This floating castle appears to be from an enchanted fable, but in actuality it is Europe's best preserved Renaissance water castle.
Built in 1663, the Kingston Lacy estate was owned by the family of William John Bankes for three hundred years. Bankes was an aristocrat who lived large and had exquisite taste, afforded by inherited wealth. Often referred to as an “explorer,” he lived life with such an eye for adventure that he was once referred to by Lord Byron—the notoriously naughty leading figure of the Romantic movement—as “the father of all mischiefs.” He journeyed through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, notably curating one of the world’s most extraordinary private collections of ancient Egyptian artifacts and antiquities.
By the time Kingston Hall fell into his hands, the family fortune was vast and his tastes had grown even more refined. He hated the redbrick house his ancestors had left him, so in 1835 he began reconstructing it as a gray stone palazzo-style mansion, thereafter known as Kingston Lacy. The Italianate country house became a monument to Bankes’s voyages and obsessions.
In 1841, William was driven out of the country after being caught in what was then deemed a homosexual scandal, a crime punishable by death in his day. He left his art behind, along with detailed notes and drawings, which remained for some time in a cabinet at Kingston Lacy, unpublished and forgotten.
From exile, through his sister, Lady Falmouth, he continued to provide instructions on the decor, while sending back precious items—thus making Kingston Lacy among the most enchanting houses in England, with one of the most poignant legacies.
For traditional art lovers, the paintings hung on the many walls are its triumph. But Kingston Lacy’s outstanding collections are not all to be found inside the house. Much of Bankes’s large collection of Egyptian antiquities remains—somewhat contentiously—on display outside. The most significant piece is the Philae obelisk, an engraved stone structure dating from 150 BCE. Originally it stood at the entrance to the Temple of Isis on the sacred island of Philae until Bankes acquired it sometime between 1815 and 1819. Its journey from Egypt to Dorset was a six-year undertaking by famed adventurer Giovanni Belzoni. Before it had even left Egypt, the obelisk sank into a riverbed of the Nile. Eventually, the Duke of Wellington got involved, arranging for its subsequent delivery to Dorset in a gun carriage.
The obelisk made a massive contribution to the nineteenth-century race to decipher hieroglyphs. As an Egyptologist, Bankes’s interest in the stone tower was hardly idle: he was quick to note inscriptions on it in both ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and ancient Greek. His understanding of the latter led him to identify the names Ptolemy and Cleopatra—a discovery that, once verified, made the obelisk instrumental in Jean-Francois Champollion’s breakthrough in deciphering the inscriptions on temple cartouches and eventually the Rosetta stone.
Bankes died in Venice, having never officially returned to the UK, but family legend suggests that in 1854, in rapidly declining health, he made a final secret visit to his one true love, Kingston Lacy. Following Bankes’s death, the house passed through several generations. In 1981, a descendant of Sir Ralph Bankes (1631–1677), bearing his same name, bequeathed the house, collections, and twelve working farms (along with Corfe Castle) to the National Trust—the most generous bequest it had ever received.
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