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Heartbreaking National Trust exhibition remembers gay men who paid the ultimate price

Despite taking a hammering in the mainstream media, the National Trust is continuing its project to celebrate LGBT history across the country.

The Trust – a conservation charity that maintains hundreds of properties across England, Wales and Northern Ireland – has come under sustained fire from the Daily Mail and conservatives over its year-long drive to celebrate the history of LGBT people.

But the National Trust is soldiering on, this week unveiling a bold new installation at Kingston Lacy, a Trust property in Dorset.

The new exhibition charts the life exile of former owner William John Bankes, an explorer, scholar and art collector who inherited Kingston Lacy in 1834 and set about transforming the house into a Venetian Renaissance palazzo.

The Saloon at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

Bankes sunk much of his time and money into the house, travelling the world to add to its unique collection of antiquities.

But in 1841 he was caught with a soldier in ‘an indecent act’, which at the time could be punishable by death.

Bankes, who had already had a scrape with the law over a similar escapade, was left with no choice but to flee, leaving the home he had dedicated his life to restoring.

He lived out his remaining days in exile in France, and later Italy.

William John Bankes (1786-1855), painted by Sir George Hayter

From his exile abroad, he continued to commission and collect art to send back to Kingston Lacy.

Bankes shipped Italian marble pieces, paintings and many other objects back to the property, each with detailed instructions for how they were to be displayed in the house.

He was never able to publicly return to Kingston Lacy, though experts believe he could have made incognito trips back to inspect the property.

He died in Italy in 1855, 14 years after fleeing the UK.

The Spanish Room at Kingston Lacy, Dorset. This room was created between 1838 and 1855 to display the Spanish paintings acquired by William Bankes.

But 162 years later, Bankes sexuality can finally be embraced at Kingston Lacy.

The Trust this week launched its new installation, EXILE, which is says will enable visitors to learn more about Bankes’ exile, and also consider his extraordinary story within a broader context of historical persecution of LGBTQ people.

As part of the project the rainbow flag will be flown at Kingston Lacy from 18 September, the day that William John Bankes went into exile, until 12 November.

Kingston Lacy, Dorset

EXILE features three distinct installations, linked by a series of new interpretive panels.

As visitors enter the house, they will encounter ‘In Memoriam’, a powerful tribute to the 51 men who were hanged under laws that criminalised same-sex acts during Bankes’ lifetime.

It is a reminder of the brutality of the times and the context of his actions.

‘In Memoriam’, a tribute to the 51 men who were hanged under laws that criminalised same-sex acts during Bankes’ lifetime

Further into the house, the second installation – ‘Displaced’ – uses projection and sound to make connections between Bankes’ story and the ongoing persecution of LGBTQ people, drawing on contemporary experiences of those forced to leave their homes in the UK and abroad.

The final installation – ‘Prejudice, Persecution, Pride’ – sets Bankes’ story within a global history that examines how the law has shaped – and continues to shape – LGBTQ lives.

Facsimile copies of legal documents from the Parliamentary Archives will be exhibited alongside a timeline that reveals familiar and surprising stories of persecution and intolerance, liberation and equality.

A detailed picture of The State Bedroom at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

The programme has been researched and developed by the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) in collaboration with the National Trust and with support from Stonewall.

John Orna-Ornstein, National Trust Director of Curation & Experience says: “Kingston Lacy holds a story that deserves to be known more widely – as with all those we have researched and shared through our ‘Prejudice & Pride’ programme.

“These stories show how deeply and widely LGBTQ heritage goes back into our shared history and how this resonates with our lives today.”

A close up of the ceiling in the Saloon at Kingston Lacy

Professor Richard Sandell of the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries says: “Historic sites hold enormous potential to tell stories that not only illuminate our understanding of the past but which also offer us opportunities to look differently at the world today.

“Our collective aim in researching and developing EXILE has been to offer visitors an enhanced appreciation of the house and its beautiful collections but also the chance to reflect on how that history is entwined with a bigger, ongoing story about the law and LGBTQ equality.”

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