Today is the birthday of William Thomas Beckford,. He was born at his family home at 22 Soho Square in London in 1760. At the age of ten he inherited £1 million from his father and a further annuity of around £50,000. That was a lot of money in the eighteenth century. Let’s have a look at how he spent it.
Beckford became a compulsive art collector. He had a large collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and a good deal of fine antique French furniture which he acquired from French aristocrats who were fleeing the Revolution. He also fell completely in love with the Orient and owned a lot of furniture and prints from the Far East. Beckford was a restless sort of fellow and he frequently sold pieces only to buy them back later.
At the age of 21, his interest in the Orient and a fascination with the tales of the Arabian Nights, which had been translated into English in 1708, led him to write a novel. He claimed to have written in only three days and two nights. Not only did he write it quickly, he also wrote it in French. It is called Vathek and is about a Caliph who lives in a vast palace and follows a life devoted to sensual pleasure and to acquiring forbidden knowledge. He builds himself an enormous tower, with 11,000 steps, in an effort to communicate with the stars, but finds that, once at the top, he is no nearer to them. Then a mysterious stranger comes to his court, offering him access to the Palace of Subterranean Fire which was filled with wonders. The price is that he must give up his faith and perform certain rituals. Then Vathek renounces Islam, takes up the magic arts and embarks on a terrible series of human sacrifices. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well. Beckford claimed that his book was an emotional response to events that happened in his home at Fonthill, in Wiltshire, at Christmas in 1781, so goodness knows what went on there but it may have been when he first met William Courtenay. Vathek is a sort of mixture of the Oriental and the Gothic which stands alongside Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as one of the earliest examples of Gothic literature.
Beckford achieved notoriety when, in 1784, he was found to be having an affair with the much younger William Courtenay, then regarded as the most beautiful boy in England, who would later become 9th Earl of Devon. Beckford was married only the year before to Lady Margaret Gordon and may also have been having another affair with his cousin’s wife, Louisa Pitt. The papers got hold of the story and there was a massive scandal. William Beckford and his wife, who died in childbirth two years later, left for Europe in a self-imposed, but probably necessary exile. He spent the next thirteen years travelling through Europe with a vast entourage which included a doctor and twenty-four musicians. He also carried with him many of his books, his prints, his plates, his cutlery and also his bed. There are stories that he required any inn that he stayed at to have his rooms repapered before he arrived, and that once, in Portugal he ordered a flock of sheep to be sent from England to improve the view from his window.
In 1796 he returned to England with a plan. He surrounded his estate with a twelve foot high wall which very much annoyed his fox-hunting neighbours, but Beckford was against bloodsports and also wanted a bit of privacy. He also wanted a new home, somewhere suitable to house his huge art collection – it would be a Gothic cathedral. Not a house that was a bit like a Gothic Cathedral, an actual massive Gothic cathedral with thirty-five foot high doors and a central tower that was three hundred feet tall. To help him with his plan he employed an extremely popular architect called James Wyatt. Wyatt was not on site quite as much as he perhaps should have been which left Beckford in charge of the project for quite a lot of the time. Wyatt’s design was amazing, it included different architectural styles to make it look as though it had been constructed over a long period of time. His preferred building materials though were timber and cement, which proved to be not such a great idea. Also Beckford was in a hurry to get it finished. He had five hundred labourers working day and night. He bribed four hundred and fifty more, who were supposed to be building new royal apartments at Windsor Castle, to come and work for him instead. He did this by increasing their ale ration. He commandeered every wagon in the area to transport his building materials. By way of compensation for this, when the weather was cold, he delivered free coal and blankets to the poor.
Whether it was due to the poor building materials or the drunken labourers isn’t clear, but parts of the building began to crumble almost as soon as they were completed. One Christmas, he insisted that the dinner be prepared and served at the Abbey, even though the mortar in the kitchen was still wet. As the servants carried the food into the dining room, the kitchen collapsed behind them. Then the huge central tower was destroyed in a gale. Far from being disheartened, Beckford appears to have enjoyed watching his house crumble as it gave him the opportunity to start building anew. When his tower collapsed for a second time, his only regret was that he wasn’t there to see it. The tower was rebuilt for the third time, this time in stone, and the building was declared finished in 1813.
Beckford lived alone in his enormous house, excepting his servants and four dogs which I read were called Nephew, Tring, Mrs Fry and Viscount Fartleberry, I really hope that’s true. He didn’t have very many guest either. His neighbours were extremely curious, but because of his relationship with William Courtenay and subsequent exile, they still held him in disgrace. They would attempt to visit whilst he was away. If he heard about it, he would rush home and provide a banquet for them, knowing that etiquette would compel them to stay, even though it also compelled them to shun him. Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton dined there in 1800 and were met at the thirty-five foot high front door by a dwarf. Beckford kept an odd collection of boy servants, a harem possibly, to whom he gave nicknames such as Pale Ambrose, Miss Butterfly and Mr Prudent Well Sealed Up.
When at last this immensely wealthy man was stuck for money he sold his Abbey to an arms dealer called John Farquar in 1822. The tower collapsed again in 1825, taking part of the west wing with it. Beckford moved to Lansdown Crescent in Bath, where he had another tower built to house his treasures. It is still standing, you can even hire it out as a holiday home. Beckford died in 1844 and, after resting for four years at Bath Abbey cemetery, was reburied close to his Lansdown Tower in a tomb which is inscribed with a line from his novel Vathek: “Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man – Hope”.