Sources Cited: Stephanie Barczewski
An exiled estate owner and an empire's conception of itself
This newsletter series didn’t start with a desire to focus on material objects. In my mind, interviews with sources would exist alongside archival manuscripts and research trip experiences would be followed by writers who engage primarily with photographs or journal articles. My own bias in selecting upcoming titles, however, has meant that readers—you—often encounter type- or handwritten pages on these Sundays.
I’ve continued to think about those less material sources and works that rely on them for inclusion. This edition doesn’t indicate a total change of direction, but perhaps it’s a step closer to that properly widened aperture. There’s still an object at its core, a house and the notebooks of its-distant-in-time-and-place owner, but Professor Stephanie Barczewski’s interest in the country house known as Kingston Lacy started with a tour she was given of it some time ago. How Dr. Barczewski has used the story of the house, how it has served as a lens with a diminutive focal length, also felt distinct.
Small places, the sort where one might hope to entirely know them—a city block, a pond, a room—have always interested me. Specifically, examinations of them, often taking place over years, where someone driven by an unseen force seeks to understand their smallest features and rhythms. Perhaps country houses are too large for such undertakings (their natural features alone are too changing and would require too much continued focus for the sort of knowing that I’m thinking of), but the difference in size between this object in focus and its second layer of meaning or the true subject of fascination—the gulf between the two—shares some feature with these longitudinal place-based explorations.
For Dr. Barczewski, Kingston Lacy and its renovations helped her examine something far more history-shaping than a local pond: the British Empire’s conception of itself. Her latest book, How the Country House Became English, is out now from Reaktion Books.
Dr. Barczewski is the Carol K. Brown Scholar in the Humanities at Clemson University where she focuses on modern British history. Her earlier works include Heroic Failure and the British, published by Yale University Press in 2016, and Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, published by Oxford University Press in 2000. She is the co-author and editor of the textbook Britain since 1688: A Nation in the World (Second Edition).
Could you trace the path of how you came upon this material?
I first visited Kingston Lacy around 15 years ago, when I was just beginning to think about writing about British country houses, an interest which ultimately led to two books. The curator was kind enough to give me a private tour on a day when the house was closed, and I was really struck by the tragedy of the story.
The house’s owner in the 1830s, William John Bankes, was gay at a time when the active practice of male homosexuality was a capital offense in Britain. He inherited the house in 1835, but six years later was caught in a compromising position with a Royal Guardsman in Green Park in London. This was his second offense (he had previously been caught eight years earlier), and so he was forced to flee to Italy—a country he fortunately loved—where he lived for the rest of his life.
By that time, he had already commissioned Sir Charles Barry, architect of the new Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle (the house featured on Downton Abbey), to rebuild Kingston Lacy. Bankes remained thoroughly invested in the project and constantly sent suggestions and objects to his brother, who lived in the house in his absence. Bankes’s thoughts are recorded in this notebook.
It’s really unusual to get an owner’s ideas about what they were thinking when they rebuilt a country house. So that makes it a terrific document, but the particular circumstances also make it poignant and almost tragic. Bankes died in 1855 and probably never saw the finished version of Kingston Lacy, though there’s a local story that he landed on the Dorset coast one night and managed to pay a secret visit. I doubt it’s true but it would be nice if it was.
When I was working on my first book about country houses, on the influence of the British Empire financially and aesthetically, I went to the Dorset Heritage Centre in Dorchester and realized that they have a rich archive relating to Kingston Lacy, including this document. Even though much of it was not relevant to that project, it lingered in my mind, and so when I returned to my second go at country houses, for which this material would be much more relevant, it was high on my priority list.
How did you first interact with it?
As I mentioned, very few country houses are well-documented in the sense of having any kind of archival record of why they were built in a certain style or in a certain way. The best you normally get are financial records detailing costs, and if you’re lucky maybe some correspondence with the architect.
