Dorset’s Italian ceiling sees the light

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The end of the English National Trust’s closed season, and the readmission of visitors to one of its finest properties, creates an important opportunity for anyone interested in Italian art. “The Separation of Night and Day” by Guido Reni, a superb painting that has not been seen in public for decades, and not seen properly for at least 150 years, is at last on view again. An overhead fresco by an artist once regarded as among the greatest in the world, it has now been painstakingly cleaned, conserved and replaced on the ceiling of the library at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, after years in storage.

“This monumental doll’s house” is how a Trust curator described Kingston Lacy when it came under his care in 1982. But that description sells the house short. The ancestral home of the Bankes family is certainly a small-scale stately home, but the real feeling conveyed is one of cross-cultural breadth rather than of miniaturisation, however monumental. On the one hand is the original Carolean shell, with exterior echoes of the style of Inigo Jones, and with a very good collection of English portraits, among which those by the normally uneven Restoration court artist Peter Lely are outstanding. But overall the design and layout of the interior strike a note different from early modern England. In its spatial compression and adornment with all kinds of art and craft, it quite deliberately evokes an urban Italian palazzo.

It was the conception of the early-19th-century landowner and collector William John Bankes. A friend in youth of Lord Byron, Bankes spent the last 14 years of his life as an outlaw – one of the last ever to be legally so declared in England – after a policeman had caught him late one night in flagrante with a guardsman in a secluded part of Green Park, London. So in 1841, at the age of 55, the childless and unmarried Bankes signed away his property, including the ancestral Kingston Lacy, to his brother George and fled to Italy, where he lived alone in hotels until his death.

If there was real pathos in William Bankes’s situation, he put it to excellent use. A keen and talented collector, he was determined to turn Kingston Lacy into a worthy repository for his treasures, which included Egyptian objects (in his 20s Bankes had travelled up the Nile and had been among the first to excavate at Abu Simbel) and sculpture and furnishings, as well as many prime old master pictures.

Bankes was a particularly shrewd operator in the art market. As a young man, travelling in the wake of the Peninsular war, he had acquired quite cheaply a suite of then unfashionable Spanish paintings, including works by Velázquez and Zurbarán, which can be seen today in Kingston Lacy’s extra-ordinary Spanish Room, with its gilded Venetian coffer ceiling, and walls panelled in tooled and gilded leather. The room was designed in every detail by the exiled Bankes, who dispatched the ceiling and leather panels from Italy with minute instructions for their installation. It is typical of the obsessive care he lavished on a house that he no longer owned, and could never visit.

The Reni ceiling was among the first things Bankes bought in exile. Painted in 1598, it came from the Palazzo Zani in Reni’s birthplace Bologna, one of two ceiling frescoes painted for the same client early in the artist’s career. In the fresco process, paint is infused into a skim of wet plaster that, once hardened, is extremely difficult to detach in one piece. Undeterred, the aristocratic but impoverished owners proceeded by sticking coarse canvas to the face of the fresco, then shearing away the skim from underneath. This did much damage and, after being rebacked with canvas, the image needed to be almost entirely overpainted in oils before it could be sold to the English milord. The present restoration by the Bristol firm of Bush and Berry has removed all the overpainting, and restored the many losses to the original fresco. The result, with its fresh, soft colours, is quite a revelation.

“I have always preferred,” wrote William Bankes, “even in the works of the greatest masters the legendary to the purely historical, such subjects as admit of light, and angels, and concerts etc.” This is why Reni’s painting so appealed to him. It is poised between the biblical and the mythological. An angel of Raph-aelesque beauty employs two rods to push apart a pair of naked figures, Day represented by a muscular youth (this one more Michelangelo than Raphael) and Night, a nude maiden with a star-lined drape. Reni was still young at this date, and he was never perfectly at ease with fresco. Here his figural foreshortening, especially of Day, looks a little inexpert, though this is partly because the image is seen from nearer than would be ideal. On the other hand the angel rises to the occasion quite brilliantly, a luminous example of what was called aria di teste. Literally “the atmosphere of heads”, the phrase referred to the fullness, or concentration, of grace and beauty, either physical or spiritual, that a great artist is able to infuse into a face. But there is more here than aesthetic charm: Reni’s image refers to philosophical dualism, to questions about sex, and to the creation myth of Genesis, all in one airy three-figured composition. It is quite an achievement for a young artist.

There is no house in England quite like Kingston Lacy and, now that the great Reni ceiling is back in situ, in a state as close as possible to the artist’s intention, there is a feeling that this highly individual house has at last achieved its completion. No wonder the Trust is delighted.

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