Posted on

William Thomas Beckford: Author, Architect and Rogue

You certainly must have heard before I can tell you that Col. Orde has married our cousin, Margt. Beckford, the Marchess. of Douglas’s sister. The papers say that her father disinherits her, but I think too well of an Orde to suppose that she has not a handsome independence of her own.
Jane Austen to Cassandra
May 29, 1811

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844), usually known as William Beckford, was an English novelist, art critic, travel writer and politician. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and again from 1806 to 1820.

Beckford was born in the family’s London home at 22 Soho Square. At the age of ten, he inherited a large fortune from his father, a former Lord Mayor of the City of London, William Beckford consisting of £1 million in cash, land at Fonthill (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens) in Wiltshire, and several sugar plantations in Jamaica. This allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing. He was trained by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in music.

Thirteen years later he married the fourth Earl of Aboyne’s daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon on May 5, 1783. However, Beckford was hounded out of polite English society when (probably unfounded) gossip accused him of “sexual irregularity”- at that time a capitol offense. Beckford chose exile, in the company of his young wife, whom he grew to love deeply, but who died in childbirth at the age of 24.

Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Alexander Cozens, Beckford journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book on his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783). Shortly afterwards came his best-known work, the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), written originally in French and, as he was accustomed to boast, in a single sitting of three days and two nights. There is reason, however, to believe that this was a flight of his imagination. 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 (1835), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he settled for a period.

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 (estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income £100,000 a year, which (although probably never exceeding half that) made him very rich. The loss of his Jamaican sugar plantation to James Beckford Wildman was particularly costly. Only £80,000 of his capital remained at his death.

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. 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 mostly lived in seclusion, spending much of his father’s wealth without adding to it, so that the great house he had built became a ruin. In 1822 he sold Fonthill to John Farquhar for £30,000 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).

He spent his later years at Lansdown Crescent from where he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly on Lansdown Hill (Lansdown Tower). Now known as Beckford’s Tower, this is where he kept many of his treasures. It is now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and operated by the Beckford Tower Trust as a museum to Beckford; it is also available for hire as a holiday home from the Landmark Trust. The museum contains numerous engravings, chromolithographs of its original interior and a great deal of information about Beckford, in addition to objects related to Beckford and his life including signs and etched glasses advertising “Beckford Blend Scotch Whisky” and the skull and femur of a horse, believed to be Beckford’s.

After his death at his residence in Lansdown Crescent on May 2, 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 Landsdown Tower, but 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 however it was bought back by the Beckfords’ 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 so loved. His self-designed tomb — a massive sarcophagus of pink polished granite with bronze armorial plaques — now stands on a hillock in 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.

Beckford left two legitimate daughters, the elder of whom, Susan Euphemia, was married to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton. It is the younger daughter, Margaret Beckford, whose marriage was commented on by Jane Austen in a letter to her sister in 1811. Here, she calls her a cousin, though the family connection is unclear.

Beckford, himself, as a writer of Gothic fiction has a closer relationship with Jane Austen. As a professed lover of novels, she was, no doubt familiar with his works, whether or not she actually read them. Although Vathek is more like the Monk, in many ways, touching on aspects of life best left undiscovered by young ladies, it was, nonetheless popular in its day, partly due to the rage for anything remotely oriental in nature.

Several works have sought to link these two authors, including From the Polar Seas to Australasia: Jane Austen, “English culture,” and Regency Orientalism, Beckford, Godwin, Austen, and the divisive 1790s, which was originally presented as a session at the JASNA convention in Toronto, Canada, in 2002. Another volume, Parodies of the Romantic Age: The Poetry of the Anti-Jacobin and Other Parodic Writings includes works by “established authors of the period [who] delighted in parodic prose: Austen, Beckford, Carlyle, Coleridge, De Quincey, Hogg, Lamb, Lewis, Peacock, Scott.”


Wikipedia

Beckford, Godwin, Austen, and the divisive 1790s

They Came to Bath: William Beckford

Want to read the full article?

Sign up for free Jane Austen Membership or if you are an existing user please login

Existing Users Log In
   
Sign up here to become a Jane Austen member
captcha
*Required field