Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Beckford, William (1759-1844)

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BECKFORD, WILLIAM (1759–1844), author of 'Vathek,' son of William Beckford (1709-1770) [q.v.], was born at Fonthill, 29 Sept. 1759. After the death of his father he was educated by a private tutor, the Rev. Dr. Lettice. A public school would have afforded a more salutary discipline; the tutor, though judicious and attentive, could hardly be expected to prevent the spoiled heir to enormous wealth from growing up wilful, extravagant, and capricious. Beckford received musical instruction from Mozart, and for his father's sake was particularly noticed by Chatham, who pronounced him 'all air and fire,' and solemnly admonished the future author of 'Vathek ' against reading the 'Arabian Nights.' His precocity and talent for satire were evinced by his 'History of Extraordinary Painters,' a mystification composed in his seventeenth year in ridicule of the biographies in the 'Vies des Peintres Flamands,' and to indulge his humour at the expense of the old housekeeper at Fonthill, who is said to have long continued to exhibit her master's pictures as works of Watersouchy, Og of Basan, and other creations of his invention. His mother being strongly prejudiced against the universities, Beckford, accompanied by his tutor, went in 1777 to complete his education at Geneva, and there passed a year and a half. In 1780 and 1782 he visited the Low Countries and Italy. His letters on his travels, together with a description of the Grande Chartreuse dating from 1778, were published anonymously in 1783 under the title of 'Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents, in a series of letters from various parts of Europe.' The work, however, was almost immediately destroyed, with the exception of six copies, one of which at least is still in existence, though Mr. Redding seems to imply the contrary. He had already, in 1781 or 1782, written 'Vathek' in French at a single sitting of three days and two nights. An English version, made by a person whom Beckford declared to be unknown to him, but who is understood to have been the Rev. S. Henley, rector of Rendlesham, was published anonymously and surreptitiously in 1784. It is sufficiently idiomatic to have entirely eclipsed and to have frequently been taken for the original, and is accompanied by an erudite commentary, whose value is somewhat impaired by the annotator's ignorance of Arabic. The original appeared at Paris and Lausanne in 1787, the latter edition only bearing the author's name. In 1783 he translated and published the little Oriental tale of 'Al Ravni;' in the same year he married Lady Margaret Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Aboyne, and lived with her in Switzerland until her death in May 1786. Two daughters were the fruit of this union. In 1787 he sought distraction in a visit to Portugal, where his intimacy with the Marquis de Marialva enabled him to acquaint himself with the affairs of the court and kingdom. His Portuguese letters, not published for nearly half a century afterwards, are the most valuable in every point of view that he ever wrote. He extended his tour to Spain, and on his return spent much time in Paris, witnessing the destruction of the Bastille. He was again in Paris in 1791 and 1792, proceeded subsequently to Lausanne, where he bought Gibbon's library, shutting himself up like a hermit to read it, and in 1794 again visited Portugal, where he occupied the retreat at Cintra immortalised in Byron's verse, and wrote his celebrated account of Alcobaça and Batalha. Notwithstanding his incessant absences from his country he was successively M.P. for Wells and Hindon; but he had no taste for public life, and retired in 1794. He was, however, re-elected for Hindon in 1806, and sat until 1820. After his return from Portugal the connoisseur and collector seemed to absorb the author, and he published no more except two burlesques on the sentimental novels of the period, 'The Elegant Enthusiast' and 'Amezia,' printed in 1796 and 1797. In the former year he settled down at Fonthill Giffard, and launched out upon the course of architectural and artistic extravagance which, combined with his oriental whims and his mysterious seclusion, has given him even more celebrity than he could acquire by his writings. The imaginations of 'Vathek' seemed to take actual substance, and Coleridge might have beheld the visions of his Kubla Khan with his corporeal eyes. First the old family mansion was rebuilt on a grand scale, then it was pulled down and a yet more sumptuous edifice raised on a different site. The grounds, magnificently laid out and enclosing 'sunny spots of greenery,' were girdled by a lofty wall to baffle intruding tourists and trespassing sportsmen; the costly old furniture was recklessly sold off to make room for new more costly still; a tower three hundred feet high, erected by gangs of workmen labouring day and night, fell from the injudicious haste of construction, and was immediately succeeded by another, which, after Fonthill had passed from Beckford's hands, also tumbled to the ground. Making a hermitage of a palace, Beckford sequestered himself with a physician, a major-domo, and a French abbé, and here, neglectful of his genius, his private affairs, and his responsibilities as a citizen, spent twenty years with few friends or visitors, and apparently with no other object in life than the collection of books and works of art and virtu. This seclusion may have been partly owing to grave imputations upon his moral character, which, however, in the absence of any avowed accuser or attempt at proof, it is reasonable as well as charitable to regard as rather the consequence of his retirement than the cause. The only recorded external incidents of his existence during this period are the marriages of his two daughters. One became Duchess of Hamilton; the other, who married Colonel Orde without his consent, was never forgiven by him. His expenditure on Fonthill alone for sixteen years is stated by himself at upwards of a quarter of a million. At length he could go on no longer. Extravagance, inattention to his affairs, the depreciation of his West India property, and unfortunate lawsuits, compelled him in 1822 to dispose of Fonthill and the greater part of its contents for 330,000l. to Mr, John Farquhar, a person who, reversing Beckford's history, had accumulated a vast fortune from the humblest beginnings. Beckford's collections were resold by the new owner in the following year, the sale occupying thirty-seven days. The collection was not always favourably criticised. 'It is,' wrote Hazlitt when the public were admitted to view Fonthill, 'a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness, a cathedral turned into a toy shop, an immense museum of all that is most curious and costly, and at the same time most worthless, in the productions of art and nature. Mr. Beckford has undoubtedly shown himself an industrious bijoutier, a prodigious virtuoso, an accomplished patron of unproductive labour, an enthusiastic collector of expensive trifles — the only proof of taste he has shown in this collection is his getting rid of it.' But Beckford always maintained that the Chinese furniture was smuggled in by the auctioneers, and Hazlitt may not have known that the library and the choicest pictures had been saved from the wreck and removed to Lansdowne Terrace, Bath, where, with diminished fortune but free from embarrassment, Beckford applied himself to the creation of a miniature Fonthill. He continued to collect books, pictures, engravings, and beautiful objects in general, with as keen a zest as of yore — 'all agog, all ardour, all intrepidity,' as he wrote to an agent shortly before his death. He sometimes parted with a picture, but never with a book. In 1834 he republished, with considerable omissions, the suppressed letters of 1783, adding those from Spain and Portugal. On 2 May 1844 he died, scarcely manifesting a trace of age, and having been in vigorous health until within a few days of his decease. Eighty thousand pounds yet remained of the hundred thousand a year and a million in hand with which he had commenced life. He was interred by his own wish under the tower he had erected on Lansdowne Hill, and the grounds with which he had surrounded it were given by the Duchess of Hamilton to form a public cemetery for the city of Bath. His library was sold by auction in 1882. A large proportion of the volumes contained copious notes in his handwriting, more frequently evincing whimsical prejudice than discriminating criticism. He left several works in manuscript, including three suppressed episodes of 'Vathek;' 'Liber Veritatis,' comments on the alleged genealogies of English noble families, probably very candid and caustic; and 'Letters upon the Actual State and Leading Characters of several of the Courts of Europe, particularly France, from the beginning of the Revolution to the death of the King. None of these have been published.

