Anti-Havisham at Kingston Lacy

Detail of the chimneypiece in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy. The tooled and painted leather hangings came from the Palazzo Contarini near the church of SS. Apostoli in Venice. The polychrome pendant garland is of Florentine marble set against black Belgian marble. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

In a comment on the previous post Courtney Barnes mentioned that the forlorn look of the orangery at Tyntesfield before its restoration reminded her of Miss Havisham, the tragic figure created by Charles Dickens in Great Expectations. An heiress who was jilted at the altar, Miss Havisham refused to have anything changed in her large mansion from that day onward, allowing it to decay around her.

The top of the Upper Marble Staircase. The balustrade is of alabaster capped with Biancone marble. The candelabra are also of Biancone, and the bronzes are probably eighteenth-century copies of Michelangelo’s Times of Day in the Medici Chapel of S. Lorenzo in Florence. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

This in turn reminded me of William Bankes (1786-1855), who created the sumptuous interiors at Kingston Lacy in Dorset: not because he tried to stop the clock, but because he was a kind of ‘anti-Havisham’, creating a beautiful house without actually being there.

The Tent Room, one of the bachelor bedrooms dating from 1835-41. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Bankes was gay, and this was at a time when homosexuals were being increasingly persecuted in Britain. After one encounter too many with a guardsman in Green Park he was forced to flee the country. But he continued to develop the interiors at Kingston Lacy by sending back works of art and furnishings that he had purchased and commissioned in Italy, accompanied by detailed instructions on how they should be installed.

One of a pair of early seventeenth century bronze firedogs from the workshop of Niccolo Roccatagliata, in the Spanish Room. ©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

There is something not only very poignant but also rather poetic and intellectually fascinating about such a project of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk like Kingston Lacy entirely in the mind’s eye.

Walnut shutters with carvings designed by William Bankes. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

Bankes’s fastidious and connoisseurial imagination clearly enabled him to visualise the end result, but at that same time that imagination must have made it especially painful not being able to inhabit the actual house.

Niche designed by William Bankes and Charles Barry based on shell niches in Montpellier and Narbonne and carved from yellow Torre, Biancone and fleur de pêcher marble. ©NTPL/James Mortimer

There are indications that Bankes may have visted Kingston Lacy in secret towards the end of his life, which presents yet another poignant image, of the exile returning briefly to gaze at his creation before rushing off again.

21 Responses to “Anti-Havisham at Kingston Lacy”

  1. Heidi Says:

    Gorgeous pictures. Bankes’s correspondence is fascinating: he met Charles Barry in 1819, and by 1821 he had sent the architect to Kingston Lacy to have ‘exact elevations and plans’ made from the ‘alterations’ he had been sketching for it – but it would be another fourteen years before Bankes actually inherited the house!

  2. Susan Walter Says:

    I hope he did get there and I hope it lived up to his vision. The range of materials brought in is quite something.

    I hope the Trust hasn’t suffered too badly in the big freeze – Not too many burst pipes etc. All those final touches to the winter housekeeping must be even more perishing than usual. We are just thawing today after being in the deep freeze since 31 Jan. Beautiful, but somewhat nerve wracking.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Heidi, yes William Bankes seems to have been both very ambitious and very patient 🙂 Did you look into the correspondence as part of some kind of research into aspects of Bankes’s life or of Kingston Lacy?

    Susan, I haven’t heard any reports yet about problems caused by the recent cold – it was certainly less severe here than in France. As you know stonework in National Trust gardens is often wrapped up in the winter to prevent frost damage.

  4. Blue Says:

    Thank you, Emile. I had read about William Bankes and it is good to read a little bit of gay history – for, in a way, that is what his story is.

    The tooled and painted leather hangings are beautiful and must be particularly so in candlelight.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes indeed, I think you could call Kingston Lacy a locus of gay history. I recently saw the term ‘gay pilgrimage’ somewhere – I wonder whether Kingston Lacy attracts such ‘pilgrimage’, as I believe Sissinghurst does?

    The National Trust tries to analyse its various visitor groups through what is called ‘visitor segmentation’, but I am not aware that we have a gay pilgrimage visitor segment yet – perhaps we should 🙂

  6. Mark D. Ruffner Says:

    Gorgeous rooms and equally beautiful photographs. Are those shutters by chance by Grinling Gibbons?

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    They were designed by William Bankes, but they are certainly ‘Gibbonsesque’ and demonstrate his intensely historicist approach to decorating the house. So apart from being a locus of gay history Kingston Lacy is also a locus of historicist decoration – or are those two phenomena perhaps linked? 🙂

  8. Toby Worthington Says:

    The Anti-Havisham is a very good way to describe design-at-a-distance, Emile. The history of the house is fascinating and the
    contributions by William Bankes are the icing on the cake. Your
    post had me racing to the bookshelves again, this time to read
    David Watkins’s essay on Kingston Lacy in The Classical Country
    House, where he writes that William Bankes was educated at Trinity
    College, Cambridge,’ where he embellished his rooms with stucco
    Gothick decoration incorporating his family heraldry.’ It would seem that even then, Bankes was a prime example of someone who was Too Cool For School.

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Quite, and at Cambridge he inevitably became friends with that other ‘too cool for school’ gilded youth, Lord Byron. Anne Sebba wrote a good biography of William Bankes a few years ago, called ‘The Exiled Collector’, in which she also describes his travels around the Mediterranean. This included a stint as amateur archaeologist in Egypt, and there are still some Egyptian items at Kingston Lacy that he collected. All very dashing and Romantic.

