Wit with an eye for beauty and a taste for the odd rat

The Exiled Collector
April 1, 2005

William Bankes (1786-1855) loved beautiful things, and he lived at a good time for doing so. After the defeat of Napoleon, he turned his wealth and education to travelling. To some, he is best known as a pioneer of Egyptology, who brought to England the obelisk that was to join with the Rosetta Stone in the struggle to decipher the hieroglyphs. He also collected Spanish paintings at a time when their creators were almost unknown outside their homeland. For others, he is the creator and patron of the architectural masterpiece of Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne in Dorset.

Contemporaries pointed to his intellectual curiosity, allied to a keen visual sense and artistic imagination.

In spite of his aesthetic impulses, Bankes was not averse to public service. He came from a line of MPs and served in turn as member for Truro, Cambridge University, Marlborough and Dorset. He was an aide to Wellington during the Peninsular War. At one point, in Pamplona, he dined off rats and alcohol with the local French commander, who persuaded the Englishman to buy a supposed Raphael that had been liberated from the Escorial, together with a donkey, which he assured him had not been similarly acquired. Wellington warned him that the ban on looting extended to aesthetes as well. From then on, Bankes would send his treasures back to England addressed to "Lord Wellington, Kingston Hall".

Bankes also loved beautiful people. He was renowned as a wit, and he had considerable social ease. Women were greatly attracted to him, although he never married. He was a friend of Byron from university and socialised with him. He would have been aware of the womanising poet's additional adventures with his own sex. In June 1833, Bankes was arrested for an act of indecency in the churchyard of St Margaret's, Westminster, and the case came to trial. Sodomy still carried the death penalty in England, and this could be enforced: in 1806, for example, more men were hanged for sodomy than for murder.

Bankes's trial went surprisingly well - Wellington was among his character witnesses - and the collector was acquitted. In 1841, however, he was caught in a similar predicament in Green Park. This time his lawyer advised him to flee the country. The Government declared him a public outlaw, an unusual form of humiliation for the middle of the 19th century. His status in the "Mother of Parliaments" was presumably one reason for this vindictiveness. For the rest of his life, Bankes was in exile in Venice, planning Kingston Lacy through notebooks and correspondence. He may have managed a clandestine visit, but he never saw his design completed.

Anne Sebba has done her research. (The 1972 entry in Who Was Who in Egyptology , for example, omits the indecencies and does not even provide the year of Bankes's birth. Now we have it to the day.) She skilfully threads together the strands of a versatile career: travels, antiquarianism, connoisseurship, public service and private dicing with disgrace. The long process of designing and furnishing a stately home is described with sensitivity and a sense of pace.

Bankes has long been a footnote to a variety of fields. Thanks to this book, he is at last the subject of his own text.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, Cambridge University.

The Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House

Author - Anne Sebba
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 308
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 7195 6328 3

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