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William John Bankes 1786-1855 biography
Based on Adventures in Egypt and Nubia. The travels of John William Bankes by Patricia Usick. British Museum Press, 2002, 224 p. Get the biography from Amazon.co.uk.
Article added on November 13, 2002
  
William John Bankes was born on December 11, 1786. He was the son of Henry Bankes of Kingston Hall (later to be known as Kingston Lacy), Dorset, and the former Frances Woodley (who gave birth to five other children).
 
William was educated at Westminster School from the age of nine and, from 1803 on, at Trinity College in Cambridge where he obtained his BA in 1808 and his MA in 1811. When his elder brother was lost at sea in a shipwreck in 1806, William John Bankes became heir to the house and its estates. Like the lifelong friend he made at Trinity College, Lord Byron, who was two years Bankes's junior, he inherited his title by chance circumstance. Both were not only wealthy but also competitive, witty and extravagant, in short byronesque personalities.
 
Although not aristocratic, the Bankes family were leading gentry, educated, traveled, cultured and represented the family seat in Parliament. They were wealthy landowners in Dorset and augmented their income substantially from their control of a graphite mine in Cumberland. William John Bankes embellished Kingston Lacy by continuing a family tradition of collecting major paintings, objects, furniture and by commissioning bronzes.
 
Byron said of Bankes's role at Cambridge that "while he stayed, he ruled the roast - or rather the roasting - and was father of all mischiefs". Bankes was the dominant figure in their friendship until the publication of Byron's Childe Harold in 1812, after which the roles were reversed. At Cambridge, Bankes had already developed his acerbic critical faculties; he was proud, arrogant, patronizing, fluent in Italian, a fine classicist and may already have had a dangerous temper, a penchant for risk and a lack of self-restraint.
 
In 1810, William John Bankes joined his father in Parliament. Until 1812 he represented Truro, after his years of travel he represented Cambridge University 1822-26, Marlborough 1829-32 and Dorset 1832-34. His career ended abruptly in 1834 because of his arrest for a homosexual offence involving a private in the Royal Guards in the previous year.
 
In 1812, just a month before leaving England, Bankes made overtures to Annabella Milbanke. She also rebuffed proposals by Lord Byron, Augustus Forster and Frederick North Douglas. However, in September 1814, she accepted a further proposal from Byron and married him in 1815, with disastrous results.
 
From 1812 onwards, Bankes's yearning for intellectual respect and excitement led him explore the world. In Spain, he began collecting seriously. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Grand Tour reopened to the wealthy. He traveled for instance to Rome, Naples, Greece, Constantinople and Malta. From 1815 to 1819, Bankes showed a particular passion for Egypt and Nubia. With Napoleon's defeat in Egypt in 1801, the Rosetta Stone, the key to the decipherment of hieroglyphs, had been brought to England. In 1809 the first of 24 elephant-folio volumes of the Napoleonic scientific mission's publication of the Description de l'Egypte was published which stimulated the scientific and popular interest in Egpyt.
 
William John Bankes arrived in Alexandria in the summer of 1815. He he had no intention of traveling beyond the pyramids nor of remaining in Egypt until he met the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt who inspired him with the desire to explore and record Nubia in a serious way. Burckhardt had traveled through Nubia in 1813 and was the first European to discover the Great Temple at Abu Simbel and, in Syria, the first to enter Petra, although his account was published only posthumously. Burckhardt traveled for the African Society under the name of Sheikh Ibrahim. He advised Bankes to adopt Oriental dress and established a list of sites to be seen on both banks of the Nile, beginning at Philae.
 
As a skilled draughtsman and familiar with the terms and techniques of architecture, Bankes recorded ancient sites and monuments and copied inscriptions, amassing a vast portfolio of notes, plans and drawings with the help of artists and draughtsmen during his travels in Egypt and Nubia. Their accurate copies of hieroglyphic inscriptions as well as Bankes's own discoveries on the obelisk from the temple at Philae, brought back to his garden at Kingston Lacy, provided vital clues to decipherment.
 
Through the English natural scientist and polymath Thomas Young, Bankes later came into contact with the French scholar Jean-François Champollion who finally managed to decipher a list of hieroglyphs and to formulate a system of grammar which became the basis for all subsequent scholarship. Bankes's contribution was above all the discovery of the name of Cleopatra on the Philae obelisk which, in its importance, has unfortunately eclipsed all the other discoveries of his travels. Although Champollion denied that he had taken the name from Bankes's annotations to the print of his obelisk, which was for private circulation, the phonetic letters in the names of Cleopatra and Ptolemy were the key to Champollion's decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, which was made possible through his profound understanding of Coptic. Anyway, Bankes was the first to discover the name of Cleopatra (in 1818). However, the Englishman did not devote a great deal of time and attention to hieroglyphs beyond the mentioned discovery since, although still undeciphered, he had observed the frequently repetitive nature of the inscriptions which he assumed to be religious ritual and consequently could not "see anything that looks like history" in them.
 
