1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beckford, William

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BECKFORD, WILLIAM (1760-1844), English author, son of Alderman William Beckford (1709-1770), was born on the 1st of October 1760. His father was lord mayor of London in 1762 and again in 1769; he was a famous supporter of John Wilkes, and on his monument in the Guildhall were afterwards inscribed the words of his manly and outspoken reproof to George III. on the occasion of the City of London address to the king in 1770. At the age of eleven young Beckford inherited a princely fortune from his father. He married Lady Margaret Gordon in 1783, and spent his brief married life in Switzerland. After his wife’s death (1786) he travelled in Spain and Portugal, and wrote his Portuguese Letters (published 1834, 1835), which rank with his best work. He afterwards returned to England, and after selling his old house, Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, began to build a magnificent residence there, on which he expended in about eighteen years the sum of £273,000. His eccentricities, together with the strict seclusion in which he lived, gave rise to scandal, probably unjustified. In 1822 he sold his house, together with its splendid library and pictures, to John Farquhar, and soon after one of the towers, 260 ft. high, fell, destroying part of the villa in the ruins. Beckford erected another lofty structure on Lansdowne Hill, near Bath, where he continued to reside till his death in 1844. His first work, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780) was a slight, sarcastic jeu d’esprit. In 1782 he wrote in French his oriental romance, The History of the Caliph Vathek, which appeared in English, translated by the Rev. Samuel Henley, in 1786 and has taken its place as one of the finest productions of luxuriant imagination.

Beckford’s wealth and large expenditure, his position as a collector and patron of letters (he bought Gibbon’s library at Lausanne), his literary industry, and his reputation as author of Vathek, make him an interesting figure in literary history. He had a seat in parliament from 1784 to 1793, and again from 1806 to 1820. He left two daughters, the eldest of whom was married to the 10th duke of Hamilton.

Cyrus Redding’s Memoir (1859) is the only full biography, but prolix; see Dr R. Garnett’s introduction to his edition of Vathek (1893).