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.


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