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William Thomas Beckford

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Title: William Thomas Beckford  
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Subject: Vathek, Fonthill Vase, Henry Goodridge, Gaspare Pacchierotti, Gay literature
Collection: 1760 Births, 1844 Deaths, 18Th Century in Lgbt History, 18Th-Century British Novelists, 18Th-Century English Novelists, 18Th-Century English Writers, 19Th-Century English Writers, Bisexual Men, Bisexual Politicians, Bisexual Writers, Burials in Somerset, Deaths in Bath, Somerset, English Art Collectors, English Fantasy Writers, English Horror Writers, English Male Novelists, English Male Short Story Writers, English Novelists, English People of Scottish Descent, Lgbt Novelists, Lgbt Politicians from England, Lgbt Writers from England, Members of the Parliament of Great Britain for English Constituencies, Members of the Parliament of the United Kingdom for English Constituencies, People from Wiltshire, Uk Mps 1806–07, Uk Mps 1807–12, Uk Mps 1812–18, Uk Mps 1818–20
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William Thomas Beckford

William Thomas Beckford
William Beckford in 1782 by George Romney
Born (1760-10-01)1 October 1760
London, England
Died 2 May 1844(1844-05-02) (aged 83)
Bath, Somerset
Nationality English
Occupation Writer, art collector, politician
Notable work Vathek (c. 1781); Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780); Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1835)

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844), usually known as William Beckford, was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820. He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek, the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower ("Beckford's Tower"), Bath, and especially for his art collection.


  • Biography 1
  • Art collection 2
    • Works owned by Beckford 2.1
  • Fonthill Abbey 3
  • Lansdown Crescent and Lansdown Tower 4
  • Other works 5
  • Legacy 6
  • Cultural references 7
  • See also 8
  • Notes 9
  • References 10
  • External links 11


Beckford was born on 1 October 1760 in the family's London home at 22 Soho Square.[1] At the age of ten, he inherited a fortune from his father William Beckford, who had been twice a Lord Mayor of London, consisting of £1 million in cash (£124 million as of 2016),[2] an estate at Fonthill in Wiltshire (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens), and several sugar plantations in Jamaica, worked by slaves.[3] This fortune allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing. He was briefly trained in music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his drawing master, Alexander Cozens, was a greater influence, and Beckford continued to correspond with him for some years until they fell out.[4]

On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy's uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers.[5] Courtenay was just ten years old on first meeting Beckford, who was eight years older. For many years Beckford was believed to have conducted a simultaneous affair with his cousin Peter's wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755–1791).[6] Beckford was discovered (according to a house guest at the time) to be 'whipping Courtenay in some posture or another' after finding a letter penned by Courtenay to another lover. Although Beckford was never punished for child molestation, fornication, or attempted buggery, he subsequently chose self-exile to the continent in the company of his long-suffering wife (who died in childbirth aged 24).[7][8]

William Beckford's Grand Tour through Europe, shown in red.

Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Alexander Cozens, Beckford journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book about his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783). Shortly after this came his best-known work, the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), written originally in French; he boasted that it took a single sitting of three days and two nights, though there is reason to believe that this was a flight of his imagination.[9] Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity. His other principal writings were Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work; and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he settled for a while.[10]

Beckford's fame, however, rests as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In undertaking his buildings he managed to dissipate his fortune, which was estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income of £100,000 a year. The loss of his Jamaican sugar plantation to James Beckford Wildman was particularly costly. Only £80,000 of his capital remained at his death.

Art collection

The Fonthill vase, made in Jingdezhen, China but adorned with metallic mounts in Europe, was the earliest piece of Chinese porcelain documented to reach Europe, in 1338. It was once in the possession of William Thomas Beckford.

Beckford was a compulsive and restless collector, who also frequently sold works, sometimes later repurchasing them. His collection was notable for its many Italian Quattrocento paintings, then little collected and relatively inexpensive. Despite his interest in Romantic medievalism, he owned few medieval works, though many from the Renaissance. He was also interested in showy Asian objets d'art such as Mughal hardstone carvings. But although he avoided the classical marbles typical of the well-educated English collector, much of his collection was of 18th-century French furniture and decorative arts, then enormously highly priced compared to paintings by modern standards. He bought a single Turner in 1800, when the artist was only 25 (The Fifth Plague of Egypt, £157.10s), and in 1828 William Blake's drawings for Gray's Elegy,[11] as well as several works by Richard Parkes Bonington, but in general he preferred older works.

