1760-10-01

WILLIAM THOMAS BECKFORD, English writer and politician, born (d. 1844) At the age of 10, William Beckford the younger inherited from his father, former Lord Mayor of London, William Beckford a large fortune consisting of £1 million in cash, land at Fonthill (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens) in Wiltshire, and several sugar plantations in Jamaica, which allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing.

At the age of 19 he met the Hon. William Courtenay, later Viscount Courtenay and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old, a boy reputed to have been singularly beautiful, and fell in love with him, a relationship thought to have been largely romantic and sentimental. However, Beckford was bisexual, and six years later he was hounded out of polite English society when (probably unfounded) gossip accused him of seducing the youth, driving him into self-imposed exile on the continent. Having previously, at the age of twenty three, married the fourth Earl of Aboyne’s daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon on May 5, 1783, Beckford chose exile, in the company of his young wife, whom he grew to love deeply, but who died in childbirth at the age of 24.

His best-known work is 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.

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, and which Nelson visited with the Hamiltons in 1800. It was completed in 1807. He mostly lived in seclusion. But living with him in his secluded castle were a fleet of male servants with names selected by Beckford, right out of La Cage aux Folles: “Miss Long,” “the Doll,” “Bijou,” “Miss Butterfly,” “Countess Fox” and “Madame Bion.”

In 1822 he sold Fonthill it to John Farquhar, and moved to Lansdown Hill, Bath where he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly, Lansdown Tower, which is now open to the public.