Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 04.djvu/87

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Beckford
Beckford
83

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