By 1822 he was short of funds, and in debt. He put Fonthill Abbey up for sale, for which 72,000 copies of Christie's illustrated catalogue were sold at a guinea apiece; the pre-sale view filled every farmhouse in the neighbourhood with visitors from London.[12] Fonthill, with part of his collection was sold before the sale for £330,000 to John Farquhar, who had made a fortune selling gunpowder in India.[13] Farquhar at once auctioned the art and furnishings in the "Fonthill sale" of 1823, at which Beckford and his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton were heavy purchasers, often buying items more cheaply than the first price Beckford had paid, as the market was somewhat depressed. What remained of the collection, as it was maintained and added to at Lansdown Tower, amounting virtually to a second collection, was inherited by the Dukes of Hamilton, and much of that was dispersed in the great "Hamilton Palace sale" of 1882, one of the major sales of the century. The Fonthill sale was the subject of William Hazlitt's scathing review of Beckford's taste for "idle rarities and curiosities or mechanical skill", for fine bindings, bijouterie and highly finished paintings, "the quintessence and rectified spirit of still-life", republished in Hazlitt's Sketches of the Picture Galleries of England (1824),[14] and richly demonstrating his own prejudices.[15] Beckford pieces are now in museums all over the world.[16] Hazlitt was unaware that the sale had been salted with many lots inserted by Phillips the auctioneer, that had never passed Beckford's muster: "I would not disgrace my house by Chinese furniture," he remarked later in life. "Horace Walpole would not have suffered it in his toyshop at Strawberry Hill".[17]

Works owned by Beckford

Now in the National Gallery, London:

Now in the Frick Collection:

Other collections:

  • the "Altieri Claudes", now at Anglesey Abbey, "The Father of Psyche Sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo", 1663 and "The Landing of Aeneas" painted in 1675. A famous index of taste, as they were auctioned from the estate of HRH the Duke of Kent in 1947 for only £5,300 in 1947 and bought by Lord Fairhaven for Anglesey Abbey, when Beckford had paid £6,825 in 1799, and sold them in £10,500 in 1808 and Philip John Miles paid £12,000 for them in 1813 to hang them at Leigh Court, making them among the most expensive paintings of the day.[30]
  • The Fonthill Vase, a 14th-century Chinese porcelain vase which is the earliest known piece of Chinese porcelain to arrive in Europe, where it was given 14th century metal mounts. Now in the National Museum of Ireland.
  • Other works are in the [33]

Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey designed for William Beckford by the architect James Wyatt. Print from (1823)Delineations of Fonthill and its AbbeyJohn Rutter's .
The opportunity to purchase the complete library of Edward Gibbon gave Beckford the basis for his own library, and James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey in which to house this and the owner's art collection. Lord Nelson visited Fonthill Abbey with the Hamiltons in 1800. The house was completed in 1807. Beckford entered parliament as member for Wells and later for Hindon, quitting by taking the Chiltern Hundreds; but he lived mostly in seclusion, spending much of his father's wealth without adding to it. In 1822 he sold Fonthill, and a large part of his art collection, to John Farquhar for £330,000 (£26.9 million as of 2016),[2] and moved to Bath, where he bought No. 20 Lansdown Crescent and No. 1 Lansdown Place West, joining them with a one-storey arch thrown across a driveway. In 1836 he also bought Nos. 18 and 19 Lansdown Crescent (leaving No 18 empty to ensure peace and quiet). Most of Fonthill Abbey collapsed under the weight of its poorly-built tower the night of 21 December 1825. The remains of the house were slowly removed, leaving only a fragment, which exists today as a private home. This interestingly is the first part which included the shrine to St Anthony — Beckford's patron when he was living in Lisbon.

