Friday, 30 August 2019

Researching William Beckford's Fonthill (Thursday 26 September)

One of the most extraordinary characters in the history of Bath is William Beckford (1760-1844). He was 10 years old when his father, who had been twice Lord Mayor of London, died and left him a fortune. This consisted of £1 million in cash, an estate, including a Palladian mansion, at Fonthill Gifford in Wiltshire, several sugar plantations in Jamaica, and a colossal annual income.

William Beckford could do whatever he liked. He was interested in art, music and literature. He wrote Vathek, a Gothic novel, in 1786 as well as criticism and vivid accounts of his travels in Europe. He was a knowledgable and also profligate collector of works of art and a generous patron of decorative art. He was MP for Wells (1784-1790) and Hindon in Wiltshire (1790-1795 and 1806-1820). And he built Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown (Beckford's) Tower. He was reputed to be the richest commoner in England.

In 1783 William Beckford married a daughter of the Earl of Aboyne. Soon afterwards a scandal alleging a homosexual relationship with a teenage boy - who later became the Earl of Devon - made the young couple choose exile on the continent. In 1786 Margaret Beckford died giving birth to their second daughter, Susan.

Beckford sought refuge and sanctuary at his estate at Fonthill Gifford. He engaged the architect James Wyatt to build a large Gothic revival country house to accommodate the complete library of Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), which he had acquired at auction, and his own art collection. The house was Fonthill Abbey, begun in 1796 and completed by about 1810. The building's most striking feature was its 90-metre-high central tower, which collapsed several times. James Wyatt was unreliable and absent for long periods. Beckford himself then took on the role of supervisor of works.

By 1820 Beckford was finally short of money. He sold Fonthill Abbey for £330,000 and moved to Bath, where he bought 20 Lansdown Crescent - and later 18 and 19 also - and 1 Lansdown Place West. By 1827 Lansdown Tower - to us 'Beckford's Tower' - had been completed.

Back at Fonthill, on 21 December 1825, most of the Abbey collapsed as the tower crashed down on it again.

At his death in 1844 William Beckford left about £80,000.

Much is known about William Beckford and his great 'folly' Fonthill Abbey. Possibly nobody knows more than the Bath Preservation Trust's Dr Amy Frost, whom many of us will have known first as the curator of Beckford's Tower.

How is it possible to extend research into something that is already well-researched? When you know a lot, what makes it possible to know more? These are questions that Amy Frost has faced in her work on William Beckford and Fonthill. The many of us who know Amy know that she will enlighten, surprise and fascinate us as she addresses the subject Researching William Beckford's Fonthill at our first lecture of the new season on Thursday 26 September at our new venue, Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, 16-18 Queen Square, beginning at 7.30 pm.

Mike Short    

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