchill Family, from Sarah, the first Duchess onwards, who were the prudent housekeepers, showing the clear-eyed determination of the convert to maintain a warrior dynasty into which they have married. Among Churchill men, the most forceful was the original Sir Winston Churchill of Dorset, who died in 1688. His survival depended upon it. Churchill men have often been loathed, perhaps none more virulently than Winston’s own father, Randolph, who caused the vitriolic effluvium attributed to Gladstone: “There never was a Churchill from John of Marlborough down that had either morals or principles.” [iii]

At the same time the Anglo-American ‘special relationship,’ arguably created by the later Winston, has also never been more in evidence than it is today, in the early years of the 21 st century. If one had to pick a single achievement that altered the course of world history it would be Churchill’s success in ensuring American involvement in World War Two. The response, therefore: cherchez la femme . From Jennie, his mother, Winston learnt enough New World charm and polish to soften the rougher Churchillian edges since “a very decided brusquerie of manner is an inseparable accident of the ducal house of Churchill.” [iv] And when Jennie displayed some daring originality or eccentricity the relations would comment: “How very American. How very Jerome.” [v]

And so this book is about Jennie Jerome, who carved out a niche for herself in history and deserves to be remembered as much more than the mother of a future prime minister or the wife of a would-be prime minister. She was ambitious politically in the days before women had the vote and before wives of politicians were considered an electoral asset. Jennie all but won the seat by campaigning for her husband and promoting his interests. But she was constantly in demand in her own right long after the political platform bestrode by her husband had been removed.

Jennie, while she thrived on company, returned far more vitality than she ever derived from others. She was not one who lived life vicariously. Educated in Paris , she spoke French fluently and dressed with French chic. She galvanised American women in England at a time when they did not yet see themselves as an entity. She conceived, produced and edited a profoundly original literary magazine of the highest quality. She wrote plays and articles, devised entertainments and decorated houses as (more or less unsuccessful) ways of making money with innate style and skill. For pleasure, she rode, painted and played the piano to concert standard – although typically always preferring to play fourhanded rather than alone. And she loved.

She married three times but neither she nor any of her three husbands had enough money to fund their lifestyle and, until the end, she never managed – nor even tried – to curb her lavish tastes. Above all, she was a woman who was not afraid to fail. Women admired her but men fell in love with her – at least two hundred of them it has been said. But the one man she loved longest and unconditionally was her firstborn, child of her youthful passion and energy. And he was deeply proud of being half American. She alone, against all the odds, never doubted that one day he would scale the heights of British political life to which she believed he was uniquely fitted. She never lived to see his triumph as Prime Minister. But her zest, confidence, recklessness and spirit, as well as her extravagant tastes, she bequeathed to her son.

Writing a book, Winston Churchill once wrote to his cousin Ivor Guest, “was like living in a strange world bounded on the north by a preface and on the south by the appendix and whose natural features consist of chapters and paragraphs.” Factual books cannot be expected to win friends, he knew, “at any rate friends of the cheap and worthless everyday variety … after all, in writing, the great thing is to be honest.” [vi] In the following pages that is what I have tried to be, given the flood of material that has passed across my desk and, to mix my metaphors as Winston sometimes liked to do, the mountain that is now available just beyond my desk on the internet. I know how, merely in my selection of that material, I am inevitably biased in the way I am describing the life and aspirations of a woman I came to admire and, I hope, understand. Some days in her life – and her thoughts on those days – she has still resolutely refused to yield to this nosey investigator. And she is right so to do.


Like all biographies, the following pages are inevitably subjective. They are my interpretation of the life of Jennie Jerome and of necessity they have depended upon the material that has survived. I have found rich rewards in the Churchill Archives, where the family has deposited large collections of papers from various sources. ]

I was lucky enough to see these as “real” letters, with crossings out, corners cut off which had been kissed by the sender, or black bordered. Almost all have subsequently been transferred to microfilm, preserved for the next generation but now invested with an air of unreality. There are also “real” letters to her sisters and parents, which fate and good luck has preserved, as well as some transcribed, and occasionally edited, by her literary descendants. I have discovered other treasures in South Africa, the United States, Ireland and various parts of the United Kingdom. Inevitably, there are gaps. Yet these, too, are revealing. No letters between Jennie and Randolph in the years 1887, 1888 and 1889 exist in the Cambridge Archives. And I know that what I have seen can only be a selection of what was written over a lifetime. I started keeping a note whenever I came across an instruction to burn accompanying material. Yet obviously, posterity cannot know about those letters with an instruction that they themselves be burnt after reading. The diaries of others have been another useful source but these too, with one eye trained on the reader, cannot be considered wholly reliable.

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