A Visit to Fonthill


Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


In a lifespan of 83 years (September 1760 to May 1844) William Beckford had built up one of the world's largest collections of paintings, books, furniture and objets d'art and had housed it all in a country mansion the size of a cathedral. Beckford was immensely gifted, brilliantly educated and widely learned, a talented writer of fiction and travel books, a not insignificant landscape designer and composer of music (and incidentally a lively singer), a man of absolute integrity and perfect good taste, and, of course, the richest man in England. His wealth, his extravagance, his hatred of cant and mediocrity, and his scandalous reputation made him a legend in his own lifetime.

In many ways both the legend and the reality rest upon society's vicious ostracism of him for being a homosexual. In 1784 the news broke that Beckford was having an affair with the young William Courtenay of Powderham. Beckford braved out the storm of abuse in the newspapers, but then fled to the continent. Upon his eventual return to England, Beckford secluded himself behind the eight-mile-long wall surrounding 519 acres of his estate at Fonthill Gifford. The Barrier, as it was called, was probably meant primarily to keep our hunters, for Beckford hated cruelty to animals. He then hired England's foremost architect, James Wyatt, to build a medieval abbey for him to live in. Fonthill Abbey was almost grotesquely vast: the tower of the Great Octagon soared upwards for 300 feet, and was so fantastically perpendicular that it collapsed several times, the final time in 1825 due to improper foundations.

Not content with this architectural wonder, Beckford began to fill it full of civilization's greatest treasures: 20,000 books in his own binding; paintings by Titian, Bronzino, Raphael Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rubens and Canaletto — twenty of the paintings he once owned now hang in the National Gallery, London — as well as the major contemporary artists; a table from the Borghese Palace whose centre consisted of the largest onyx in the world (now in Charlecote Park, Avon); Jacobean coffers; Venetian glass; the largest collection of Japanese lacquer in the world (the superb "Van Dieman" black lacquer box once belonging to Madame de Pompadour, then to Beckford, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, along with other of his treasures); and thousands of objects of porcelain, bronze, jewellery, silver, gold and agate.

Beckford had virtually no contact with the outside world, though he occasionally visited the homosexual subcultures of Europe and London. As discussed at another page, he assembled a virtual harem of boys at Fonthill, while someone else looked after his two daughters, by Lady Margaret Gordon who died after three years of their marriage. He hired a dwarf to open the 38-foot-high front doors so as to startle the infrequent visitor by increasing the illusion of their height. A true medieval cathedral cannot be built in less than a century, so the architect met the rigorous timetable by cheating on materials and methods. As a result, the tower collapsed six times, each time being rebuilt with even more fantastic awkwardness. Beckford's only real grief was that he was never at the scene to witness the awesome spectacle of each tumble.

Needless to say, I have been fascinated by Beckford for a number of years, though I have neither the means of a collector nor the taste of a connoisseur, and in September 1977 I spent a weekend in Bath, from which I set out to discover the remains of Fonthill Abbey and Beckford's later residences in Lansdown Crescent.

On a Sunday morning I rose at 7 o'clock and drove off across the Wiltshire Downs, with a six-inch ordnance survey map to guide me. The route from Bath to Hindon is most picturesque, and eventually I was making my way across the magnificent plateau known as The Terrace, where the road runs alongside the crumbling remains of The Barrier. At last I reached the Barrier Gate, entered, and drove down the elegant mile-long Great Western Avenue, very broad, and flanked by stately rows of trees. At its end the Great Western Hall of Fonthill Abbey would have risen up to astound the visitor; today the site is marked by a large D-shaped mound which probably conceals rubble from its fall. I recalled the words of a visitor in 1823: "Would to God it was more substantially built! But as it is, its ruins will tell a tale of wonder!"

