William Thomas Beckford

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Fonthill Abbey designed for William Beckford by the architect James Wyatt
William Thomas Beckford (October 1, 1760May 2,1844) was an English novelist, art critic, travel writer and politician.

He was born in Fonthill, Wiltshire, in the manor house owned by his father, former Lord Mayor of London William Beckford. From him, William Jr. inherited, at the age of ten, a large fortune consisting of £1 million in cash, land, and several sugar plantations in Jamaica, which allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, not to mention writing.

Three years later he married the fourth Earl of Aboyne's daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon on May 5 1783. She later died in childbirth. (Among the couple's direct descendants are Rainier III of Monaco and the fashion designer Egon von Fürstenberg). Beckford was primarily homosexual, and at the age of 19 notoriously had an affair with the Hon William Courtenay, later 3rd Viscount and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old.

Having studied under Sir William Chambers and William Cozens, he travelled in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book on the subject: 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, at a single sitting of three days and two nights. There is reason, however, to believe that this was a flight of imagination. It is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity. His other principal writings are Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work, and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1835), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he lived for a while. B.'s fame, however, rests nearly as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In carrying out these he managed to dissipate his fortune of £100,000 a year, only £80,000 of his capital remaining at his death.

The opportunity of purchasing the complete library of Edward Gibbon gave Beckford the basis of his own library, and James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey, in which this and the owner's art collection would be housed; it was completed in 1807. He entered parliament as member for Wells and later for Hindon quitting by accepting the Chiltern Hundreds, but mostly lived in seclusion, spending most of his father's wealth without adding to it, so that the great house he had built became a ruin. In 1822 he sold it to John Farquhar, and moved to Lansdowne Hill, where he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly, Lansdown Tower.

He had a seat in parliament from 1784 to 1793, and again from 1806 to 1820.

He died on May 2, 1844, at his residence, Lansdown Crescent, age 84. He left one son and two daughters. The eldest daughter was married to the 10th Duke of Hamilton.

He is buried in Salisbury Cathedral.

Other Works

  • Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1824)
  • Recollections of the Monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha (1835)


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