Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Dearest Impresario

The Gay Love Letters of William Beckford

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Portrait of William Beckford

The great art collector William Beckford (1760–1844), the wealthiest man in England, was forced to spend many years travelling abroad due a homosexual scandal involving William "Kitty" Courtney in 1784, young son of the Earl of Devon. He spent much of his time in Lisbon, Portugal, where he met Gregorio Fellipe Franchi (1770–1828), a young, attractive and lively musician in the choir of the Patriarchal Seminary. In short order Franchi became Beckford's protégé, and Beckford brought "the Portuguese orange" back with him to England in 1789. As Franchi grew older he became Beckford's confidant and agent, travelling to London and the Continent collecting paintings, objets d'art and books to fill his master's astonishing home, the gothic extravaganza of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. In this mansion of cathedral proportions – whose central tower was nearly 300 feet high, and whose series of interconnecting reception rooms had an uninterrupted vista of 300 feet – Beckford lived an outcast and a recluse from respectable society, surrounded by a harem of boy-servants to whom he gave nicknames such as "pale Ambrose, infamous Poupee, horrid Ghoul, insipid Mme Bion [his valet Richardson], cadaverous Nicobuse, the portentous dwarf, frigid 'Silence', Miss Long, Miss Butterfly [slang for catamite], Countess Pox, Mr Prudent Well-Sealed-up, The Monkey, The Turk." Beckford once observed "it's cruel to hear talk of fair boys and dark Jade vases and not to buy them." Many of Beckford's jade vases, paintings and books now grace the finest museum collections in Europe, though his boys have been largely forgotten. The following letters are from a period when Franchi not only negotiated the sale of two paintings by Claude Lorraine, but also acted as Beckford's pimp, eventually succeeding in arranging an assignation between Beckford and Master Saunders, celebrated equestrian performer and tightrope walker at the Circus Royal, who was about eighteen when Beckford laid eyes on him and became very acquisitive. Franchi insinuated himself into the household of "the Leg family" (i.e. wearers of tights, upon which Beckford played many puns), offering sweets to Abraham Saunders' other children and giving them small sums of money, and wrote back descriptions for Beckford to savour. (The correspondence is in Italian, with some obscene passages omitted by the translator.) Beckford fantasized about leaving England for Portugal: "It seems to me that a withdrawal into the paradise of Don Fagundes with a copious detachment of artistes etc gathered together by the Boy of Boys will be the best course to take. Let us get the whole troupe to emigrate, along with the audience gallery, dressing room, stalls and wigs etc. What a levée en masse! If I were at my last gasp I would rise for this one. Gloria in excelsis (full organ) et in terra papale Pax, non Pox – I hope . . ."


Tuesday 8 September [1807]

. . . If it is at all possible, go to see an angel called Saunders who is a tight-rope walker at the Circus Royal and the certain captivator of every bugger's soul. Ah!
         Farewell . . .

Friday [11 September 1807]

. . . I am afraid that the angel is no longer at the Circus. Highest heaven is where he exists. Ah what a blessed creature! How happy I would be if I could save such a beautiful soul! . . .

Pissing Wednesday 23 September

. . . It is wretched weather with fog everywhere, and in this lovely sky there are no cherubim to be seen except the dwarf, the Ghoul and pale Ambrose. I can hear nothing except Mr Wyatt [James Wyatt his architect] lamenting like a Prime Minister at the Court of the most watery and pissful Tertian Fever. He is of a deathly cadaverousness and stinks as only those beneath ground do. Ah, when will more favourable times come? Ah, when shall I be able to see the long desired * [invented pederastic symbol of three interleaved Cs, representing Saunders]. In the meantime, find out what you can about the site of the Earthly Paradise. Many have sought it in vain: some in Syria or Mesopotamia, some in Abyssinia, others in Ceylon, but I (according to the latest information) in Bristol.

[Sunday] 27 September

I am condemned by cruel Destiny to run a hospital and to hear of nothing but the maladies of that Bagasse Queen Charlotte and the Bagasse Wyatt – how much better it would be to have some sweet invalid to dose with cordials. So if young S[aun]d[e]rs wants a change of air (and perhaps of habits too) let him come to this bosky shade "to cool his fever".
          Just Heaven! how interesting the news from Duke Street is! Ah, if you could but act as Impresario to the Court of Maria I [Queen of Portugal], and look out some valiant youth who could dance the tight-rope in the royal presence, as the saintly David, the king of harpists, was sought out in order to appease the furies of Saul. If only you could (and I don't see why not), it would make me so happy. "Je sens un grand voide dans mon coeur", as the Marchioness Lepri used to say to me; and in the way that one frequently says one thing and does another, it was a little lower than the heart that the sentimental lady pointed [to]. But such a pantomime is of small consequence to me. What matters to me is – but you know already what it is, and while you are carrying out so many commissions, execute one for me anyway. Dearest Impresario, have no fear of obstacles; the moment the beatific vision appears before your eyes, all fear (save that of God) will cease to trouble you. In view of your sympatheticness, I think you will find me not only the most charitable of human beings but also the most steadfast and reasonable.
          A visit to his father, a proposition for a journey to foreign parts, and even a life-annuity – all this is possible.
          tighti tighti tighti ti
          titi tighti, tighti tighti ti
          Celestial harmony, music of the spheres, you make my heart leap! Oh how I despise all the chords of all the lyres of all the poets! Give me only one chord (garni de son ange) and . . . ! [a phrase too scabrous to quote]
          I descend and touch ground, and here I am at the door of the china shop. Twenty-four plates at twenty-one a piece is some price, and we haven't much money, as you know. What the devil are the plates anyway? Chinese or Japanese? God knows. Why not send one, or put them aside until I can see them? How can I judge without seeing them! What are the other trifles? And the two cups with their covers so different from any I have in my power. Ah my power, my power! It were better to be impotent, better to fall into the secure sleep of total dissolution, than to rage in vain. For pity's sake go to Duke Street and see how he is. Whisper sweetly some proposition of a flight (why not to Brazil?!) with the whole Court, in splendid vessels all glittering with gold, diamonds and carbuncles. There, above the deck my little angel will be poised whilst little zephyrs play and clarinets, oboes and hunting-horns sound. Rings of brilliants, wondrous bracelets and golden coins will rain down in abundance . . .

