Colourful devotee with a passion for repeating his past

Adventures in Egypt and Nubia
September 12, 2003

Kingston Lacy House in Dorset is a much-admired property of the National Trust. It owes its present Italianate form largely to William John Bankes (1786-1855), but it is easy for the visitor to view the house and gardens and note the solitary obelisk as little more than an eccentric garden ornament. In fact the obelisk, the first to be transported to Britain, was regarded as a second Rosetta Stone, and stands as a memorial to Bankes, one of the pioneers of exploration in Egypt and Nubia.

In recent years the contribution owed by Jean-Francois Champollion (1790-1832) to Thomas Young (1773-1829) in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs has become well known, but fewer will be aware of Bankes' role. It was he who identified the name of Cleopatra on this obelisk and who alleged that Champollion "had gleaned the name from his scribbled annotation in the margin of a lithograph of the obelisk and its inscription which Bankes had printed for private circulation". He regarded his French rival as "a dirty scoundrel" and certainly Champollion did not acknowledge any debt to Bankes or Young.

There is, however, much more to Bankes than a role in decipherment and an interest in remodelling Kingston Lacy. He was a traveller of considerable tenacity, venturing deep into Egypt and Nubia at a time when they were little known, and working with a team of skilled individuals to produce accurate and detailed drawings of monuments - many of which would be lost or damaged within a few years of their discovery.

Bankes himself had a great interest in inscriptions, particularly those in Greek, and has been called "the best copyist of the beginning of the 19th century", his copies being especially valuable because they frequently show the monument on which the inscription occurred.

In an age before photography, the accurate recording of monuments, particularly in remote locations, was a major undertaking achieved at no little discomfort, and risk, to the traveller. At Abu Simbel, "Mr. Beechey (one of Bankes' companions) spoiled his drawing-book while only copying one of the groups; the perspiration having entirely soaked through it". On another occasion, beyond the Second Cataract, his guides stole their camels, leaving them and their baggage stranded. This did not prevent them exploring further the following morning and eventually organising themselves, such that they returned safely, with notes and drawings intact.

Safe returns were by no means the norm, as Bankes' friend Lord Byron noted:

"You have had better fortune than any traveller of equal enterprise - in returning safe - and after the fate of the Brownes - and the Parkes (Mungo Park) and the Burkhardts", all of whom had perished during explorations.

Sadly, this exploration, and the painstaking work of recording during travel was not matched by an urge to work the results into a publishable manuscript. Bankes seems to have taken little heed of warnings that he should publish his work before other - inferior - accounts appeared; this despite his losing his case against James Silk Buckingham (1786-1855), whom he accused of publishing his plan of Jerash (Jordan) and who proceeded to sue Bankes for libel.

In 1833, Bankes pleaded not guilty to a charge of meeting "for unnatural purposes" with a guardsman and won his case. He was less fortunate when arrested again in 1841 having been "discoveredI with a guardsman on a park bench". He fled the country, only able to make clandestine visits to Kingston Lacy to supervise aspects of its refurbishment. During his exile he travelled widely in Europe and continued to purchase, and ship home, art works for his house. He died, at an unknown location, in 1855 and was returned for burial at Wimborne Minster.

Bankes' great work on the monuments of Egypt and Nubia, which would have seen him acclaimed as one of the greatest explorers of his day, was never written, and his legacy began to come to light only through the efforts of Rosalind Moss of the Griffith Institute after the second world war.

However, it is to Patricia Usick that we owe this excellent summary. Her book is scholarly, and publishes for the first time some of the drawings produced by Bankes and his colleagues. My only criticisms are that I would like to have seen the beautifully produced illustrations integrated into the text and to have had the notes provided as footnotes rather than endnotes. This book will be read with enjoyment by all those interested in the early history of Egyptology and Nubian studies. It gives us a real insight into the character of a colourful and gifted traveller.

Paul T. Nicholson is senior lecturer in archaeology, Cardiff University.

Adventures in Egypt and Nubia: The Travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855)

Author - Patricia Usick
ISBN - 0 7141 1803 6
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 224

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