The tortoises’ return

Two bronze tortoises

There’s a quirky secret on Kingston Lacy’s South Terrace, where majestic marble urns create an air of opulent, grand formality. But can you spot the family pet hiding in plain sight?

Look a little closer at four of the urns, and you’ll find 16 delightful bronze tortoises used as supports.

Today, the supports are replicas, which replaced the nineteenth century originals after four of the bronze sculptures were stolen 30 years ago.

Now, all 16 originals have been reunited, after a former head curator at the National Trust spotted the four stolen bronzes in an auction catalogue.

A marble urn supported by bronze tortoises

The sculptures were created in 1853 by Italian-born sculptor Baron Carlo Marochetti (later, the sculptor of Trafalgar Square’s lions). He was commissioned by the then-owner of Kingston Lacy, William John Bankes (1786-1885), who had a particular fondness for tortoises and kept several as pets.

Determined for the sculptures to be as accurate as possible, Bankes supplied Marochetti with one of his pet tortoises as a model.

The sculptor’s studio in Paris carefully created a mould from the animal, which was used to cast identical bronzes. Afterwards Bankes collected the creature, writing with delight to his sister Anne, “Think of my carrying a live Tortoise in a bag all the way from the Palais Royal!”

The tortoises supported the urns at Kingston Lacy for over 140 years. However, one morning in 1992, a gardener noticed that four of the tortoises had been stolen. Staff swiftly removed the remaining bronzes for safe keeping, replacing all 16 with replicas that have remained in place ever since.

" Think of my carrying a live Tortoise in a bag all the way from the Palais Royal!"
- William John Bankes (1786-1855), in a letter to his sister

Dr Elena Greer, Property Curator at Kingston Lacy explains: “We know that William John Bankes loved tortoises, not only because he kept them as pets and commissioned the bronzes for the urns, but from other clues around the house; for example, he added tortoises to the bases of the two Italian giltwood candelabra in the saloon.

A curator holds a bronze tortoise

“It is clearly a creature that brought much pleasure to the family and so it is wonderful that we can welcome four of our tortoise residents back home.”

You can see the returned tortoises on display in the house. There’s no longer any need to book to visit Kingston Lacy, but please be aware entry to the house is not guaranteed on the day you visit.