By Frances Spalding, Daily Mail, 30 July 2004
The portrait on the cover of this book is that of a sensualist. William Bankes, who had reddish gold hair, pale skin dark eyes and a rosebud mouth, was by all accounts a charmer. He was also a prodigious traveller who rattled with good talk.
Dinner parties began and ended with his conversation. ‘His voice’ a fellow aristocrat noted, ‘is painfully unpleasant but he is full of knowledge and originality.’ When he visited his friend Byron in Venice, the two men, gossipy and erudite, happily roamed the city together. The character uncovered in this brisk, authoritative and readily engaging book invites both admiration and pity. Bankes’ great achievement was Kingston Lacy in Dorset, the ancestral home he inherited n 1834 after the death of his father. Henry Bankes, a longstanding Tory MP who had directed government expenditure on the Napoleonic Wars.Few of the extensions and improvements done to the house in Henry’s day had met with his son’s approval. Once he came into his inheritance, William with his sensitive eye and full wallet, embarked on numerous alterations. He had already amassed a rare collection of Egyptian and European art. But in order to house it, Kingston Lacy had to become an Italian Palazzo.
To this end, Bankes imported cratftsmanship of the highest order. One gilt and coffered ceiling came from a Venetian Palace. His marble staircase he claimed had no equal in England and scarcely could be bettered in Italy. And so it continued as he lavished enormous attention on every detail.
But in the midst of this great project just at a time when he had become widely regarded as an arbiter of taste (and had even been invited to advise a Select Committee on the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament) Bankes was arrested for “homosexusalism”.
It was not the first time. Eight years previously he had been caught in a public convenience with a Coldstream Guardsmen. Because he was then an MP news of his arrest spread fast and 2,000 strong mob howling for justice gathered outside the police station where he was being held.
Sodomy was at that time a capital offence. The same year, 1833, a Captain Henry Nicholls had been hanged for it, while his companion, threatened with a similar conviction had committed suicide.
If good testimonials were obtained it was usual for a gentleman to be acquitted on his first charge of meeting together for unnatural purposes. Bankes was duly found not guilty.
But when eight years later, aged 55, he was caught in Green Park with a soldier from the foot guards he was in danger of losing his life. Anne Sebba is marvellously sure footed in her grasp of this tale. She has previously written biographies of a writer, a saint and a businesswoman – Enid Bagnold, Mother Teresa and Laura Ashley. Her journalistic skills enable her to extract information in a way that is both lively and illuminating.
Bankes’ antiquarian enthusiasm and legal problems are made transparently clear in this absorbing account of a most unusual life, the last part of which was spent in exile as an outlaw.
Before fleeing the country, Bankes went to see the family solicitor. He learnt that if the treasury outlawed him all the property he possessed in Britain would become forfeit to the crown.
He therefore followed legal advice and assigned to his two brothers and a nephew all that he owned, including the freehold and leaseholds of his estate Kingston lacy on which he had devoted the greater part of his career was no longer his.
But it remained his consuming passion. For the last fifteen years of his life he lived mostly in Venice searching out the best craftsmen and the finest materials.
Crateloads of marble were sent home as well as lengthy instructions as to how doorways were to be fitted or leather wall coverings treated.
He dwelt on the relationship between the house and the garden and advised on the planting, requesting that the border below the terrace be filled with violets. “Any flower that rises higher above the ground will distort the architecture, ” he wrote. It has been assumed that he never saw the house again for had he returned to England he would have been swiftly arrested.
But Sebba has found evidence which, though slight, makes it probable that he crossed the channel, landed one night on the beach where he had played as a boy and was hastily transported to Kingston Lacy for a quick inspection.
What remains certain is that the house still boasts his dream of beauty. It continued to belong to the Bankes family until 1981 when it was bequeathed to the National Trust.
Five years later it opened to the public. For many visitors it is the staircase and the Golden Room or Spanish Room which best convey the richness which, in Bankes’ opinion, was the touchstone of decorative success.