Tuesday 29 September

. . . If your cold had not obscured your lucid intellect you would not find it so difficult to seek out the object – the loveliest under heaven. Ah what an object! What harm would there be in paying a visit to Duke Street to find out whether or not Monsu [pun on Monsieur and mon çu, my arse] the son of the house would be agreeable to an engagement abroad. Would this be impossible? I don't see why.

Thursday 8 October

I see clearly that poor Barzaba [Syriac for voluptuary, boy-lover] must die of grief and sorrow just as dawn was breaking for him. The infamous cruelty of tormenting his delicate creature with exertions so little suited to his tender years must distress every charitable soul. If you have the least compassion or inclination to serve an honest and pitiable old man, do see if it will not be possible, before this cruel and fatal departure for Ireland, to sow the seed of a friendship; and then, when he returns (if indeed the poor dear rascal survives), who knows whether he may not remember you and a certain kind soul full of the most human compassion who is interested in him and only seeks to discover how much would be asked should any occasion arise for his making a profitable trip. That is all – an all which should in no way be so difficult or dangerous for you to perform. One exposes oneself to no trouble or risk in making an enquiry of this kind with decency. Who is a firmer friend of decency than Barzaba? None to my knowledge. And it would make Barzaba so jubilant, so content if he could ease the destiny (hitherto not very kind) of a charming unfortunate.
          My dear Gregory, I cannot live in peace until I know something more positive about this interesting creature. For heaven's sake see him, make his acquaintance, visit his wretched hovel in Duke Street, ask after his dear health, make friends with his father – and you will restore me to life. He cannot leave yet, he cannot leave so soon after a fever for fever-ridden Ireland. If you wish to please me, to oblige me, to enchant me it is in your power. One hour spent on these commissions will enable you to help me in the only thing in which I really need help. Nothing else matters. But this does matter so very, very, very much that unless you wish to fail in all the duties of friendship and Christian charity you will find some plausible excuse for going where my beloved has his haunts. One moment of this beatific vision will suffice to show you that I am right, and provide sustenance for a thousand conversations between us when terrible Ireland swallows up my treasure.
          Happy you, to be able, in the easiest and simplest way in the world, to gild my days and breathe new life into the miserable carcass of poor, love-sick, drooling, sorrowing Barzaba.
          . . . I would forgive everything if only you would give proof of your ability by going there – where I live, where I breathe – for elsewhere I do not exist. Ah! Ah! Ah!

Friday [9 October 1807]

. . . The poor old fellow [Barzaba] is pitiful; if you are not a Hyrcanian wild beast try to please him; take serious and sustained steps to pay all possible respects, kindnesses and endearments to father, mother, brothers, cousins, sisters, etc, if they exist (without violating the laws of the chastest decency and purest morality), so that you may sow the idea (I daren't say the seeds) of a friendship or a patronage which would be the comfort of my failing years. I am certain that, if you wished to, you could help me, and greatly, without running the least risk of being persecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice.
          I know nothing of politics; I've become a miserable, doting, delirious, stuttering, doddering Barzaba.

Alleluia Saturday [10 October]

. . . How lovely to see that dear name! Duke Street! Duke of my soul, lead me [conducetemi] beneath your banners and I will follow you faithfully where you will, how you will, when you will. Let us march to victory, to military glory. But if sweet peace be more the order of your days let us live in peace in some obscure corner. I submit to whatever is required . . . . You are not deaf to my laments.

The Sunday of the Return to Life [11 October]

. . . In a room at Brunet's Hotel [Leicester Square] – he is going to appear. Ah, how my heart beats! For God's sake, be careful, risk nothing. Shall I kiss? No, for God's sake, not yet; be discreet, moderate, collected, cold – if that's possible in the rays of the sun in full —. Talk of this and that, of a contract, of parrots, oranges and lemons etc. Make yourself his friend, but not a lover – nothing suspicious [rest deleted as being too scabrous]. Decency, decency! . . . But I'm not sure that without witnesses present the risk isn't great – discussing this face to face, alone with the angel himself in his own room in furnished apartments. Passing into the presence of God without the mediation of His saints is too rash, too —. My dear Gregory, my revered and esteemed Acheron, do not expose yourself to any peril – remember me, but at the same time remember the cursèd country in which, for my extreme misfortune, I live!

SOURCE: Life at Fonthill 1807-1822, With Interludes in Paris and London, From the Correspondence of William Beckford, trans. and ed. Boyd Alexander (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957).

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