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The Scrivener: The Towering Ambition Of William Beckford

Brian Barratt introduces us to William Beckford, an English "character'' who towered above other eccentrics.

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In the rarefied realms of English eccentrics, William Thomas Beckford stands supreme. He had a passion for building grandiose towers which usually fell down. The first tower was about 276 feet (84 metres) high when it collapsed.

Not only eccentric but also cultured and versatile, he left more marks on history than merely his impossible towers. Born in London in 1760, he was a Member of Parliament several times, for a total of about 25 years. When he was 10, his father, a Lord Mayor of London, left him a fortune which included money, property in England, and sugar plantations in Jamaica. He was probably the richest commoner in England.

As well as having extraordinary architectural ambitions, he was from his precocious childhood involved in music, literature and painting. At the age of 6, he met the 9-year-old Mozart. As an adult touring Europe, he met Voltaire.

After purchasing the library of the historian Edward Gibbon, Beckford had upwards of 20,000 books in his own personal library. A man of letters, he wrote his satirical 'Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters' when he was 16. At the age of 27 he wrote a novel 'Vathek', the tale of a Caliph, in French. (As a boy, he had also studied Persian.) Paintings which were once in his collection now hang in the National Gallery, London.

There was scandal about his private life. In his late teens, he had developed a romantic friendship with William Courtenay, the future Earl of Devon. Courtenay was 11 when the friendship started. There were unproven rumours of impropriety. In about 1785, Beckford fled to Europe. His beloved wife, herself a titled lady, accompanied him.

He toured Europe with his domestic staff of eight persons plus a small orchestra. In Portugal, he was not happy with the view from his window, so imported a flock of sheep from England to make it more picturesque.

After he returned to England, work began in about 1795 on his huge and ornate Gothic Revival style edifice, Fonthill Abbey, on the family property in Wiltshire. He employed about 500 labourers but wanted the work to be done with greater speed. With bribery involving an extra ration of ale, he poached an additional 450 labourers from their work at Windsor Castle. The somewhat intoxicated team of nearly 1,000 laboured in shifts, day and night, seven days of the week. The height of the great romantic but useless tower is given in different recounts as 260, 270, 276, 280 and 300 feet. Anyway, six years after building commenced, it was complete. And it quickly fell down.
Undeterred, he ordered that another tower be built. A few years later, he could admire the new architectural folly, but not for long. It collapsed. By the time he left Fonthill, three towers had collapsed. There are several possible explanations for these catastrophes: poor design, unsuitable materials, weak foundations, hasty construction and, of course, 1,000 inebriated labourers.

Beckford's wife, Lady Margaret, had died after the birth of their second daughter. Apart from his staff, he was the sole resident of Fonthill. Twelve dinners were prepared every day, and twelve places set at the table by twelve butlers, but he dined alone. The other meals were probably eaten later by the staff.

It is known that he was also generous to the poor. He entertained guests only once. In 1800, no less than Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton were entertained at a lavish banquet.
On one occasion, Beckford insisted that he would not eat his Christmas dinner unless it was prepared in his own kitchens. Unfortunately, the builders had not finished work on those kitchens. The oven fires were lit before the cement dried. While the dinner was being taken along the corridors to Beckford in his solitary splendour, the kitchens collapsed.

In 1822, there were financial problems with the sugar plantations. He had to sell Fonthill Abbey in order to survive. With the new owners happily ensconced, the fourth tower collapsed in 1825. It was not rebuilt.

Beckford then bought several adjacent houses in the city of Bath and, as you might have guessed, built another tower. This time, however, it was a mere 130 feet tall and more substantial than its predecessors. He lived in his new abode until his death in 1844. The last tower still stands, along with his property which houses the Beckford museum of fine art — a fitting memorial to the strange genius of a truly eccentric gentleman with towering ambitions.


Note: There are differences and errors in the various versions of this story.
— Encyclopedia Britannica 2007.
— Microsoft Encarta Encyclopædia Standard 2005.
Bozman, E.F. (Ed.) Everyman's Encyclopedia, 5th ed., J.M.Dent, London 1967.
Donaldson, W., Brewer's Rogues, Villains & Eccentrics: An A–Z of Roguish Britons Through the Ages, Cassell, London 2002.
Jones, B., Dictionary of World Biography, 3rd ed., Information Australia, Melbourne 1998.
Magnusson, M. (Ed.), Chambe's Biographical Dictionary, 5th ed., Chambers, Edinburgh 1990.
Nicholas, M., The World's Great Cranks and Crackpots, Hamlyn, London 1982.


This version © Copyright Brian Barratt 2008


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