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30 Oct 2020

William Beckford (1760–1844): part one

Written by Sarah Beattie, Regional Curator, Ayrshire & Arran / Dumfries & Galloway
An oil painting, with a rounded top, of a very pale man lying in bed. He is covered by a white sheet up to his neck. A book lies open on a footstool by his bed.
William Beckford on his Deathbed, 1844, oil on panel by Willes Maddox (1813–53)
Although known for his remarkable art collection on display at Brodick Castle, and his imagination as a writer and designer, William Beckford is a controversial figure.

William Beckford was born in 1760 at either the Beckfords’ London house in King Square, now known as Soho Square, or at Fonthill Splendens, a Palladian mansion on their Wiltshire estate. He was the only legitimate child of William Beckford (1709–70), known as Alderman Beckford, and Maria Hamilton (1725–98), the granddaughter of James Hamilton (1661–1734), 6th Earl of Abercorn.

Alderman Beckford was born in Jamaica and was sent to Britain in 1723 to be educated. He was the grandson of Colonel Peter Beckford (1643–1710), the former Governor of Jamaica who owned 20 plantations and approximately 1,200 enslaved Africans. Several generations of the Beckford family were closely involved with sugar plantations and the enslavement of Africans. Alderman Beckford inherited his father’s plantations and their enslaved workers in the mid-1730s. After returning to Britain in the 1740s, he became a prominent British politician: he was MP for the City of London and held the post of Lord Mayor of London twice, first in 1762 and then in 1769.

When Alderman Beckford died in 1770, the majority of his estate was inherited by William, with a smaller portion being divided between his eight illegitimate children. At just 9 years old, William became the owner of his father’s property, including the Fonthill mansion and estate, a number of sugar plantations in Jamaica, and the hundreds of enslaved Africans who were forced to work on them. He also inherited approximately £1 million in cash. This made William one of the richest people in Britain at the time. But, despite his vast wealth, William’s extravagant lifestyle and obsessive collecting meant that he would be plagued by debts throughout his life.

A oil painting of the head and upper body of a young man. He wears a dark jacket with a cream shirt beneath, with a high collar and a ruffled neck tie.
William (Thomas) Beckford, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1782, NPG 5340 © National Portrait Gallery, London. This portrait was painted the year after William returned from his Grand Tour.

As a youth, William received the highest level of education from private tutors. He even briefly took music lessons with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) as well as drawing lessons with the architect Sir William Chambers (1723–96) and the artist Alexander Cozens (1717–86). In 1777 William departed for the Continent to complete his education. Along with his tutor, clergyman and translator John Lettice (1737–1832), he travelled to Geneva, where they stayed with William’s uncle Colonel Edward Hamilton (dates unknown).

It was around this time that William first seems to have developed an attraction to an unknown male youth. Few details are known about this infatuation, but William’s mother was concerned about the reports she received about his lifestyle and she travelled to Switzerland to escort him back to England. Maria Beckford’s attempt to remove her son from a situation that she felt could be damaging to his reputation would in fact introduce him to William Courtenay (c1768–1835). This relationship would ultimately lead to his ostracisation from ‘polite society’, resulting in a prolonged exile in Europe.

Back in England, William began touring the country houses of important and influential families and distant relatives. The trip was arranged by his mother to introduce him to key political figures and prepare him for his future role in Parliament. While in Devon he visited Powderham Castle, which was owned by 2nd Viscount Courtenay (1742–88), and here he became particularly close with the Viscount’s only son and heir, William.

When they met, Beckford was 19 and Courtenay was 11; their relationship at this time is thought to have been based on shared youthful dreams and aspirations. William Beckford would soon turn 21, when he would come of age and become responsible for his own affairs, but his letters from this period suggest he was attempting to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood by clinging to the innocence of youth. However, he had been strongly influenced by Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which celebrated the passionate expression of forbidden love. William read Goethe’s novel during his stay in Geneva, and a similar tone can be seen in his intense description of leaving Courtenay at Powderham and in future correspondence between them.

