Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Eccentric Folly Builders: William Thomas Beckford

Photo by Annette Lloyd Thomas,2003 

William Beckford has been described as a profligate art collector and writer. His best known work is Vathek a  Gothic novel first published in 1786 in French. He inherited his father's Jamaican sugar plantations, £ 1 million and an income of £100, 000 per year, making him the richest commoner in England. Once on a trip to Portugal he brought a flock of sheep with him so that he could view them from his window and it would remind him of home. He left England, when a scandal broke regarding his relationship with  fifteen year old William Courtney, son of the eighth Earl of Devon, and wandered around the Continent for 13 years. He took his doctor, baker, cook, valet and a small orchestra with him. Beckford also traveled with his own bed and had his hotel rooms wall papered to his own taste. 

Beckford's first attempt at building was disastrous. Fonthill Abbey a massive, Gothic revival structure, complete with 300  foot tower,  was designed by James Wyatt. Beckford was impatient to get the project finished and bribed his workers with alcohol which had a devastating effect. The tower collapsed and was rebuilt three times. After Beckford sold the property in 1822 to John Farquhar the tower collapse again, ruining the abbey in the process. 

In later life, Beckford moved to Bath and built Lansdown Tower (aka Beckford's Tower), just outside of Bath, Somerset. Architect Henry Edmund Goodridge designed the 154 ft stone ashlar tower which was constructed between 1825 and 1827. It has been a Grade I listed building since 11 August 1972. The tower is now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and can be rented as a holiday home through the Landmark Trust.  For a detailed description see britishlistedbuildings.co.uk

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