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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Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother

By Jane Ridley

Jennie Churchill was the wife of the most celebrated political enfant terrible of his day, Lord Randolph Churchill, and the mother of Winston, the most famous Englishman of all. Little wonder that, squashed between these two alpha males, Lady Randolph Churchill has usually been seen as a walk-on part. Raven-haired and fiery-eyed, “Black Jane” is alleged to have slept with 200 men. She is chiefly remembered for being a bad mother to the infant Winston, leaving him to the tender mercies of Nannie Everest. Anne Sebba’s gripping new biography is a sharp and intelligent reassessment of Jennie’s life, and it nails a number of myths.

Jennie was one of the three daughters of Leonard Jerome, an extrovert New York financier whose roller-coaster fortunes so upset his bourgeois wife Clara that she left her husband in New York and fled with her daughters to Paris . Brought up on the fringes of the disreputable court of Napoleon III, Jennie learned early about bad behaviour. She also learned how to dress, buying her clothes at Worth, the outrageously expensive Paris designer. Jennie was a compulsive shopper, and throughout her life she spent money like water, always expecting Daddy to pick up the tab.

At the age of nineteen, Jennie fell in love with the dashing Lord Randolph Churchill. There’s no doubt, as Sebba shows, that this was a coup de foudre, but right from the start there were tensions. The Marlboroughs were downwardly mobile dukes, badly in need of a cash-rich heiress, and they were disappointed to discover that Leonard Jerome had just lost a fortune. Pre-nup bickering between the families figured badly for the marriage. Jennie’s first child, Winston, was born at Blenheim after six months of marriage. The Churchill story is that he was premature, but Sebba shows convincingly that he was a healthy, normal baby, and probably conceived – rather shockingly – before marriage, though there’s no doubt he was Randolph’s son.

Randolph Churchill was brilliant in a manic sort of way and he could be charming, but he was also the rudest man in Britain , with a vile temper, and right from the start the marriage was rocky. He quarrelled with his friend and patron, the Prince of Wales, over the Aylesford scandal, when Randolph , desperate to prevent his brother Blandford from eloping with Lady Aylesford, tried to blackmail the Prince, and he and Jennie were forced into social exile in Ireland . Randolph spent most of his time away from Jennie – Sebba even speculates (no more than that) that he was gay, as his companions were always men. Whatever the truth about that, Randolph was undeniably ill from very early on in the marriage. Whether in fact he had syphilis is still controversial, and denied by some members of the Churchill family. But as Sebba sensibly points out, the fact is that he thought he had it, and his doctors treated him for it and (later) told Jennie that he had it, so whatever was actually the matter, ‘He might as well have had syphilis’. It’s probable too that Randolph was not the father of Jennie’s second son, Jack. The likely father was a handsome but stupid peer named Lord Falmouth.

In spite of his illness, Randolph managed to achieve extraordinary political success. Salisbury made him Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886, but by then he was a sick man, unable to carry the workload. In a fit of pique he resigned – he didn’t even tell Jennie beforehand – and after that the marriage unravelled. Randolph was verbally abusive, though probably not violent, and there were constant worries about money as Jennie continued to spend and Randolph seemed incapable of earning anything. No one blamed her for being unfaithful to Randolph . The love of her life was Charles Kinsky, a glamorous Austrian diplomat who dumped her cruelly. There were many others, and the men grew younger as she grew older, but as Sebba shows, many of Jennie’s alleged “lovers” were in fact just friends. Perhaps her most important friend was the Prince of Wales. Sebba, probably rightly, discounts the possibility of a sexual relationship, though in the absence of Jennie’s letters to the Prince, it’s impossible to be certain. To her credit, Jennie was always loyal and tender to Randolph . The end was terrible. Lurching like a drunk, unable to speak or swallow and prone to violent rages, Randolph was a pathetic wreck. Bravely, Jennie accompanied him on a last, gut-wrenching world cruise. She survived partly because of her close relationship with her sisters, Leonie and Clara – all three of the Jerome girls married bounders who had hoped, in vain, to attach themselves to dollar transfusions from American cash cows.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this book is Sebba’s account of Jennie’s relationship with Winston. When he was a small child there’s no doubt that Jennie neglected him, parcelling him off to Nannie Everest. He wrote pathetic letters from his first prep school, where he was beaten, and Jennie ignored him. So much, so bad. But, as Sebba perceptively shows, in later life Winston spun a myth about his childhood, claiming that famous men are the product of unhappy childhoods. Randolph, whom Winston hero-worshipped, treated him far worse than Jennie ever did, writing savagely cruel letters. As a teenager Winston wrote letters to Jennie from school, which, by the stiff-upper-lipped standards of the day, were both cheeky and demanding. Jennie never froze him out or cut him down, and Sebba rightly sees Winston’s whinging as a sign of the strength of the relationship. Like many mothers with terminally sick husbands, Jennie was extraordinarily close to her son. After Randolph ‘s death, she poured all her disappointed and frustrated ambition into Winston, and she pulled every string she had to secure his promotion as a soldier, or to publish his first books. Contemporaries thought the young Winston disgustingly pushy and spoiled, but Jennie’s unconditional love gave him the confidence to reach the top. He always came first.