Following the fashions of the time, William returned to the Continent in the summer of 1780 to complete a traditional Grand Tour through Italy. The journey was most likely orchestrated by his mother to remove him from his turbulent personal life in England. However, the freedom of being abroad allowed William to continue to explore his sexuality and he became involved with a young man from a prominent Venetian family. After leaving Venice, he travelled to Naples where he stayed with Sir William Hamilton (1730–1803) and his first wife, Catherine (d. 1782). Sir William was the British Ambassador to Naples and a distant relative of the Beckfords. William became good friends with Lady Hamilton; she was a source of comfort and advice, and he spoke openly with her about his affairs and desires. Around this time, he also wrote his first book, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), and began to collect his treasured objets d’art, including Japanese lacquerwork.

A pair of ornately carved silver candlesticks are displayed against a plain grey background.
A pair of silver-gilt candlesticks by John Scofield (fl. 1776-1803). These candlesticks were probably purchased in 1781 to mark Beckford’s coming of age.

In 1781 William turned 21, and a huge party was thrown at the family’s Fonthill Splendens in September, followed by a more private (and debauched) celebration in December. Always full of bravado, William would later claim that he wrote his Eastern-inspired Gothic novel Vathek in a frenzy of inspiration after this party. To mark his coming of age, William took a townhouse in London, purchased a new set of silverware, including the pair of candlesticks shown above, and had his portrait painted by not one but two of the best-known artists of the day: Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) and George Romney (1734–1802). After the celebrations were over, he returned to the Continent and worked on an account of his travels which would be completed in 1783 as Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents. The book contained frequent references to his feelings for Courtenay, and the original 500 printed copies were destroyed on the recommendation of the family’s lawyer.

William returned to England in the winter of 1782 and within six months he was married to Margaret Gordon (1762–86), the daughter of Charles Gordon , 4th Earl of Aboyne (c1726–94). The couple honeymooned in Switzerland, and a letter written from William to Courtenay at this time suggests that Margaret was aware of their feelings towards each other.

In April 1784 William became MP for Wells. He was finally on the path to a peerage, and the political career and respectability his mother had always longed for. However, within a few months things would take a dramatic turn. Reports began to circulate in the press of a pair of ‘fashionable male lovers’. Although neither Beckford nor Courtenay were named, the speculation and rumours were extremely damaging and William and Margaret departed for Switzerland, where their first daughter Margaret (1785–1818) was born shortly after.

To a modern audience, Beckford’s relationship with Courtenay and his attraction to adolescent boys is, at best, extremely uncomfortable. However, it’s important to remember that at this time there was no official age of consent for sexual relationships between heterosexual couples. British law allowed girls as young as 12 and boys aged 14 to marry; a 1791 French law set the age of consent for sexual intercourse for girls at 11. The major objection from their contemporaries to Beckford and Courtenay’s relationship was that it was between two men. Some sexual acts between men were illegal in this period, and exposure of a homosexual relationship could result in imprisonment or even execution.

William and Margaret settled near Lake Geneva and attempted to rebuild their life. Many people encouraged Margaret to separate from her husband but she stayed with him and, within a few months, was expecting their second child. Susan (1786–1859), who would go on to marry the 10th Duke of Hamilton, was born in May 1786 but Margaret never recovered from the birth and died a few weeks later from puerperal fever. William was devastated by Margaret’s death and his grief increased when he was advised not to return to Fonthill for her burial. The two young girls were brought to England by Maria Beckford and were raised by her in William’s absence.

In the second part of our journey through William Beckford’s life, we’ll look at the building of Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower, his amassing of a remarkable collection and his increasing financial debts.

This series of blogs would not have been possible without the expert knowledge and generosity of internal and external colleagues. Particular thanks are due to Dr Godfrey Evans for his extensive research on the Hamiltons and their collections; Dr Amy Frost for taking the time to discuss her work on Beckford, his Jamaican plantations and their enslaved workers; Dr Bet McLeod for sharing her knowledge on William Beckford and the Hamilton ceramics; and to Sue Mills, Education Officer at Brodick, for always being patient and generous with her knowledge of the castle.

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