All that remains of Fonthill Abbey today is half of its north wing. This structure is in a fine state of preservation, and a perfect example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture: very little exterior decoration, massive buttresses at the corners, deeply carved pointed-arch windows, and castellated tops. The main structure is 60 feet long and 16 feet wide, and consists of the Lancaster rooms and Turret (76 feet high), the Sanctuary, and the Oratory. To the east, running off the Sanctuary, is the 80-foot- long one-storey Kitchen Court with arches facing south. What remains is being used as a warehouse for farm equipment and odds and ends, and nothing survives of Beckford's interior decoration except for a frayed crimson bell-rope with which he called his servants. It is all private property, though visits are occasionally arranged for small groups to visit the grounds.

At the height of Fonthill's glory, the rooms of the north wing must have been absolutely splendid. Always with an eye to striking architectural effects, Beckford had designed the north- south transept so as to create an uninterrupted interior vista of 300 feet, culminating in the Oratory which terminates the north wing. At night time, when the intervening galleries were lit by a mere 24 candles, one's eye must have been irresistibly drawn to the blaze of light from the Oratory, where an alabaster statue of St Anthony stood upon an altar, beneath a silver-gilt lamp and flanked by 36 lighted tapers in silver-gilt candelabras. This was the focal point of the entire Abbey, since St Anthony was Beckford's patron saint and naturally occupied the place of honour in this domestic cathedral.

The ground floor was essentially a basement with offices. On the first floor, beginning at the extreme north, is the Oratory, formed of five sides of an octagon; in each wall is a lancet window of stained glass (gold fleur de lys on a purple ground); in each of the five angles inside rose a slender gilt column, fanning out into reticulation of burnished gold on a field of crimson, against walls of crimson damask.

The Sanctuary, one step lower, had walls of crimson damask, a frieze of gilt flowers, a blue carpet woven with a Latimer Cross design, and a curious oak ceiling with lozenge mouldings from whose centres hung cul-de-lamps. The Vaulted Corridor, the last of the surviving rooms on the first floor, one more step down, was arched throughout, with a frieze of 38 emblazoned shields. No windows were visible from the interior: instead, on each side were three bronze latticed doors opening into mysterious recesses resembling medieval confessionals. The window now on the south side replaces the door that would have been there before the disappearance of the rest of the Abbey.

This is a cross-section of all that remains today.

At the very top of this structure is the Upper Lancaster Room (reached via the Turret), which was essentially a picture gallery and billiard room. On the second floor is the Lancaster State Bedchamber, once a square lofty room with crimson walls and oak wainscoting, and furnished entirely by chairs and cabinets made of ebony studded with ivory. The ebony state bedstead can today be seen at Brodick Castle, Isle of Arran, seat of the Duke of Hamilton (Beckford's mother's family).

To the south of the remains, one can still detect Beckford's expert landscaping amidst a rich profusion of mauve rhododendron and dark green fir. Winding paths bordered by magnolias, azaleas, laurel and trees of all sorts lead to Bitham Lake, artificially constructed by Beckford. Further south, beyond the American Gardens (named thus because the plants were imported from America), are the ruins of a late nineteenth-century mansion (actually, its stables), and its terrace gardens with decapitated allegorical statues, all incredibly overgrown.

The main entrance to Fonthill estate is beneath a most charming Entrance Lodge (still occupied), once the gateway to Beckford's father's mansion Fonthill Splendens. A narrow lane beside it leads down to a bridge on Fonthill Lake, where there is a unique boat house with 12 stone pillars and arches, tumbling into ruins like a watery basilica. further along the lake there are two nearly inaccessible grottoes, inside the largest of which is a bas-relief of some antique figure. The mouth of a nearby tunnel has fallen in, but can be entered by climbing the hill and crossing the road. This tunnel — The Dark Walk, which enabled Beckford to get to the lake without crossing the publish highway — is about 100 feet long and 20 feet high: very deep, damp, slippery, cold and pitch-black. At the end of the tunnel is a small cavity out of which a bat flew, causing me to shudder with horror and delight, and satisfying my taste for the Gothic.

