William Bankes, who inherited the Kingston Lacy estates in 1806, combined the different temperaments of a scholar, a connoisseur and a romantic. Between 1812 and 1820 he travelled around the Mediterranean, visiting Portugal, Spain, Egypt, Syria and Italy and collecting works of art along the way.
Two articles have just been published about Bankes’s Egyptian collections. In the 2012 edition of the National Trust Historic Houses and Collections Annual, David Adshead relates the story of how Bankes managed to remove an obelisk from the island of Philae in the First Cataract of the Nile and to have it ultimately re-erected on the lawn at Kingston Lacy.
The early nineteenth century was a period of fierce rivalry in Egypt between the representatives of several European nations – and in particular between Britain and France – keen on obtaining the most interesting antiquities and on deciphering the hieroglyphic script.
Bankes played a part in this ‘antiquities race’ by recording inscriptions and collecting objects. The obelisk, which was the largest and most fraught of his acquisitions, had been claimed by the French Consul, but after a failed attempt during which it slid into the Nile, Bankes and his associate Giovanni Battista Belzoni managed to get their prize onto a boat and whisk it away to Alexandria.
In retrospect this frantic game of one-upmanhip seems slightly comical – a clear case of obelisk envy – but at the time it was deadly serious. At one point Belzoni was almost lynched by the Consul’s men.
In the August 2012 edition of ABC Bulletin Dr Daniele Salvoldi writes about the archive of William Bankes’s Egyptian studies. During his travels Bankes commissioned a number of artists to record almost a hundred different sites, some of which have since been lost.
The resulting collection of 1700 documents includes epigraphy, landscapes, plans and elevations, maps and images of anthropological and natural subjects. The archive, which has now been fully catalogued by Dr Salvoldi, is kept at the Dorset History Centre, Dorchester, and can be accessed online.