But because of Bankes’s unusual (and sad) circumstance of having to design and decorate his house from abroad, the Kingston Lacy archive is incredibly rich in terms of allowing us to understand what William John was thinking regarding what he wanted, because he had to write it all down in order to send it back to England. There’s just not much else–nothing else really that I can think of–like it.
What did the material unlock for you in your work?
On the one hand, Bankes was a thorough Italophile, and so the notebooks have loads of references to Italian buildings which he saw as inspirations for Kingston Lacy. But on the other, he wanted the house to reflect the English tradition, and in particular the house’s origin in the seventeenth century, when it was built as an example of Inigo-Jones-style Palladianism.
He visited many of the houses that had been designed by architects associated with that movement. And he was conscious that Italian modes of building had to be adapted to the English climate. An example of his blending of English and Italian modes of decoration was the Spanish Picture Room, named because it was intended to display the paintings by Spanish artists that Bankes had acquired while serving as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular War.
The room’s tooled leather paneling came from several Venetian palazzos, while the grotesque foliage panels on the ceiling had originally been in the Palazzo Contrari degli Scrigni on the Grand Canal. But the paneling on the doors, which was specially commissioned by Bankes, featured zodiac designs which displayed a variety of English pastoral motifs. In the book, I wrote how April (Taurus), for example, displayed a
rainbow, umbrella with drops at the points, boy catching rainwater, another catching the sun with a looking glass, swallows, primrose, violets, wild hyacinth, daffodil, polianthus, narcissus, anemone, scarlet ranunculus, cowslip, early tulips, pyrus japonica, Judas tree, wallflower, bees out of hive, snail crawling, periwinkle, lady smocks, crown imperial, April fool, hod, trowel, St George’s Day, mare & foal, drops of rain over the whole.
Bankes’s ideas for Kingston Lacy combined his admiration for Italy, his respect for the house’s seventeenth-century history, and his love of the English pastoral tradition. These things were in harmony rather than tension with each other. I found that really interesting.
Where did it lead to next?
For me, Kingston Lacy raised an important question about English culture: must Englishness be expressed in cultural form as ‘pure’ and untainted by continental European influence, or can it be a transformation of continental influences into something locally distinct? What, in other words, makes a building ‘English’: its resistance to continental influences or its transformation of them into something unique to the national context? Must it rely for its Englishness upon the development of a style of architecture entirely unique to England? Or can that Englishness stem from the adoption and adaptation of European continental styles? This was a really important question that was one of the main topics that I explored in my book.
For those readers who may be less familiar, these are questions of continued importance because it was issues of English identity that drove the Brexit vote in 2016. To put it simply, the United Kingdom left the European Union because English voters wanted to. So it’s very important that we understand English identity, especially as it relates to continental Europe.
What materials weren’t you able to include in the book?
I would actually go back to my previous book on empire and country houses for this. As part of my efforts to assess the financial impact of empire, I looked at documents related to slavery and the slave trade. These included the settlements listing the assets that heiresses to West Indian plantations brought to their marriages with British landowners. These documents are huge sheepskin things, like two feet by three feet. Some of them have pages and pages of listings of slaves, followed by pages and pages of listings of domestic animals.
Few things have ever brought home to me the horrible and brutal reality that slaves were seen as mere property. Of course you know it, but seeing it in that form somehow made it more real. I remember one particularly massive settlement in the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, with just page after page of slaves’ names. After I brought it back to the desk, the archivists were looking at it too, and were just as appalled as I was. I was only able to briefly reference it in my book, but sometimes there’s an emotional side to documents that you can’t really incorporate into your published research.
Is there a librarian, archivist, colleague, or research assistant who helped you put together the pieces from these materials?
I’d like to offer a general shout-out to the county and local archives of the UK. Many British historians never get beyond the National Archives or the British Library, but there’s such incredibly rich and wonderful material in the local record offices and heritage centres, much of which has never been explored. I’ve visited around 60 archives for my two country house books, and there’s such great stuff lurking out there.
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