To be fair, the remains of Fonthill Abbey may be somewhat disappointing except to the most devoted Beckfordite. For those who are not already familiar with its extraordinary builder, a trip to Lansdown Tower (where I went on the Saturday) may be more interesting and informative.

In 1823 Beckford sold the Abbey for £300,000 and moved to Bath. There he bought No. 20 Lansdown Crescent and No. 1 Lansdown Place West, and joined them with a one-storey arch thrown across a driveway. In 1836 he also bought No. 18 and No. 19 Lansdown Crescent (leaving No. 18 empty to ensure peace and quiet). Lansdown Crescent today is even more charming than the Royal Crescent, for even its original windows survive, and every other residence is fronted by graceful wrought iron gates surmounted by lanterns. They are all private residences, though some of Beckford's original interiors remain essentially unchanged.

Around the wall at the back of the drive one can glimpse the top of Beckford's oriental summer house, and further down the road is the Embattled Gateway with its iron-studded doors. One can trace one's way along the paths extending for more than a mile up the hill, once Beckford's back garden, and find another grotto tunnel. At the summit is Lansdown Tower, built for Beckford by the young Bath architect Henry Goodridge; its exterior is virtually unchanged, "a quarter Italian, a quarter Byzantine, half Greek and wholly Picturesque," as James Lees-Milne describes it. It is now called Beckford's Tower, and is regularly open to the public.

The Tower is 154 feet high, and completely open for most of its height. Spiralling up the wall are 154 stone steps (gone is the crimson carpet that once covered them), with a heavy iron Regency balustrade, leading to the Belvedere, from whose 12 plate glass windows you have a panoramic view of the countryside. Beckford accurately described it as "the finest prospect in Europe!" Higher yet, 53 wooden steps — not accessible to the general public — wind up through an octagonal gallery to underneath the gilded cast iron cupola.

At the base of the Tower is a single storey annex which contained a kitchen, offices and bedroom, and a two-storey building which contained a Vaulted Passage, the Scarlet Drawing Room, the Crimson Drawing Room (Beckford's taste in colours was not wide), the Etruscan Library and the Sanctuary, where a state of St Anthony, set against a slap of red porphyry, was subtly lit from above by glass domes. The chaff having been separated from the wheat by the great sale of Fonthill, Lansdown Tower effectively became the display cabinet of Beckford's greatest treasures. It contained, for example, Giovanni Bellini's magnificent painting of Doge Loredan, which Beckford sold to the National Gallery shortly before his death.

After Beckford's death, the Tower was sold to a local publican, who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually it was bought back by the Duchess of Hamilton, Beckford's daughter, and given to Walcot parish for use as a cemetery. This enabled Beckford to be re-buried near the Tower that he so loved. His tomb — a massive sarcophagus of pink polished granite with bronze armorial plaques, all designed by himself — stands upon a hillock in the center of an oval ditch, rumoured to be an unconsecrated spot. Goodridge designed a Byzantine entrance gateway to the cemetery, flanked by the bronze railings which had surrounded Beckford's original grave in Lyncombe Vale.

The Scarlet and Crimson Drawing Rooms were knocked together to form a funerary chapel, and, what with a disastrous fire in 1931, little remains of the original interior. However, extensive restoration began in 1972 by Dr and Mrs L. T. Hilliard was completed, and in January 1977 they transferred the Tower to the Beckford Tower Trust, who will preserve and maintain it for the public benefit. The Beckford Museum in its apartments contains some truly fascinating objects: for example, signs and etched glasses advertising "Beckford Blend Scotch Whisky" and the skull and femur of a horse, believed to be Beckford's — not to mention numerous engravings, chromolithographs of its original interior, and a great deal of information about Beckford.


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "A Visit to Fonthill", The Great Queens of History, updated 30 June 2000 <http://www.rictornorton.co.uk/beckfor3.htm>.

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