William John Bankes and his life in exile

William John Bankes by George Sandars

William John Bankes was wealthy, powerful and well-connected. So why did he live out the last years of his life in exile?

Kingston Lacy is a grand country manor and estate in Dorset. The scale and significance of its collections are the work of generations of the Bankes family, particularly William John Bankes (1786–1855). His devotion to Kingston Lacy never wavered, even when he was forced into exile over his homosexuality.

The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
The pride flag flying at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

A monument to art

Bankes remodelled the house at Kingston Lacy in the 1830s, and had it encased in Chilmark stone. His eye for detail, love of art and his own talent as a draughtsman were evident throughout his life. He travelled widely, often sketching the places he visited, and he always sought to expand his knowledge of art. His expert eye had a great influence on the collections at Kingston Lacy, from an exceptional store of ancient Egyptian artefacts to the masterful paintings and sculptures that are on display.

Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy
Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy
Shabti fragment from a box marked 'Minor Egyptian Antiquities', Kingston Lacy

Persecution

Developing Kingston Lacy was a life-long passion for Bankes. Sadly, he could never fully be himself; he was gay yet had to keep his homosexuality a secret. Homosexual acts between men were deemed a criminal offence, punishable by death.

In 1833, Bankes narrowly escaped punishment, having been charged with 'an unnatural offence', meaning physical relations with another man. It was only thanks to the influence of his powerful family and friends that he was not charged.

Exile

In 1841, Bankes was again charged for taking part in an 'indecent act', and this time he moved abroad to escape the charges. Leaving Kingston Lacy, the home he loved, was heart-wrenching. But we know from surviving letters that he continued to oversee the transformation of Kingston Lacy into a Venetian-style palazzo while exiled in France, and later Italy, until his death in Venice in 1855. 

The glorious ceiling in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy
The Spanish Room ceiling at Kingston Lacy
The glorious ceiling in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy

Returning home

It's thought that Bankes risked his life to visit Kingston Lacy at least once before his death. In one of his letters home, he references a minute detail on one of the doors and asks for it to be fixed. Such a detail could only have been seen in person. 

What's certain is that Bankes' enduring love of Kingston Lacy has enriched and preserved its outstanding collection, which we can still enjoy today.

Discover the internationally important art collection at Kingston Lacy
The art collection in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Discover the internationally important art collection at Kingston Lacy
Vita Sackville-West's desk at Sissinghurst

Exploring LGBTQ+ history at National Trust places 

Learn more about the LGBTQ+ links at places we care for, and how the National Heritage Lottery Fund has donated to the Queer Heritage Collections Network, of which we're a founder member.