Beckford's was, on the whole, a wasted life, in so far as neither his genius nor his fortune yielded what they would have produced to a wiser and a better man. At the same time his celebrity as a remarkable personage would have endured had he never written anything; and as an author he achieved a renown which he probably valued more than literary fame of the first order, the distinction of being the most brilliant amateur in English literature. Hardly any other man has produced such masterpieces with so little effort. 'Vathek' was written at a sitting, and his letters betray no trace of unusual pains. These works are masterpieces nevertheless. European literature has no Oriental fiction which impresses the imagination so powerfully and permanently as 'Vathek.' Portions of the story may be tedious or repulsive, but the whole combines two things most difficult of alliance — the fantastic and the sublime. Beckford's letters display a corresponding versatility and union of seemingly incongruous faculties. He is equally objective and subjective; his pictures, while brilliantly clear in outline, are yet steeped in the rich hues of his own peculiar feeling; he approaches every object from its most picturesque side, and the measure of his eloquence is the interest with which it has actually inspired him. His colouring is magical; he paints nature like Salvator,and courts like Watteau. His other works make us bitterly regret the curse of wealth and idleness which converted a true son of the muses into an eccentric dilettante. As a literary figure Beckford occupies a remarkable position, an incarnation of the spirit of the eighteenth century writing in the yet unrecognised dawn of the nineteenth, flushed by emotions which he does not understand, and depicting the old courtly order of Europe on the eve of its dissolution. His character was patrician in everything but its want of repose and its insensibility to duty; too charitable to be called selfish, attached from caprice to animals, from habit to dependents, he was yet an absolute egotist. It never seemed to occur to him that his magnificent possessions in the West Indies entailed upon him the least responsibility. His misanthropy was mainly affectation, and he was less independent of the opinion of the world than he liked the world to think. Need of human sympathy made him exceedingly kind to very inferior writers who had praised his works; and the few who gained admission to his presence found him a courteous and unassuming gentleman.

[The principal authority for Beckford's life is the memoir by Cyrus Redding, published anonymously in 1859. It is an intolerable piece of book-making, being chiefly made up of extracts from Beckford's own letters, and repetitions of what the author had previously written in magazines, but is indispensable in the absence of an authorised biography. See also the Gent. Mag., Annual Register, and Athenæum for 1844. The most remarkable criticisms on Beckford are Lockhart's review of his letters in vol. li. of the Quarterly, and an article by O. Tiffany in vol. xc. of the North American Review. M. Stephane Mallarmé has reprinted the original French of Vathek (Paris, 1876), and thoroughly investigated the bibliography of the subject. The catalogues of Beckford's Fonthill collections, and of his library, contribute much to the appreciation of his tastes and character. The chapter on his library in Clarke's Repertorium Bibliographicum (1819) is from his own pen. The fullest account of Fonthill is that by Britton (1823), which also contains genealogical and heraldic particulars of the Beckford family.]

R. G.