Why Kingston Lacy is special

The house at Kingston Lacy

The passions and obsessions of William John Bankes (1787-1855) shaped the Kingston Lacy we see today. Generations of the Bankes family contributed to the evolution of the estate, but it was William John who implemented some of the most fundamental changes to the house and collections. He set about reimagining Kingston Lacy as a complete artwork; a treasure house of extraordinary art with interiors inspired by Venetian palaces.

William John was a traveller, collector and talented draughtsman with an eye for beauty. When he inherited Kingston Lacy in 1834 he considered it an awkward hybrid. The renovations his father had made in the late 18th century were no longer in fashion. They had also altered the aesthetic of the original Restoration mansion that was built for the family after the destruction of their home at Corfe Castle during the Civil War.

William John Bankes (1786-1855) by Sir George Hayter
Portrait of William John Bankes by Sir George Hayter
William John Bankes (1786-1855) by Sir George Hayter

So William John set about making some dramatic changes. He instructed the architect Sir Charles Barry (who was involved in the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament) to remodel the house and clad the red-brick exterior in local Chilmark stone. He also collected Kingston Lacy’s most important collections. These include a group of Spanish paintings, displayed in a ‘golden room’ setting, which he acquired during his service in the Spanish Peninsular War (c.1812-14). In Egypt, William encountered the Philae obelisk, which was later transported to Kingston Lacy with the aid of the Duke of Wellington’s gun carriage.

Kingston Hall (now Lacy) depicted in an engraving by J. Smith, 1821.
Kingston Hall (now Lacy) depicted in an engraving by J. Smith, 1821.
Kingston Hall (now Lacy) depicted in an engraving by J. Smith, 1821.

William John never realised his full vision for Kingston Lacy. In 1841 he went into voluntary exile in Venice after he was charged for the second time with same-sex acts. At the time homosexual relationships between men were punishable by death.

During his exile, William John continued to compulsively collect and commission art, marble carvings and furniture. He sent them back to his siblings in Dorset with detailed instructions for their display. But he was never able to live at Kingston Lacy again, and in 1855 William John died whilst still in exile.

Nicolò Zen by Pieve di Cadore Titian, Venice 1576
Nicolò Zen by Pieve di Cadore Titian, Venice 1576 in the house at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Nicolò Zen by Pieve di Cadore Titian, Venice 1576
Maria Sella Pallavicino by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1606
Maria Sella Pallavicino by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1606
Maria Sella Pallavicino by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, 1606

Today Kingston Lacy is home to one of the National Trust’s most important art collections. Rubens, Titian and Sebastiano are among the great Western artists whose works decorate the walls. But Kingston Lacy is much more than a house and art collection. It is a garden that was celebrated in the early 20th century as a horticultural masterpiece; an 18th-century parkland (now home to a herd of rare Red Devon cattle); and a living landscape rich in wildlife and nature, where tenanted farms meet pre-history at Badbury Rings.

The inside of a glasshouse in the Kitchen Garden at Kingston Lacy
Glasshouses in the Kitchen Garden during the Victorian era at Kingston Lacy
The inside of a glasshouse in the Kitchen Garden at Kingston Lacy

Kingston Lacy is the heart of the ‘richest ever gift’ to the National Trust. The 8,500-acre estate is part of the 16,000-acre Bankes estate that was bequeathed in 1981 by Henry John ‘Ralph’ Bankes. It is a grand estate, but it is also a proud family home. Above all, Kingston Lacy is an extraordinary legacy of people and place – an estate where a pocket of rural Dorset connects with the world on account of the curiosity, vision and creativity of its most influential owner William John Bankes.