The Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy

The paintings in the Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy

The Spanish Room (formerly the Golden Room) is arguably the greatest achievement of William John Bankes (1787-1855), who inherited Kingston Lacy in 1834. The room is also the most complete expression of his design intentions for Kingston Lacy. It can be read as a total work of art; a set piece comprising a gilded, coffered Venetian ceiling, painted leather wall panels, and a remarkable assemblage of Spanish paintings and decorative surfaces.

The room, which was created to display William John’s collection of Spanish paintings, epitomises his emphasis on creating an overall richness of effect in contrast to favouring individual works of art. Each and every element was consciously acquired and displayed with the whole in mind. In 1850 he wrote from his exile in Venice to his sister Anne (Lady Falmouth) to enquire of newly completed decorative details, including the inscribed cartouches over the paintings. He asked ‘does it add to the richness of effect?'

Although William John was primarily concerned with creating a total effect, he collected individual works of art with a keen eye and discerning judgement. Most of the Spanish paintings which decorate the walls were acquired during his service with the Duke of Wellington in the Spanish Peninsular War (c.1812-14). He consciously collected a representative selection of works by the great seventeenth-century Spanish artists, including Velázquez, Murillo and Cano. The only loss from the collection is Velázquez’s Philip IV of Spain, which was sold in the late nineteenth century by Walter Ralph Bankes. 

The Spanish Room’s walls and ceiling are equally noteworthy, both for their individual significance and for adding to the overall effect of the room. Painted and tooled leather panels of scrolling foliage clad the walls. They a mixture of old panels that William John acquired from Venetian palaces and new ones that he commissioned to match.

Detail of the Spanish Room’s carved marble chimney piece with the 19th-century leather panelling in the background.
Leather panelling in the Spanish room at Kingston Lacy
Detail of the Spanish Room’s carved marble chimney piece with the 19th-century leather panelling in the background.

As this sketch from the Bankes Archive shows, William John applied care and attention to their placement.

Undated sketch layout for arrangement of leather panels in the Spanish room
Undated sketch layout for arrangement of leather panels in the Spanish room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Undated sketch layout for arrangement of leather panels in the Spanish room

The ceiling was almost completed before William John was forced into voluntary exile in 1841. He purchased the ceiling paintings from a London art dealer in the belief that they came from the Palazzo Contrari degli Scrigni on the banks of the Grand Canal. However, only the grotesque panels of swirling foliage originated there. The three pictorial canvases, including The Creation of the Elements, were in fact copies of works by Paolo Veronese. Their value as copies is however significant, for the originals were destroyed in Berlin during World War II.

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

Also significant to the room are the Pietra Dura (a decorative art involving highly polished, coloured stones inlaid to create a picture) cabinet and the three double doors. Made from walnut frames, each is inset with four pearwood panels painted with designs representing the twelve months of the year. William John’s designs for the panels survive in the Bankes Archive (deposited with Dorset History Centre).

A view of a Pietra Dura panel taken from a cabinet in the Spanish room
A view of a Pietra Dura panel taken from a cabinet in the Spanish room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
A view of a Pietra Dura panel taken from a cabinet in the Spanish room

You can read about William John’s designs for the door panels here: https://dcc.dorsetforyou.gov.uk/bankes-archive/?s=a+year+in+pictures