Lansdown Crescent and Lansdown Tower

Beckford spent his later years in his home at Lansdown Crescent, during which time he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly at the northern end of his land on Lansdown Hill: Lansdown Tower, now known as Beckford's Tower, in which he kept many of his treasures. This is now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and operated by the Beckford Tower Trust as a museum to William Beckford; part of the property is rented to the Landmark Trust which makes it available for public hire as a spectacular holiday home. The museum contains numerous engravings and chromolithographs of the Tower's original interior as well as furniture commissioned specifically for the Tower by Beckford. There is also a great deal of information about Beckford, including objects related to his life in Bath, at Fonthill and elsewhere.

After his death at Lansdown Crescent on 2 May 1844, aged 84, his body was laid in a sarcophagus placed on an artificial mound, as was the custom of Saxon kings from whom he claimed to be descended. Beckford had wished to be buried in the grounds of Lansdown Tower, but his body was instead interred at Bath Abbey Cemetery in Lyncombe Vale on 11 May 1844. The Tower was sold to a local publican who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually it was purchased by Beckford's elder daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, who gave the land around it to Walcot parish for consecration as a cemetery in 1848. This enabled Beckford to be re-buried near the Tower that he loved. His self-designed tomb – a massive sarcophagus of pink polished granite with bronze armorial plaques – now stands on a hillock in the cemetery the centre of an oval ditch. On one side of his tomb is a quotation from Vathek: "Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man — Hope"; and on another these lines from his poem, A Prayer: "Eternal Power! Grant me, through obvious clouds one transient gleam of thy bright essence in my dying hour." Goodridge designed a Byzantine entrance gateway to the cemetery, flanked by the bronze railings which had surrounded Beckford's original grave in Lyncombe Vale.[34]

Other works

As a writer, Beckford is remembered for Vathek, of which the reception from every quarter may have satisfied his ambitions for a career in belles-lettres, and for his travel memoir, Italy: with some Sketches of Spain and Portugal. He followed Vathek with two parodies of current cultural fashions, the formulaic sentimental novel, in Modern Novel Writing, or, The Elegant Enthusiast (1796)[35] and Azemia, a satire on the Minerva Press novels.[36] and also published Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a literary prank burlesquing serious biographical encyclopaedias. Towards the end of his life he published collected travel letters, under the title Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha (1835), the memoir of a trip made in 1794.


Beckford left two daughters, the younger of whom (Susanna Euphemia, sometimes called Susan) was married to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton, and inherited the majority of his collection, which was then moved north to Hamilton Palace, now demolished. The elder, Margaret Maria Elizabeth Beckford, married Lt-Gen. James Orde.[37]

Beckford was portrayed by Daniel Massey in the 1982 Central Television production I Remember Nelson, and has been the subject of several biographies in recent decades.

Beckford also wrote a considerable amount of music, much of it was with the assistance of his amanuensis, John Burton, with whom he collaborated on his largest composition: Arcadian Pastoral. The music manuscripts, which had lain among Beckford's effects at Hamilton Palace, were bought and presented to Basil Blackwell as a leaving present. He, in turn, bequeathed them to the Bodleian Library. In 1998, Michael Maxwell Steer edited and published all Beckford's music, including the collection of Modinhas Brasileiras which had been copied for him during his stay at Sintra in 1787. These are particularly interesting as they are the second surviving example of this Portuguese song form. The edition is available in six volumes from The Beckford Edition.[38] It can be consulted in the Bodleian, and elsewhere.

Cultural references

According to E. H. Coleridge, Beckford is the person referred to in Lord Byron's short poem, "To Dives — A Fragment." Byron describes a person of great wealth, "of Wit, in Genius, as in Wealth the first," who feels "Wrath's vial on thy lofty head burst" when he is "seduced to deeds accurst" and "smitten with th' unhallowed thirst of Crime unnamed." Byron also refers to him in Childe Harold, Canto I, stanza 22. (The poems are readily retrievable online from many sources, as is Coleridge's edition of Byron's works.)

