Thursday, 21 April 2011

Je n'aime pas à résister à la tentation.

I am not over-fond of resisting temptation.

from Vathek by William Beckford

William Beckford
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
oil on canvas, 1782
National Portrait Gallery

William Thomas Beckford  (1760-1844)

 Beckford was the only legitimate son of Alderman William Beckford, twice lord mayor of London and Member of Parliament. His mother, Maria (nee Hamilton), was descended from the royal House of Stuart. Being the only child of a late marriage, he was given every encouragement. At the age of five he received piano lessons from the nine-year-old Mozart. He also received instruction from Sir William Chambers and Alexander Cozens in architecture and drawing. Upon his father's death in 1770, he inherited a vast fortune built on the  Jamaican sugar trade. Making him, as his distant cousin Lord Byron later put it, England's richest son.

 While touring England in 1779, he developed what he called a strange wayward passion for William Courtenay, the eleven-year-old son and heir of Viscount Courtenay. Beckford also became involved with Louisa Beckford, the unhappily married wife of one of his cousins. In 1780, the restless Beckford embarked on a European tour that his family hoped would ease his inner turmoil and dispel any rumors surrounding his friendship with Courtenay.

In 1781, inspired by a Christmas party held in Courtenay's honour at Fonthill, Beckford wrote Vathek - the story  of an impious voluptuary who builds a tower. A tower so high that he not only can survey all the kingdoms of the  the world, but he can also challenge god in his heaven. Beckford claimed to have written the initial French-language draft of Vathek in one sitting over the course of three days and two nights. He had based his characters on historical figures and provided a wealth of detail. He intended to add to this story four episodic tales.  While composing them, he arranged for the Reverend Samuel Henley, an oriental enthusiast and former professor, to translate the entire work into English and to add footnotes explaining the allusions.

Unfortunately, completion of the episodes was to be interrupted. In the autumn of 1784 scandal broke . Beckford was charged with sexual misconduct with young Courtenay. Reports of the scandal spread quickly, and, though his guilt was never proved, he, with his wife (he married Lady Margaret Gordon in 1783) and baby daughter, was forced into exile. In May 1786, in Switzerland, his wife died of puerperal fever after giving birth to their second daughter. Beckford also learned that Vathek was to be published anonymously, with the preface claiming that  the work was directly translated from the Arabic. Subsequently, Beckford published a French edition in order to claim authorship (the uncompleted episodic tales were to remain unpublished until 1912).

In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Byron wrote, 

Unhappy Vathek, thou wert smitten with unhallowed thirst
Of nameless crime, and thy sad day must close
To scorn, and Solitude unsought - the worst of woes.

Beckford spent his time in exile traveling throughout Europe, eventually returning to England in 1796. Ostracised, he spent the remainder of his life collecting books, paintings, and rare works of art and building his extravagant Gothic pile, Fonthill Abbey. Beckford supervised the planning and building of what was to become the most extraordinary house in England. In 1807 the house's great central tower collapsed and was rebuilt. Beckford grew notorious as both the creator of the increasingly popular Vathek and as the reclusive owner of Fonthill, where he lived until financial difficulties forced him to sell in 1822. The tower again later collapsed, destroying part of the building.

The design of the interiors and the furnishings at Lansdown Tower,  the house Beckford later built in Bath,  gave tangible evidence to his creative genius. And quite possibly, if not laid ,  solidified the foundations of the English eclectic style.

One of a pair of silver-gilt waiters made by William Burwash for William Beckford

Coffer-shaped display cabinet
William Beckford and Henry Edmund Goodridge
probably made by English and Son, Bath

Oak cabinet on stand made for the Scarlet Drawing Room 
Lansdown Tower, Bath
1831 - 1841

Oak cabinet

Most likely designed by Beckford and his architect Henry Edmund Goodridge
A superb example of the furniture Beckford commissioned during his final years.

Cabinet made in Paris around 1825

Richly encrusted with hardstones and mounted in gilt bronze
The panels were made at the noted Gobelins workshops in Paris, late 17th Century.

Originally part of a suite of furniture at Fonthill Abbey
Sold at the Fonthill sale 1823

Siena marble console table    

Commissioned by William Beckford for the vestibule at Landsdown Tower, Bath. 
Most probably designed by the architect of the Tower, Henry Edmund Goodridge, in collaboration with Beckford.

Now playing:  Rimsky-Korsakov - Scheherazade 


Laurent said...

Extremely devoted to Jamaican sugar, myself, although nobody's richest son, I found this to be a delectably wry posting. Several people would have killed to have thought to associate it with Rimsky-Korsakov.

David Toms said...

What a wonderfully tempting and fascinating story! I am also seriously tempted by the furniture.

Jon said...

Simply fabulous! Beckford was a fascinating man. He apparently spent his splendid isolation at Fonthill surrounded by jewels - and dwarves - and esteemed society figures such as Wellington and others of his ilk all paid him a visit... Jx