No relationship was established between the two men, partly because of the rivalry between the French and the English and partly because of the accusations that Bankes directed at Champollion, who claimed to have discovered the name of Cleopatra independently.
 
Bankes did not publish his findings but became caught up in acrimonious disputes with other travelers, including his former companions. Back in England, most of his wealth and energy went into the reconstruction of Kingston Lacy during the six years after his father's death in 1834 and the enlargement of his outstanding art collection.
 
Bankes had an affair with a married woman in 1822, followed by a libel case and two arrests for homosexual offences, the second of which forced him to flee England for exile in Italy. His second arrest in 1841 for homosexual offences happened under the following circumstances: he had climbed over the railings of Green Park in the night of August 29 and had had sex with a guardsman on a park bench where he was discovered by a police officer, whom he tried to bribe into letting him go, as well as giving him a false name. In September 1841, before the next sessions on his legal case came up, he set off for Le Havre. He spent the first winter in the south of France.
 
Bankes stayed in Italy from 1843 to 1855. In 1851 he visited Vienna, Berlin, Cologne and Heidelberg, returning to Venice at the end of October. In July 1854 he was in Calais, maybe for a clandestine visit to Dorset. At the end of the month he was in Paris. In November he returned to Venice. Throughout these years, he remained a great collector and continued to direct every detail of the refurbishment of Kingston Lacy from abroad. His last letter to his widowed sister Anne, who had moved into Kingston Palace, is dated March 29, 1855, just two weeks before his death.

Despite Burckhardt's plea to donate his Egyptian treasures to the nation, William John Bankes did not do so. Nor did he regard his antiquities in the same light with which he viewed European art and architecture, and they did not form part of his decorative scheme for the house. Following generations relegated his collection to the basement rooms and attics at Kingston Lacy, and his portfolio was neglected and forgotten. The antiquities are now on display in a special museum in the house, which is owned by The National Trust and is open to the public.
 
Bankes's legacy includes, among a vast quantity of papers, a portfolio of over 1500 drawings of Egypt alone, a complete record between 1815 and 1819 of many previously unexplored Nubian temples and copies of inscriptions of all kinds from Egypt, Nubia and Syria, many now vanished. He discovered and recorded the inner chambers of Wadi es-Sebua, and was hauled up on ropes to find the New Kingdom shrines and stela in the cliffs at Qasr Ibrim. He explored the ancient sites of the Hauran region in Syria, recorded a lost tomb at Sidon, identified the cities of the Decapolis, made the first drawings of Petra and explored the Dead Sea area. After returning to England, Bankes sent the artist-explorer Linant de Bellefonds to discover the lost city of Meroe and Linant recorded all the then virtually unknown sites of southern Nubia. Many of the sites and monuments recorded by Bankes and his team have now been damaged, destroyed or lost beneath the waters of Lake Nasser, which submerged Lower Nubia when the Aswan High Dam was constructed in the 1960s. The UNESCO salvage operation surveyed and rescued many monuments but the sites were lost. Bankes's portfolio remains an extraordinarily valuable record of the archaeology of Nubia, and in some cases represents the only record of inscriptions and monuments which would otherwise have remained unknown.

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Men at work excavating the Great Temple of Abu Simbel in 1819. Painting by Beechey. Photograph copyright: The National Trust/The Bankes of Kingston Lacy & Corfe Castle Archives, Dorset Record Office.
 

The rock-cut Khasneh at Petra. Drawing by William John Bankes. Photograph copyright: The National Trust/The Bankes of Kingston Lacy & Corfe Castle Archives, Dorset Record Office.
 

Miniature of William John Bankes (1786-1855) by George Sandars, 1812. Photograph copyright: The National Trust/Derrick E. Witty.
 
This article is based on the book by Patricia Usick: Adventures in Egypt and Nubia. The Travels of William John Bankes (1786-1855). The British Museum Press, 2002, 224 p. Get the book from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

Added on August 10, 2004: a new book on Bankes by Anne Sebba: The Exiled Collector: William Bankes and the Making of an English Country House. John Murray, 2004, 320 p. Get it from Amazon.co.uk.


 

 

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