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2015), "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Reitlinger, I, 85 & 250
  12. ^ "He is fortunate who can find a vacant chair within twenty miles of Fonthill," a contributor to The Times reported. "ostrich feathers, which by their very waving we can trace back to Piccadilly are seen nodding at a casement window over a dispopulated poultry yard". (quoted in Lewis Saul Benjamin, The life and letters of William Beckford of Fonthill, 1910:315).
  13. ^ Quoted in Lewis Saul Benjamin, The life and letters of William Beckford of Fonthill, 1910:314
  14. ^
  15. ^ Reitlinger, II, 82-5
  16. ^ Reitlinger, I, 85, and passim in vols I & II
  17. ^ (Benjamin 1910:320) Beckford was dismissive of Walpole. "Walpole hated me," he told Cyrus Redding. "I began Fonthill two or three years before his death. Mischief-making people annoyed him by saying that I intended to buy up all his nic-nackery when he was dead. Some things I might have wished to possess—a good deal I would not have taken as a gift. The place was a miserable child's box—a species of gothic mousetrap—a reflection of Walpole's littleness... My having his playthings he could not tolerate, even in idea, so he bequeathed them beyond my reach." (Benjamin 1910:299). The Strawberry Hill sale of 1842 gave him his opportunity.
  18. ^ Reitlinger, I, ?
  19. ^ Davies, 59 & Reitlinger, I, 122
  20. ^ Davies, 55, & Reitlinger, I, 122
  21. ^ Reitlinger, I, 130 & 217
  22. ^ Reitlinger, I, 135
  23. ^ Davies, 287
  24. ^ All 1882 prices from Reitlinger, I, 128-9
  25. ^ Davies, 145
  26. ^ Davies, 402
  27. ^ Davies, 398
  28. ^
  29. ^ Getty Provenance Index
  30. ^ Reitlinger, I, 40 & 224, précis-ed in Art and Money, by Robert Hughes
  31. ^ Albert Ten Eyck Gardner, "Beckford's Gothic West" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 13.2 (October 1954), pp. 41–49 describes and illustrates Beckford objects in the Metropolitan Museum.
  32. ^ Getty Provenance Index, & Reitlinger passim
  33. ^ The National Inventory of Continental European Paintings
  34. ^ page 275 William Beckford 1760–1844:An eye for the Magnificent 2001, Edited by Derek E. Ostergard
  35. ^ Noted by W.H. Rogers, "The Reaction Against Melodramatic Sentimentality in the English Novel, 1796–1830", Modern Language Notes 1934.
  36. ^ Both noted by W.H. Rogers, "The Reaction Against Melodramatic Sentimentality in the English Novel, 1796–1830", Modern Language Notes 1934.
  37. ^ Gentleman's Magazine, 1822:Sept. pp. 202; Temple Bar, 1900:June p.182
  38. ^


  • "Davies": National Gallery Catalogues: Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools, Martin Davies, National Gallery Catalogues, London 1961, reprinted 1986, ISBN 0-901791-29-6
  • Getty Provenance Research databases (Public collections etc.)
  • Reitlinger, Gerald; The Economics of Taste, Vol I: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices 1760–1960, Barrie and Rockliffe, London, 1961
  • (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)

External links

  • Beckfordiana: The William Beckford Website
  • Gay History and LiteratureNorton, Rictor. "William Beckford: The Fool of Fonthill," , updated 16 Nov 1999, accessed 2 March 2013.
  • Gay History and LiteratureNorton, Rictor. "William Beckford's Gay Scrapbooks," , updated 16 Nov 1999, accessed 2 March 2013.
  • Gay History and LiteratureNorton, Rictor. "A Visit to Fonthill," , updated 30 June 2000, accessed 2 March 2013.
  • His Obituary from the Bath and Cheltenham Gazette, p. 3
  • Fonthill Abbey entry from The DiCamillo Companion to British & Irish Country Houses
  • Images of Lansdown Tower (Beckford's Tower) in Bath
  • Bath Preservation Trust
  • Landmark Trust


  • Works by William Thomas Beckford at Project Gutenberg
  • Works by or about William Thomas Beckford at Internet Archive
  • Works by William Thomas Beckford at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
  • Free eBooks by William Beckford at Manybooks
  • VathekOnline edition of at eBooks@Adelaide

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