One man’s museum

By Christopher Lee, LITERARY REVIEW, July 2004

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).

For seven years, Bankes roamed ruins and monuments, many of them never seen before by Western eyes. He met (and fell out with) Hester Stanhope, was swindled  by the wretched James Silk Buckingham and was adored by Giovanni Finati, whose own celebrated writings on discovery were based on Bankes’s work – with  the latter’s approval.

Bankes returned to England and was the talk of London. The obelisk he had sent to Kingston Lacy, his house in Dorset, was far more important an artefact than Cleopatra’s Needle, which arrived in this country much later. So what went wrong?

A dalliance with a guardsman in Green Park in 1841 exposed him as a sodomite (which at the time was  a hanging offence.) As a result he went into self-imposed exile.

Arriving in Venice,  Bankes became a celebrated patron of stonecutters, copyists, marblers, masons and painters. He had whole ceilings sent to Kingston Lacy. Huge carvings arrived. Stewards had strict instructions as to where everything should be installed  how every room shoul be alteresd how every wall should be removed and set elsewhere. He knew what he wanted the house to look like outside and in. However, he was abroad and outlawed so all this was done from memory with the most detailed  drawings imaginable, he effected a complete makeover of the family seat although he could never return to live there.

This is a rich biography of a complex figure whose family owned  Dorset from Portland to the lower slopes of the Cranborne Chase. The writing sparkles because Anne Sebba has seen the adventure in Bankes’s life.

When I lived in Dorset, I used to drop into Kingston Lacy to admire the interiors , the grand cedar walk , the Egyptian Obelisk, the rare breeds that roamed the cow pastures and the National Trust tearoom. When the house was re-opened in 1981 one consultant to the NT said  it felt ” like a stagnant pool with no air.” Of course it did. Bankes had created a monument  to his whole and to his own long, uncertain journey. He had  built his own pyramid.

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