William Bankes, the collector and all-round man of taste who created the house and collections at Kingston Lacy as we can still see them today, was in many ways a product of the Romantic era. He knew Lord Byron, he sketched Gothic architecture and he traveled around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, picking up works of art and antiquities on the way.
Exiled from Britain because of his homosexuality, he spent his later years in that most romantic of cities, Venice, allegedly making secret trips back to Dorset to see his beloved Kingston Lacy under the cover of darkness.
We have recently been able to purchase from Lowell Libson a pair of watercolours on vellum painted by Bankes in about 1804, when he was a student at Cambridge. These pictures were once the wings of an altarpiece which Bankes created for his rooms at Trinity College, as an irreverent set-piece of neo-Gothic interior decoration.
The left-hand panel depicts a kneeling knight bearing the Bankes coat of arms, probably a medievalised self-portrait, with the words ‘Domine Labia Mea Apenies’ (Thou O Lord wilt open my lips) coming from his mouth. Above the knight hovers an angel holding a scroll reading ‘Gloria in Excelsis deo’ (Glory be God in the highest), and the scene is surmounted by the Bankes coat of arms.
The right-hand panel shows a group of cloaked and hooded mourners around a coffin covered with a pall exclaiming ‘Orate pro anima Wulie’ or pray for Wulie’s – William Bankes’s – soul. In this scene the coat of arms has been replaced by an ominous skull with the inscription ‘Non Deus est Mourton’ – God is not dead.
Although the altarpiece was clearly intended as part of an elaborate theatrical joke, which apparently included the burning of incense and the occasional chanting of services, Bankes was also using it to express the various interests and personal characteristics that would find their full flowering in the creation of Kingston Lacy. He was imaging himself as a romantic knight, he was picturing his own funeral as something out of a classic Gothic novel, he was being irreverently ‘Papist’ and borderline blasphemous, and he was indulging his love of Gothic architecture and decoration.