Kingston Lacy’s global collections and connections to slavery

The Woodley Family by Johann Zoffany

Kingston Lacy houses an internationally significant art collection.

Implicit in this collection are histories of cultural appropriation – a collection acquired, in part, by wealth derived from colonialism and possibly slavery.

Links to a slaveholding dynasty

Kingston Lacy’s history is connected to that of the Woodleys, a slaveholding family who gained entry into the established landowning class by marriage to the Bankes family. 

This story begins with the marriage of William Woodley (1728–1793) to Frances Payne (1738–1813) in 1758. William Woodley was a slaveholder and colonial governor of the Leeward islands, with plantations on the island of St Christopher (now St Kitts). Frances Payne (1738-1813), was the sister of Ralph Payne, another St Kitts planter and slaveholder.  

Through their children they sought to forge connections with established landed families in Britain. The marriage of their daughter Frances Woodley (1760–1823) to Henry Bankes the Younger (1757–1834) represented this kind of alliance.

A favourable marriage

If the marriage of William and Frances Woodley strengthened Caribbean slaveholding ties, the marriage of their daughter Frances to Henry Bankes forged a connection with an established landed family in Britain.

Frances Woodley, Mrs Henry Bankes the younger by George Romney, 1780–1
Portrait of Frances Woodley, Mrs Henry Bankes the younger
Frances Woodley, Mrs Henry Bankes the younger by George Romney, 1780–1

In the winter of 1780-1, Frances was painted by George Romney, several years before her marriage to Henry. A renowned society beauty, Frances was made further attractive as a bride due to the substantial wealth of her slaveholding family. Henry’s own political record did not always support interests like those held by his wife's family. He enjoyed a lifelong association with William Wilberforce (1759–1833), a leading figure in the abolitionist movement, and Henry voted on multiple occasions in favour of abolition.

Frances’s dowry was extensive, and it seems likely that her marriage settlement was responsible for renovations to Kingston Lacy, although further research is currently being undertaken to understand this.

The heir 

Frances and Henry had six children, one of whom was William John Bankes (1786–1855).  William inherited Kingston Lacy in 1834 and was responsible for its ongoing decoration and transformation into an Italianate palace.

Slave-ownership was abolished in Britain's colonies in 1833. In 1836, two years after inheriting Kingston Lacy, William made an unsuccessful compensation claim to the British Government as a Woodley trustee for 172 enslaved people on St Kitts. He had already begun rebuilding Kingston Lacy, an ambitious project that lasted betwen 1845 and 1841.

Building a collection

Many pieces in Kingston Lacy's collection were acquired by William Bankes.

Born into a life of privilege, William became a notable Egyptologist, accumulating the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities in private hands anywhere in Britain.

Between 1815 and 1819 he travelled extensively in Egypt and the Near East, hiring a number of artists to record nearly 100 sites, and amassing art and objects for Kingston Lacy.

The Philae obelisk in the garden at Kingston Lacy
The Philae obelisk at Kingston Lacy in Dorset
The Philae obelisk in the garden at Kingston Lacy

His large collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts includes the Philae obelisk which originally stood outside the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae but is now situated prominently in the garden at Kingston Lacy. William arranged for the obelisk to be brought to Dorset with the aid of the Italian adventurer Giovanni Belzoni (1778–1823), a prominent figure in the excavation and transportation of ancient Egyptian monuments to European collections.  

More than a gallery of paintings

While Kingston Lacy is often associated with the internationally significant collection of Old Master paintings assembled by William Bankes, it is perhaps less well-known for holding an outstanding collection of furniture from India and from Sri Lanka.

South and Southeast Asian furniture in the grand saloon at Kingston Lacy
The saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
South and Southeast Asian furniture in the grand saloon at Kingston Lacy

Although there is no record of how these pieces of furniture were acquired for Kingston Lacy, these pieces tell an important story about how gentry families, like the Bankes, could set themselves apart from others through the purchase and display of luxury furnishings produced abroad. 

Indeed, Kingston Lacy's furniture from India and Sri Lanka is representative of a material culture produced in South Asia during the 18th and 19th centuries that was significantly impacted by the influence of European traders and the encroachment of early European colonialism.

For example, the spectacular Vizagapatam cabinet, which resides in the South-East bedroom, is an example of the ivory-inlaid furniture which was historically the specialism of Visakhapatnam craftspeople on the east coast of India and that attracted European interest. The form of the cabinet is European, but the decoration and the inlaying technique is purely Indian in character.

The Vizagapatam cabinet, an ivory-inlaid and ivory-mounted rosewood (or padouk) cabinet on stand, c.1760
The interior of the Vizagapatam cabinet at Kingston Lacy
The Vizagapatam cabinet, an ivory-inlaid and ivory-mounted rosewood (or padouk) cabinet on stand, c.1760

How it came to be at Kingston Lacy is unclear: it may have been purchased around the time it was made, or it may have been acquired in the 19th century, when there was a thriving secondary market in this type of furniture in England.

Meanwhile, in the Grand Saloon there are is a set of carved solid ebony and cane seat furniture from Sri Lanka. Furniture made during this period in Sri Lanka (known then as British Ceylon) was often made after English furniture patterns.

A Sri Lankan settee in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
A Sri Lankan settee in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
A Sri Lankan settee in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Nonetheless, it was decorated with indigenous flora. For instance, a solid ebony settee, c. 1830, is carved with Sri Lankan flora, including the pala-peti, or lotus, flower.

The Visakhapatnam cabinet and Sri Lankan ebony settee demonstrate the influence of European trade and taste on local material culture.  

Global Collections

Acquiring grand properties and filling them with artefacts and fashionable objects from around the world encouraged respectability among the British landed elite. Slaveholding allowed a route to new wealth for some, including the Woodleys, and global collections helped secure their place within this class. Ironically, the exploitation of foreign peoples served to increase reverence for these objects, as well as the financial wherewithal to bring them to Britain.