William Thomas Beckford (October 1, 1760 – May 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.
Thirteen years later he married the fourth Earl of Aboyne's daughter, Lady Margaret Gordon on May 5, 1783. However, Beckford was bisexual, and was hounded out of polite English society when (probably unfounded) gossip accused him of seducing the Hon William Courtenay, later 3rd Viscount and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old. 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.
Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Alexander 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 (estimated by his contemporaries to give him an income £100,000 a year, but which probably never exceeded half that, making him a very rich man rather the Croesus of legend), only £80,000 of his capital remaining at his death.
Fonthill Abbey designed for William Beckford by the architect James Wyatt
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, which is now open to the public.
He had a seat in parliament from 1784 to 1793, and again from 1806 to 1820.
He left two daughters. The elder was married to Alexander Hamilton, 10th Duke of Hamilton.
He spent his elderly years living in Bath on Lansdown Terrace and built a final masterpiece, Lansdown Tower, (now known as Beckford's Tower), where he kept many of his treasures. He had wished to be buried in the grounds of this tower; this wish was granted after his elder daughter managed to get this piece of land consecrated by the church. After his death at the grand age of 84, on May 2, 1844, at his residence, Lansdown Crescent, his body was laid in a sarcophagus placed on an artificial mound, as was the custom of Saxon kings, of whom he claimed to be a descendent.
- Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1824)
- Recollections of the Monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha (1835)
- The Bible (1902)
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