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16 Nov 2020

William Beckford (1760–1844): part two

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)
At the end of our first instalment we left William Beckford alone in Europe, mourning the death of his wife Margaret, while his infant daughters Margaret and Susan were taken to England to live with their grandmother, Maria Beckford.

At around this time, in the mid-1780s, profits from the Beckford sugar plantations in Jamaica were falling and Maria encouraged her son to travel to Jamaica to see what could be done to improve the situation. William seems to have been entirely indifferent to the source of his wealth; after a stormy voyage across the Bay of Biscay, he disembarked in Lisbon and refused to travel any further. This complete lack of interest in his estates, combined with poor management by his stewards, legal disputes and the growing abolition movement, would all affect the profitability of his Jamaican sugar plantations and the lives of the enslaved people who were forced to work on them. William would soon find himself spending far more than he could afford.

Except for a few brief trips back to England, William stayed in Europe until 1795, travelling through France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Portugal and refining his taste for various forms of art and decorative objects. Since his first visit to Geneva in 1777 he had flirted with the pomp and drama of Catholicism, and his stay in southern Europe solidified his interest in the elaborate Baroque art and architecture of the region. He also appreciated the Gothic architecture of monasteries like Batalha in Portugal. William had been fascinated with Arabic culture from a young age and he saw similarities between the two cultures in the rich design and carved stone tracery. It was also in Lisbon where he met the musician Gregorio Franchi (1770–1828), who would become his lifelong companion, agent and designer.

William’s reputation in Britain had been tainted by the exposure of his relationship with William Courtenay in 1784. When he returned to the Fonthill estate in 1795 he built a large barrier wall to protect his privacy. Since he was a teenager he had dreamt about building ‘a Tower [sic] dedicated to meditation’; in 1796 he employed the renowned English architect James Wyatt (1746–1813) to design an impressive Gothic-inspired mansion that would be known as Fonthill Abbey.

A black and white print of an abbey-type building, with a very tall tower at its centre. It is based on Gothic architecture. The sky above is heavy and atmospheric.
The west and north fronts of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, England from ‘Delineations of Fonthill’, 1823, by John Rutter

Fonthill Abbey took over 20 years to complete, and the construction of the building was plagued by a series of disasters. In his attempt for seclusion, William paid the builders to work at great speed, but the hasty workmanship meant that the 90m tower, which was a key part of the incredible design, collapsed twice before the building was finished. Each time William had it re-built even higher. The interiors were decorated in rich purples, reds and golds. Around £12,000 was spent painting the glass windows, and the rooms were filled with the incredible collection that Beckford had been accumulating throughout his life.

Below are some examples from his collection, which included a vast array of precious items from Europe and Asia: here we see a pair of carved stone scent flasks, a precious Indian vase and cover with gold, rubies and emeralds, and a 16th-century Limoges enamel cup. Many items in the collection were embellished with gold mounts designed by Beckford and Franchi.

The extravagance of building Fonthill Abbey and purchasing the finest items to fill it, combined with the loss of two of his sugar plantations in a legal dispute, plunged William into debt. In 1822 he was forced to auction the Abbey and some of its contents. The estate was sold to Scottish millionaire and gunpowder dealer John Farquhar (1751–1826) for £330,000, and other items from his collection were divided amongst wealthy buyers, although William and his son-in-law Alexander Hamilton (1767–1852) did manage to re-purchase some items. The tower collapsed for the final time in 1825, causing considerable damage to one of the wings, and the majority of the Abbey was demolished by the mid-1840s.

By the time the tower finally collapsed, William was living in Bath and had started his next extravagant project. On moving to Bath he used the profits of the Fonthill sale to purchase 2 properties: one in Lansdown Crescent (no. 20) and one in Lansdown Place West (no. 1), which he connected with a stone archway across the drive. He also purchased several farms around Lansdown Hill and commissioned local architect Henry Goodridge (1797–1864) to build a 47m-high tower. The tower was essentially a large garden folly and was connected to Beckford’s home in Lansdown Crescent by an area of gardens known as Beckford’s Ride. It housed his library and he would retreat to the tower for privacy and relaxation. He furnished the house with what was left of his collection from Fonthill and continued to purchase art, books, furniture and beautifully crafted objects like this silver jug, which, like much of his collection, he had engraved with the Beckford and Hamilton crests.

A silver jug with a fitted lid and ivory-type handle is displayed against a plain grey background. The main body of the jug has leaves and flourishes engraved around it.
A silver jug by Cato Sharp for Philip Rundell (1743–1827). Produced in 1823–24, this was one of a number of silver items Beckford purchased with the money he received from the sale of Fonthill Abbey.

In 1836 he purchased the two houses next door in Lansdown Crescent (nos. 18 and 19), with the intention of leaving number 18 empty as a way of securing his privacy – something which had had been much harder to maintain in the busy environment of Bath. Following the abolition of slavery in 1833 and the Slave Compensation Act of 1837, William was paid thousands of pounds in compensation, which he continued to spend on his collection. Beckford was one of 40,000 claimants who were given a total of approximately £20 million. Further details of this compensation can be found on University College London’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership website.

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)

William died at his Bath home on 2 May 1844. His will left his estate to his only surviving daughter Susan, now the Duchess of Hamilton. She inherited approximately £80,000 and what remained of his collection of art, furniture and books. William had requested that his remains were interred near Lansdown Tower, and Susan presented the tower and land to Walcot parish so that it could be consecrated for his burial.


In future blog posts we’ll explore William Beckford’s collection at Brodick Castle in more detail but, in the meantime, keep an eye out for next month’s article where we’ll look at the life of William’s youngest daughter Susan and her marriage into the Hamilton family.

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