Reviews – The Exiled Collector

When William John Bankes began to travel at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the rest of the world was poor. Thus the Englishman could get by on very little and put his learning, and especially his Protestant arrogance, to good use. Whilst at Cambridge, where he encouraged choristers in certain rituals (or so it was said), and when not corrupting Byron, Bankes became well grounded in the Classics. After Cambridge, everyone travelled. War tourism was fashionable and Bankes headed for the Iberian Peninsula. Wellington, a friend of the family, found him well motivated and tenacious. He then moved on, shopping for trinkets in a zigzag through Europe, to the Balkans, Asia Minor and Egypt.

IN 1815 Bankes was little more than an informed tourist. Within five years he was recognised as a leader of the celebrated school of English amateur explorers. He then became a precise epigrapher; his recordings of hieroglyphics in Egypt were sophisticated for the time. Henry Salt, then the British Consul in Cairo and himself a good Egyptologist, thought Bankes gifted and a scholar “possessing a fund of anecdote and good humour.”

Bankes was also brave, or foolish, or, when he needed to be, both.He penetrated further into the desert than most Europeans to sketch and record the stone cuttings of tombs and monuments and was only the second European to visit Abu Simbel (Jean-Louis Burckhardt, who developed enormous regard for Bankes, had been the first and had discovered the temples of Rameses 11).

Christopher Lee, ‘ONE MAN’S MUSEUM’, LITERARY REVIEW, July 2004
read full review

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.

Financial Times Magazine, 03 July 2004

read full review


August is officially Big House Month. Here’s a torrid tale of an exiled sodomite and his Dorset pile, Kingston Lacy.


This is the first biography of William Bankes and it shows that his story – poignant and colourful by turns- well deserves to be told.

Lucasta Miller, Weekend Telegraph, July 19 2004

read full review

Anne Sebba has done her research. (The 1972 entry in Who Was Who in Egyptology, for example, omits the indecencies and does not even provide the year of Bankes’s birth. Now we have it to the day.) She skilfully threads together the strands of a versatile career: travels, antiquarianism, connoisseurship, public service and private dicing with disgrace. The long process of designing and furnishing a stately home is described with sensititivity and a sense of pace.

Bankes has long been a footnote to a variety of fields. Thanks to this book he is at last the subject of his own text.

John Ray, Reader in Egyptology Cambridge University,

Times Higher Education Supplement April 8 2005

Good books should always whet the appetite, and leave you a
little hungry for more. My appetite has certainly been whetted. A terrific
tale, well told.
Neil McKenna Amazon Five Star Review July 2004

read full review


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.
Frances Spalding, Meet Mr Makeover, Daily Mail July 30 2004

Read full review

Anne Sebba tells this tale of talent and tragedy with great aplomb, producing in the process a wonderful hybrid of a book that is part biography, part tear-jerker, part lesson in art and architectural history, and part exquisite guide book to what is now one of the finest properties in the National Trust’s portfolio. She even manages to weave in some insights into the psychological make-up of the great collector of artefacts, contrasting Bankes’ need for emotional support in an unfriendly world with the motivation of history’s other hoarders.

Peter Stanford, Pursuit of Beauty by Remote Control, Independent on Sunday, August 15 2004
Read full review

Comments are closed.