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  • Writer's pictureLilium

Kingston Lacy - Enchanting Havens

Kingston Lacy is a country house and estate near Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England, "A lavish family home re-imagined as a Venetian Palace in the rural Dorset countryside."

I visited Kingston Lacy in late May of this year and it was my first venture into Dorset. With my usual companion in tow, we arrived at the house under a blue sky however a thunder storm was lingering ominously near by. We walked past the stables, through a rose garden and reluctantly past the bookshop to the front of the house.

We found ourselves in the Entrance Hall. It was all in white stone with pillars lining the walls that rose up to the ceiling. We were told my the guide where to go and warned that at the top of the first flight of stairs, a man would tell us how many bricks the house was made of. Up a single step into a hallway and we were in front of a carved fireplace with a coat of arms, flanked by two alcoves that held glossy black urns. Opposite was a sign which told us not only about the room but of the interesting man behind this ornate decoration of the house:

"Originally the cellar, this entrance hall was created as part of the modifications made by William John Bankes (1786 - 1855) and is the third and final entrance hall to have been built at Kingston Lacy. William John's eye for detail, love of art, and talent as a draughtsman can be seen in his redecoration of the house. He was one of 19th-century Britain's most extravagant collectors of art and antiquities. In 1833, William John narrowly escaped punishment after he was charged for taking part in a same sex act. It was only thanks to the influence of his powerful family and friends that he was not prosecuted. However, in 1841, following a liaison with a soldier, he was forced to flee the country to escape charges. He spent the rest of his life in exile, but we know from surviving letters that he continued to remodel and redecorate Kingston Lacy from abroad for 14 years, until he died in Venice in 1855."

We were so busy thinking about William John's story that we forgot about the guides warning and were promptly ambushed with a speech on the amount of bricks and many more facts that my mind made the unconscious decision not to retain. Two windows in an arch looked out onto the formal gardens and three alcoves held three high detailed statues, one of which was Charles I sat on top of a plinth which depicting the siege of Corfe Castle in the English Civil War.

We managed to escape out lecturer and took the first door on our left, we found ourselves in the best room of every house: the Library. Bookcases covered in glittering tomes lined all the walls, portraits hung above them on a backdrop of red. Above the fireplace were two boards with the keys to Corfe Castle topped with framed calicos. This was a beautiful library and one couldn't help but imagine what it must have been like to read by candlelight in one of the wingback chairs by the fire.

The Library led on to the Drawing Room. Lined with rose silk damask, gold poles hung with small portraits and empty tulip vases were dotted around the room. Through a pair of double doors the Saloon could be seen but we were first to visit the Dining Room.

The room was panelled with wood upon which tapestries and large oil paintings were hung. What caught ones attention however was the organ built into the paneling opposite the marble fireplace. The paper guide wrote "In the Edwardian period, the room was the scene of many glamorous dinner parties hosted by Henrietta Bankes. Notable guests included King Edward VII, Queen Mary and Kaiser Wilhelm II."

Through a small ante chamber which held a spectacular candelabra and we were in the Spanish Room. It was conceived as a showcase for the aforementioned William John's collection of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Spanish paintings. The backdrop to these paintings were panels of tooled leather shipped from Venice and the ceiling had been "borrowed" from a Venetian palazzo.

"William John personally designed the four decorative pietra dura panels of the radiator cabinet and the 12 door panels which display months of the year; six in gold for the summer months and six in pewter for winter. Most impressively, almost all the work on the Spanish Room was planned and completed after William John was forced into exile for the last 14 years of his life. He relied on his rich imagination and extraordinary recollection to continue to design, commission and collect great works of art, carvings and furniture to send back to his beloved home, where the renovations were overseen by his sister Anne. He never saw the finished result."

This led through to the jewel of Kingston Lacy, the Saloon. Originally the main entrance for the house, Frances and Henry Bankes the Younger created this 'Ball Room' in the 18th-century as part of their major renovations to the house. The ceiling was raised in height and hand painted and the main entrance was moved to the east side of the house. The Grand Ball of 1791 was held as a celebration of the completion of the works.

Renamed the Saloon by their son William John, he otherwise did little to alter the space his parents had created, adding only the marble niches and the 18th-century oak double doors leading to the Drawing Room. The other main purpose of this room was to display the best paintings the family had collected over the generations. The giant Landscape with Herdsmen by Nicolas Berchem the Elder, opposite the fireplace, has been listed in family records for over 350 years, along with a number of other pictures still in the house. The painting of the holy family, on the left of the fireplace, was made by an artist in Raphael's circle. The ornately carved frame was designed by William John to highlight the painting's previous illustrious owners, represented by their coats of arms.

William John came across the painting while 'in disguise' behind the French lines in the besieged city of Pamplona. He would recount years later a story of dining with a French commanding officer, who served him 'a meal of rats, washed down with strong drink, and after dinner obliged him to buy a Raphael, which he had stolen from the Sacristy of the Escorial, and a donkey, which I don't think he had stolen from anybody'.

The Saloon led on to the final room on the first floor, the State Bedroom. “This bedroom was one of the last rooms William John turned his attention to when remodelling the house in the mid-1800s. The space is dominated by the walnut, holly and sycamore half tester bedstead. Designed by William John and commissioned in the early 1850s, it is carved with a relief with Venus, Cupid and Putti on the headboard, surmounted by a winged figure of Motherhood, and a figure of Silence flanked by Angels on the foot-end. William John's designs also incorporated the Bankes' coat of arms, a tortoise and a number of bats. The bed was unfinished at the time of William John's death in 1855, and his brother, George Bankes finally agreed that the bed would be paid for at a reduced price in its incomplete state.”

The second floor and its bedrooms were closed during our visit due to a staff shortage so we headed downstairs to find that one of the rooms had been turned into an exhibition of Egyptian artefacts.

Once we had found our way outside we headed towards the gardens. We walked round the edge of the house and through a door in the wall into the Victorian Fernery, a welcome relief from the sun. We walked along the blue and white border which was not yet at its peak and as we looked back the view of the house was framed by a cedar of Lebanon.

On our left was the Lime Walk but we chose to continue forwards to the Japanese Gardens. As we were exploring a rumble of thunder warned us of impending rain and so we returned to the house to take refuge in the safety of the bookshop. No treasure was to be found that day but we were rewarded with one more magical sight as we headed back towards Wiltshire, a beech avenue that felt as if it went on for miles, and one could only imagine that if it was such a beautiful sight now in early summer then it must be beyond all description in the autumn.