Pursuit of Beauty by Remote Control

Review by Peter Stanford, Independent on Sunday, August 15 2004

We are a society addicted to home improvements. With a sheet of MDF and a few relics rescued from the back of the garage, we have all been encouraged to believe by Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen and his acolytes that we can create our own Petit Trianon in Penge. William Bankes worked on a larger scale, but essentially shared the same dream.

Even before the death at 21 in 1806 of his elder brother, Henry, Bankes had been planning a makeover for Kingston Lacy, the family seat in Dorset. But as son and heir to the estate – as well as to Soughton Hall, a slice of north Wales owned by a great uncle – he quickly developed his own grand designs for changing both rooms and facades.

However, his remorseless pursuit of an eclectic artistic and architectural vision was interrupted by a moment of madness with a guardsman in some bushes in London¹s Green Park in 1841. Gay sex at that time carried the death penalty and Bankes was forced to flee into exile, pursued by a vindictive (Tory) government which declared him an outlaw and forced him to sign over all his properties to a younger brother to prevent them being seized by the state. For the last 15 years of his life, living in Venice, Bankes had to complete the rebuilding of Kingston Lacy by remote control, never seeing with his own eyes the achievement of his vision.

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 Bankes¹s need for emotional support in an unfriendly world¹ with the motivation of history¹s other hoarders.

She is helped enormously by her subject¹s knack for rubbing shoulders with a succession of figures who have enjoyed a more enduring fame. Looming largest in Bankes¹ life was Lord Byron. They were close as students at Cambridge where their relationship caused such jealousy among Byron’s circle that they accused Bankes of attaching himself to Byron’s coronet. There was certainly an on-going rivalry between the two men, one flamboyant, the other arrogant, but both single-minded. Yet there was also an enduring friendship and respect. They both proposed simultaneously to the same woman – Annabella Milbanke. She said yes – disastrously – to Byron and no to Bankes who she rightly suspected as being half-hearted in his suit.

Sebba shows her mettle as a biographer (her previous subjects have included Enid Bagnold, Laura Ashley and Mother Teresa) by her handling of Bankes¹ sexuality. It would have been all too easy to make him a gay martyr and use the appalling nineteenth century prejudice he suffered as a stick to beat those who today still believe homophobia has any place in a civilized society. But that would have unbalanced the text. Equally she could have indulged the habitual prurience of contemporary readers with speculation about what exactly went on in the bushes in Green Park – or in the toilets behind Saint Margaret¹s Church, Westminster, where in 1833 Bankes was arrested with another soldier, but on that occasion eventually acquitted.

Instead Sebba conveys the facts, the context and the consequences with a benign detachment. Bankes, she shows, was bisexual. As well as his failed proposal to Annabella, he had a notorious affair with the Countess of Buckinghamshire. And Sebba is not afraid to explore ideas that for some might seem politically incorrect – like the suggestion that an artistic temperament and sexual orientation could be linked.

But this is absolutely not a psychologically intense portrait. Rather it hugely enjoys the wonderful detail of Bankes¹ life – his youthful shopping sprees in Spain buying Zurbarans, Murillos and Velasquezes for what became the ornate Spanish Picture Room as Kingston Lacy; his pioneering role in nineteenth century Egyptology and his jaunts around the Near East where he clashed with another formidable traveller, Lady Hester Stanhope; and his largely failed and often comical attempts as an MP to make a name for himself as an orator on the floor of the Commons.

His monument, however, is Kingston Lacy, preserved in aspic by successive generations of the Bankes family before being handed with its contents to the National Trust in 1981. The story of his work with Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, to revive earlier plans that Inigo Jones had drawn up for the property is fascinating. In later years he would send off from Venice plans and drawings for a house he hadn¹t seen in years (and didn’t own) but over which he insisted on maintaining the most exacting control.

You end up yearning for there to be a happy ending. There were, Sebba recounts, local stories that he used to sail into Studland Bay at night and wander round his house, leaving before morning, but try as she might she cannot make them stand up to historical scrutiny. Perhaps we just have to let our imagination run away with us. That was after all the genius of William Bankes.

Meet Mr Makeover

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.

A Terrific Tale Well Told

By Neil McKenna, Amazon, July 2004, Customer Reviews

If anything, the title of Anne Sebba’s new book is a little misleading.The Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House only suggests part of a much richer and more facsinating life. The exile in question happened in 1841 after Bankes was caught in compromising circumstances with a guardsman in London’s Green Park. Bankes fled to Europe fearing for his life and spent the next fourteen years based in Venice buying works of arts and architectural embellishments for his family seat, Kingston Lacy in Dorset, running the house by remote control. The house still exists and is under the care of the National Trust.

But as Anne Sebba reveals in this entertaining and readable biography, there were many sides to William Bankes: he was a friend and contemporary of Lord Byron; a friend of the Duke of Wellington; an explorer, a traveller and an egyptologist. He was a self-taught connoisseur, travelling through war-torn Spain cannily buying paintings by Spanish artists. He was also a lover of men. Anne Sebba’s portrait of Bankes is vivid and immediate, and mercifully unencumbered by the dead hand of dry scholarship. 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.


A Tale of Gothic Sadness

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.


Financial Times Magazine about The exiled collector

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.