Who was William John Bankes?

William John Bankes by George Sandars

William John Bankes was one of nineteenth-century Britain’s most extravagant collectors of art and antiquities, which he amassed at his country estate at Kingston Lacy in Dorset. An experienced traveller and a pioneer in the study of ancient Egypt, Bankes left his mark on the early history of Egyptology.

A busy and turbulent life

Bankes (1786 - 1855) was born into an aristocratic family whose wealth allowed him to fully indulge his passion for collecting and travel. A Cambridge University graduate, he was friends with prominent figures including Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington, and served for many years as a Tory MP.

Often described as a fashionable and mischievous man, Bankes had to flee from England in 1841 following a conviction for homosexuality. He spent the rest of his life overseas.

Even from his exile and until his death in Venice, Bankes continued to collect and decorate his beloved estate at Kingston Lacy, shipping his new acquisitions to England.

A passion for Egypt

Bankes travelled extensively in Europe and the Near East, particularly Egypt. He explored the country and many of its ancient sites, sailing up the Nile as far as Nubia in modern-day Sudan.

Approaching Egypt as both an art connoisseur and a scholar, he gathered an important collection of Egyptian antiquities as well as a huge portfolio of notes, drawings, and watercolours - some made by him, others by draughtsmen at his service.

Displaying collections

Some of his antiquities were not simply displayed within cabinets at Kingston Lacy: as a typical expression of the antiquarian taste of the time, they became an integral part of the mansion’s architecture and landscape.

An original Egyptian obelisk dating from the second century BC and the monumental sarcophagus of an Egyptian notable named Amenemope, from the thirteenth century BC, still decorate the extravagant gardens of Kingston Lacy today. 

Bankes’ legacy as collector and scholar

Bankes’ art and antiquities collection, including his substantial holdings of Egyptian artefacts, remain at Kingston Lacy. His travel manuscripts are now deposited in the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester.

Both the ancient objects and the papers have proven of huge importance to Egyptology researchers: the former in their own right, and the latter as they often document Egyptian monuments and sites that have since disappeared through destruction or looting.

Kingston Lacy house in Dorset

Kingston Lacy 

Bankes cherished his country estate in Dorset and enriched it with his art and antiquities collections.