The visitor books of Kingston Lacy give an insight in to the comings and goings of a large country house. Although they did not open the house to the general public, H.J. Ralph Bankes (1902-1981) and Hilary Strickland-Constable (1908-1966) did allow particular visitors to see the fabulous collection of paintings, sculpture, furnishings and interior décor. 1937 was particularly rich in the number of eminent art experts, who feasted their eyes on paintings by Velasquez, Titian, Rubens and what at the time was believed to be a Giorgione, but has since been identified as a Sebastiano.
The influential art historian and museum director Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) visited the house on the 18th June 1937. It is fascinating to speculate what was going on in Clark’s head while touring the rooms at Kingston Lacy. At this time he was the director of the National Gallery (a post he would hold until 1945), and had just persuaded the gallery’s trustees to purchase four 16th century paintings he had seen in Vienna, which he believed to be by Giorgione. The expenditure of £14,000 of public funds was enormous at the time, and the British press protested at the waste of taxpayers’ money. Nonetheless, the paintings went on display in the gallery with considerable fanfare. However, his staff did not accept the attribution to Giorgione, and within a year scholarly research established the paintings as the work of one of Giorgione’s minor contemporaries. Clark’s reputation suffered a considerable blow, and his relations with his professional team, which were already uneasy, were further strained. On a brighter note, Clark was knighted at the unusually young age of thirty-five shortly after his visit to Kingston Lacy.
A more controversial figure (although not revealed as such at the time) was Anthony Blunt (1907-1983), member of the infamous Cambridge Five. He visited the house on the 25th September 1937, a day before his 30th birthday. At this time he specialised in Spanish old masters, and would no doubt he would have taken a particular interest in the unusual Spanish collection in the William John Bankes’ ‘Golden Room’ (now known as the Spanish Room). This visit happened shortly after a crucial turning-point in his both illustrious and infamous career. Fourteen days prior, Blunt had arrived at the Warburg Institute as a general editor for its publications – this saw him become one of the foremost art historians of the twentieth century. During 1937 Blunt had also begun to teach classes at the Courtauld Institute of which he would later be a successful director. His other, more covert life as a spy had also taken a major turn when Blunt met his soviet recruiter in January 1937, as arranged by his notorious friend and fellow spy, Guy Burgess.
He visited the house alongside the artist William Coldstream, a founder of British realism with the Euston Road School. Blunt had written complimentary articles about Coldstream, declaring him the superior of Picasso. Intriguingly, they were accompanied by the headmaster of nearby Canford School, the Rev. Clifford B. Canning, and his wife. Earlier in the year Canning had made the artist a part-time adviser to the school’s art department, and Coldstream subsequently painted Canning’s portrait.
Author: David Beardsley