Sebba suggests that Jennie felt drawn to younger men partly because they could never threaten Winston’s dominant position in her life. At the age of forty-six she made herself ridiculous by marrying the beautiful but dim George Cornwallis-West, who at twenty-six was the same age as Winston. This ended, predictably, in tears – George left her for another older woman, the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell, earning the nickname ‘the old wives’ tale’. Jennie who never gave up, married at the age of sixty-four her third husband, Montagu Porch, another beauty, twenty-three years her junior.

Anne Sebba has written an immensely enjoyable book. Her prose is as smooth and elegant as expensive cashmere, and the book reads like a novel, which is as it should be, for Lady Randolph Churchill was a character larger than life.

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Mother of All Dynasties

By Juliet Nicolson, Evening Standard, 03 September 2007

According to Anne Sebba’s meticulously researched biography, the ‘most beguiling Churchill of them all was not born a Churchill’, yet it is Jennie Jerome who should be credited with her elder son’s eventual unparalleled position in the history of British politics.

Jennie Jerome was the dazzling, smouldering-eyed daughter of an ultimately never-quite-rich-enough Manhattan wheeler-dealer. Together with her two almost equally lovely sisters, Jennie was one of several American heiresses who married into Victorian and Edwardian English aristocracy – women often viewed with scepticism by the British Establishment as ‘a cross between a red Indian and a gaiety girl’. Jennie became engaged to Lord Randolph Churchill, the unsurpassable glamour of Blenheim behind him, after a 48-hour coup de foudre .

As Sebba describes in her often moving book, based on a mass of new family archive material and interviews with Jennie’s descendants, the life of Jennie emerges as a story of courage and beauty, of money and men. Men, frequently second-raters, were the acolytes of Jennie’s life, the flat backdrop against which she blazed in full, three-dimensional glory. Sebba describes how ‘women admired her but men fell in love with her’ (a possible 200 of them, including, it was rumoured, the Prince of Wales, who rated American women highly, for being ‘not as squeamish as their English sisters’).

But Randolph was not up to scratch as successful husband material, struggling with a political career (although Jennie went out of her way to give it encouragement) and persistent illness caused by the syphilis he had probably caught before his marriage. Jennie spent much of her time thinking up ways to pay off her husband’s debts, keep her sons financially afloat (Winston inherited his mother’s extravagant tastes) and yet splashing out on endless delicious designer frocks for herself.

The diversity of her enterprise was impressive, including launching and editing a magazine, writing articles, and even a play, promoting the founding of a National Theatre, and running a hospital ship in the Great War. None of these schemes were successful money-makers but her resilience, whether in the face of ill health, the loss of a lover or failure in business, was startling. On the day of her death, Winston wrote to her old friend Lord Curzon, that ‘wine of life was in her veins. Sorrows and storms were conquered by her nature’.

Eventually lovers and her second and third marriages, to men as young as her sons, all took second place to her passionate support and ‘steadfast faith’ in Winston’s blossoming career. She was her father’s favourite child and the pivot of the lives of her husbands and lovers. For Winston also, she shone ‘like the evening star’, and when he stood for the Oldham by-election, she drove through the streets on polling day dressed entirely in blue, her carriage ribboned and rosetted. She caused a sensation.

Jennie’s end was a sad, unglamorous one, after a fall on sky-scraper high-heeled shoes of post First World War fashions, resulting in a ghastly sequence of gangrenous infection, the amputation of a leg and her death in 1921. But as Sebba demonstrates, it waws as a mother that Jennie grew to excel, an excellence for which she will be remembered.

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