Biography of Beckford, William (English patron, writer, collector, and amateur architect, 1760-1844)
|Name||Beckford, William (English patron, writer, collector, and amateur architect, 1760-1844)|
English patron, collector and writer. He was the only son of Alderman William Beckford, MP (1709–70). Orphaned at the age of nine, he inherited a fabulous fortune derived from his family’s Jamaican plantations. He was a precocious child, brought up in a puritanical atmosphere only relieved, after 1775, by the appointment of Alexander Cozens as his drawing-master. An ardent Orientalist, Beckford studied Arabic from 1778 until his departure in June 1780 on the Grand Tour.In 1781 Beckford returned to England, where he celebrated his majority with a spectacular party; he followed this with scandalous Christmas festivities in a setting devised by the theatrical painter Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg and embarked on a princely career of collecting and patronage by commissioning silver from John Schofield and the partnership of Daniel Smith and Robert Sharp. In early 1782 he wrote his celebrated Gothic Orientalist romance, Vathek (pubd 1786). His descriptions in it of tombs and ruins have been thought to reflect his familiarity with the fantastic landscapes of Piranesi’s etchings, such as the Carceri d’invenzione. From May to November 1782 he travelled in Europe with a magnificent retinue that included Alexander Cozens’s son, John Robert Cozens; on his return he wrote Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783), based on his travels.In 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon. They travelled to Switzerland and Paris, where he began his great book collection by buying at the Duc de La Vallière’s sale; much of his subsequent collecting was carried out in revolutionary France. On his return to England in 1784, he became an MP and was considered for a peerage, but an accusation brought against him of gross indecency with his young cousin William Courtenay blighted his prospects and forced him to leave the country for Switzerland. From then on, he spent long periods of time abroad. In 1787 he travelled to Portugal, which he considered his spiritual home. He considered building a house in Sintra; at the same time he corresponded with John Soane and James Wyatt over improvements to Fonthill Splendens, Wilts, his father’s Palladian mansion. Wyatt supervised the building of a high wall, six miles long, to encircle the home park; in 1794 he was converting a garden building into a ‘ruined convent’ and planning the erection of a tower, over 50 m high. The correspondence makes clear that until 1797, when he decided to demolish it, Beckford intended Fonthill Splendens to be his principal residence. His growing enthusiasm for the convent, however, which, by November 1796, had been renamed Fonthill Abbey (destr.), made him resolve to live in it, although it was not fit for habitation until 1812.The degree of collaboration between Wyatt and Beckford, who as a child had received rudimentary tuition in architecture from William Chambers, is debatable: it seems probable that Wyatt, already an accomplished Gothicist, chose the style, while Beckford must be given credit both for architectural details, some of which were borrowed from the Portuguese monastery of Batalha, and the theatrical and grandiose qualities of the building and its interior. As a home it was disastrous in practice, but as the fulfilment of a dream and a manifestation of the sublime, it has never been surpassed. The tower eventually stood 84 m high, the hall was 36.6 m high and each wing measured 7.6×120 m.
Turner, J. ‘Beckford, William’ The Dictionary of Art (London, 1996) Volume, p.