William Beckford (1760-1844)

Oil painting of a boyish good-looking man about 21 wearing black coat and frilly lace shirt.

William Beckford
painted 1782 by Joshua Reynolds

In the late 18th century William Beckford was said to be the richest commoner in England and was MP for Wells 1784-90. The son of a twice Lord Mayor of London, he inherited aged ten on the death of his father a million pounds and the 6,000 acre Fonthills estate in Wiltshire with an annual income of £100,00 a year. His wealth came from sugar plantations in Jamaica and he is said to have owned 3,000 slaves. The cruelty of slavery enabled him to indulge in his lavish, hedonistic lifestyle as an art collector, connoisseur and writer. In 1783 he married Lady Margaret Gordon and they had two daughters but Beckford was primarily homosexual and spent ten years in exile on the Continent after an infamous gay sex scandal. On his return he spent the last 22 years of his life in Bath.

In the autumn of 1784 Beckford was said to have been seen in the bedroom of William “Kitty” Courtenay (later the 9th Earl of Devon) at the Courtenay family home, Powderham Castle, near Exeter. After an argument 24 year old Beckford was said to have horsewhipped the 16 year old Courtenay who was said to have been “the most beautiful boy in England”. Courtenay was discovered just wearing his shirt with Beckford “in some posture or another”. Letters between the pair were intercepted by the boy’s uncle, Lord Loughborough, and published in newspapers. Courtenay and Beckford (who were distantly related) first met when Courtenay was ten and they continued a gay relationship at Powderham Castle and Beckford’s estate at Fonthill. The scandal forced Beckford to live in Portugal for ten years 1785-95. His wife accompanied him but died in childbirth aged 24. Courtenay also fled abroad, to the USA and later France where he died in 1835 aged 66. He was buried at Powderham which is still the family seat and is now open to the public and is also a function venue.

Beckford wrote his famous Oriental Gothic novel Vathek in 1782 (in French) and it was published in England in 1786. He wrote other novels, published travel letters, composed music and was reputed to have been briefly taught by Mozart.

In 1796 he began work on building Fonthill Abbey which once dominated the Wiltshire landscape and was one of the greatest buildings ever built in the Gothic Revival style. The central tower stood 300 foot and collapsed twice. After the second collapse in 1825 the building became a ruin and today little of the original remains. Beckford lived at Fonthill from 1807-22 and in 1800 Lord Horatio Nelson, his mistress Lady Emma Hamilton, and her husband, Sir William Hamilton, who was Beckford’s cousin, were visitors.

While at Fonthill Beckford kept a harem of young male servants who were given revealing gay nicknames such as “Miss Long”, “Miss Butterfly” (slang for catamite) and “Mr Prudent Well Sealed Up”. Rumours of wild orgies abounded which have been exaggerated but are based on fact. Always on the look out for beautiful boys, in 1807 Beckford was taken by 18 year old tight rope walker and circus performer Abraham Saunders (1789-1856), the celebrated “Equestrian Infant Phenomenon” who is believed to have performed in Bristol. Beckford wrote to a friend “Go to see an angel called Saunders who is a tight rope walker at the Circus Royal, and the certain captivator of every bugger’s soul”. He also wrote about a soldier from Bath (12 October 1819) hoping “to take some lessons in drilling with him”.

Two five-storey Georgian houses in Bath stone, connected by a stone bridge over a road, on a sunny day

Beckford’s home in Lansdown Crescent in 2016

From 1822 until his death Beckford lived at 20 Lansdown Crescent and 1 Lansdown Place West, Bath, the properties being connected with a single storey arch. In 1836 he also bought 18 and 19 Lansdown Crescent and lived largely as a recluse. In 1827 he built Lansdown Tower, a 154 foot folly, partly as a Beckford museum and also a holiday home. Lansdown Tower is now known as Beckford’s Tower and owned by Bath Preservation Trust.

Beckford died aged 84 on 2 May 1844 and was interred in Bath Abbey Cemetery, Lyncombe Vale. The Tower was sold to a publican who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually it was bought by Beckford’s second daughter, Susan, Duchess of Hamilton who gave the land around it to Walcot parish for a cemetery. In 1848 Beckford’s remains were re interred in a self-designed tomb of pink granite near the base of the Tower. Today the tower is open to the public on regular days throughout the year.

A stone tower with a golden cupola surrounded by trees, with a polished granite rectangular box tomb in the foreground

Beckford’s Tower on Lansdown, with his tomb in the foreground, June 2016

A biographer wrote of Beckford “He was immensely intelligent, as well as a hedonist, a serious artist, a social rebel, and more honest than eccentric”.

Jonathan Rowe 2021

William Beckford: The Fool of Fonthill – Rictor Norton Gay History and Literature
William Beckford – Wikipedia