  10. Heidi Says:

    Yes, I did some research into the history of the collections at Kingston Lacy for an undergraduate essay. Bankes’s letters to his sister were particularly memorable – in one he describes his reaction upon seeing a photograph for the first time (‘I am told it is a fairly accurate representation…’) and, of course, requested further pictures of the works in progress at the house.

    This – and his circle of agents – possibly explains how he managed to direct such extensive changes from abroad, but I still prefer the version where he arrives at Studland Bay in a yacht in the middle of the night to be taken to Kingston Lacy by his picture dealer. 🙂

  11. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    How fascinating to read his reaction to seeing a photograph for the first time. I can remember reading about Marcel Proust’s sense of awe at encountering an early aeroplane flying overhead, and his fascination with the mysterious whisperings coming out of the then new-fangled telephone.

  12. Gésbi Says:

    I wonder how Bankes lived in Italy, if this surrogate received all his attention or if he was able to share it with another house?

  13. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    That is an interesting question. I have lent my copy of the Sebba biography to someone (always a risky thing to do!), so I cannot immediately check, but I don’t think there was a significant other (or ‘significant other’) house in Italy. He lived mainly in Venice and presumably made himself confortable there, but at the same time he remained obsessed with Kingston Lacy.

  14. Andrew Says:

    William Bankes seems to be a reasonably close contemporary of William Beckford, who also spent time overseas to escape homosexual scandal. Such a pity that Fonthill kept falling down, and that Beckford’s extraordinary collection was broken up. Perhaps the failure to keep the collection at Mentmore together provides a modern parallel.

  15. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, and there is another link in that Bankes visited Fonthill in secret as a young man, intrigued by its fabled interiors. So Kingston Lacy does seem to fit into that tradition of Romantic historicism, which ultimately goes back to Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill. There seems to be an element of ‘queer taste’ (if that is an accepted label?) in all of this, although that same tradition also informed the goût Rotschild (of which Mentmore was of course an example) and grand aristocratic collections such as those of the Marquesses of Hertford and the Dukes of Hamilton.

  16. Patricia McCarthy Says:

    Enormously interesting, Emile. I, too, will rush to my bookshelves! Any information on the monochrome painting beneath the dado rail in the Spanish Room?

  17. Glynis Carr Says:

    Let’s hope, one day, sexual orientation will be a personal matter entirely. ‘Good taste’ belongs to everyone and is of course, ultimatley, subjective. I am all for a bit of Romantic Historicism & scandal too, in it’s many forms…

  18. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Patricia, I cannot immediately find anything about those interesting mythological grisaille panels – I will ask a more knowledgeable colleague and report back.

    Glynis, indeed, and attitudes have changed since William Bankes’s day, at least to some extent, in this part of the world. But I also find it fascinating how certain groups (whoever they may be) find and express their identities through their visual choices and their aesthetic tastes.

  19. style court Says:

    Emile —

    How has his story not yet been made into a movie? Incredibly poignant. And what potential for a production designer 🙂 The masculine tented room is wonderful.

    This post is perfectly timed for me because I’m reading the essays in Cult of Beauty — interesting to compare and contrast with the later 19th century decades, Oscar Wilde and so on.. On top of that, fast forwarding to the 20th, I just surfed through the Venetian scenes in Brideshead Revisited (1920s design search).

    Imagine what Bankes’s Tumblir page or Pinterest board would look like…

  20. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes that could be a fabulous film. The opening sequence would have to be of William Bankes, mortally ill, being brought in the dead of night and in great secrecy to see Kingston Lacy for the last time: a yacht off the Dorset coast, a closed carriage rushing along country lanes, an old huddled figure wandering through the shuttered rooms while a few trusted servants hold up candles to illuminate now this painting, now that marble carving, now that Egyptian stele. And then a flash-back to how it all began…

    And as you say it would be a production designer’s dream: Spain, Egypt, Venice and a country estate in Dorset that includes the ruins of Corfe Castle (which Bankes wanted to rebuild, Fonthill-style, before Kingston Lacy became his obsession). And with appearances by Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Bankes’s loyal sister Lady Falmouth, etc. etc.

    Perhaps this could be Tom Ford’s next film project… 🙂

    And it is indeed interesting to speculate what he would have put on his Tumblr or Pinterest page – but in a way Kingston Lacy fulfilled that function for him: a three dimensional record of his taste and his aspirations.

    Patricia, my colleague Amanda Bradley has just kindly come back to me about the grisaille panels in the Spanish Room, saying that they are mid-nineteenth-century Italian, puportedly after Raphael. On 18 July 1853 Bankes wrote to his sister Lady Falmouth (who often supervised the installation of his new acquisitions at Kingston Lacy):

    ‘The paintings sent over for the dado of the Spanish room have a good deal of merit in their execution, & in the design claim Raffaelle himself as their inventor – for the originals existed but have perished in the Vatican – so that they are preserved only in some scarce old prints which we copied and adapted.’

  21. style court Says:


    I think you should moonlight as a screenwriter or at the very least consultant to a film director/producer. Your imagined opening scene is spot on. I’m already hooked! I can even see Hamish Bowles’s related coverage — or maybe a Grace Coddington spread — for Vogue. Thanks for this.

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