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William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844) was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest commoner in England. His parents were William Beckford and Maria Hamilton, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820.
He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower ("Beckford's Tower"), Bath, and especially for his art collection.
Beckford was born on 29 September 1760 in the family's London home at 22 Soho Square. At the age of ten, he inherited a fortune from his father William Beckford, who had been twice a Lord Mayor of London, consisting of £1 million in cash (£125 million as of 2015), an estate at Fonthill in Wiltshire (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens), and several sugar plantations in Jamaica, worked by enslaved Africans. This fortune allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing. He was briefly trained in music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his drawing master, Alexander Cozens, was a greater influence, and Beckford continued to correspond with him for some years until they fell out.
William Beckford to William Courtenay, Rome, 1 July 1782: I read your letter with a beating heart, my dearest Willy, and kissed it a thousand times. It is needless for me to repeat that I am miserable without you. You know I can scarcely be said to live in your absence. [. . .] What have we done, Wm., to be treated with such severity! I often dream after a solitary ramble on the dreary plains near Rome, that I am sitting with you in a meadow at Ford on a summer’s evening, my arm thrown round your neck. [. . .] You will hardly be able to read this letter: it is blotted with my tears. My William, my own dear Friend, write to me for God’s sake.
Lansdown Crescent, Bath
Beckford’s Tower, Lansdown Road, Bath
On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy's uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers.
For many years Beckford was believed to have conducted a simultaneous affair with his cousin Peter's wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755–1791).
Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Cozens, Beckford journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book about his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783). Shortly after this came his best-known work, the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), written originally in French; he boasted that it took a single sitting of three days and two nights, though there is reason to believe that this was a flight of his imagination. According to Srinivas Aravamudan Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity.
His other principal writings were Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work; and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he settled for a while.
Beckford was welcomed by the Portuguese aristocracy: the Marquis of Marialva fell in love with him, while he, of course, fell in love with the marquis's son, Dom Pedro. However, Beckford came back from Portugal with a companion who lived with him for the rest of his life. This was Gregorio Franchi, a 17 years old choirboy from the cathedral, with a charming voice, whose father pressed him upon Beckford. He remained at Fonthill for 40 years, rendering invaluable services. Intelligent and cooperative, he became Beckford's agent in the purchase of pictures and antiques. Whena away, Beckford wrote to him every day, in Italian - thousands of letters piled up covering every aspect of his extraordinarily varied interests.
William Beckford, who returned to live behind a seven-mile wall in his fantastic Gothic palace at Fonthill, was liked and fêted by the locals. Most of his upper-class visitors knew of his so-called crimes but thought them either inconsequential or picturesque. Hester Thrale, the friend of Samuel Johnson, was astounded at how quickly Beckford’s ‘favourite Propensity’ was forgotten: ‘I hear nothing said of Mr Beckford but as an Authour. What a World it is!!!!’
Beckford's fame, however, rests as much upon his eccentric extravagances as a builder and collector as upon his literary efforts. In undertaking his buildings he managed to dissipate his fortune, which was estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income of £100,000 a year. The loss of one of his Jamaican sugar plantations to James Beckford Wildman was particularly costly. Only £80,000 of his capital remained at his death.
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