A Miami based contemporary art newsletter / blog

Remembering… William Thomas Beckford

Fonthill Abbey designed for William Beckford by the architect James Wyatt. Print from John Rutter’s Deliniations of Fonthill and its Abbey (1823)

In tribute to artisans and knaves of days gone by, ARTLURKER announces its new slot “Remembering…”. A sort of history bus fraught with bias and pretense to which the ticket is free but satisfaction is anything but guaranteed, “Remembering…” makes its first stop on the cusp of the nineteenth century to reflect on the life and times of the cultural producer and privileged English wastrel, William Beckford. Thanks to Wikipedia for the majority of this information.

William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844), usually known as William Beckford, was an English novelist, art critic, travel writer and politician.

Beckford was born in the family’s London home at 22 Soho Square. Aged 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 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. 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 ample reason, however, to believe that this was a flight of his imagination. Nevertheless, Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity.

A opportunity a few years later to purchase the complete library of Edward Gibbon gave Beckford the basis for his own library, and James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey (above) in which to house this and the owner’s art collection. The abbey was of some reputer and Nelson himself in fact visited the Hamiltons in 1800, just seven years before its completion.

Becford lived most of his life 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 Landsdown Hill (Lansdown Tower). Now known as Beckford’s Tower, this is where he kept many of his treasures. Now a museum it 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 Whiskey” 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. The Tower was sold to a local publican, who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually however it was bought back by the Beckford’s elder daughter, Susan Euphemia, 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.”

For more information please visit our source:

1 Comment

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Remembering… William Thomas Beckford