Winter 2005–2006

The Ruined Man

The melancholic folly of William Beckford

George Pendle

John Buckler, The Ruins of Fonthill Abbey, 1825.

Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
—Edgar Allen Poe, The Fall of The House of Usher

It should come as no surprise that the Tower card in the Tarot deck—which portrays a stone column being struck by lightning—signifies destruction, loss, and ruin. Indeed, the fall of a tower, whether in ancient Babylon or modern America, cannot help but suggest the terrible consequences of hubris. And never has the calamitous obliteration of a grand building been so entwined with one man’s fate as in the strange instance of William Beckford and Fonthill Abbey. 

In 1785, at the tender age of twenty-five, William Beckford, Lord of Fonthill, began the self-imposed exile that was expected of him. On a visit to Powderham Castle the previous year, the married Beckford had dallied with the seventeen-year-old William Courtenay, the future Earl of Devon. The incident had been espied by a servant with calamitous results. Within days, London newspapers were talking of the “detestable scene lately acted in Wiltshire, by a pair of fashionable male lovers.” The scandal blossomed, spurred on by the fact that Beckford was, as Byron would later christen him, “England’s wealthiest son.” 

Born the sole heir to the Lord Mayor of London, Beckford had lived a life of the utmost privilege. At the age of six, he received music lessons from Mozart, himself aged nine. Four years later, upon the death of his father, he inherited vast sugar plantations in the West Indies and an annual income of some 100,000 pounds a year. He was tutored in the seclusion of the family home of Fonthill Splendens, but his mind grew enraptured by tales of the East gleaned from his dead father’s library. He dreamed of the gorgeous, the horrible, the absurd, and the magical, and by the age of twelve he was a confirmed Orientalist. 

Such an interest was not taken to be a suitable pursuit for a future English gentleman. At thirteen, Beckford’s tutor forced him to burn his prized collection of Japanese prints. His family desperately tried to school him to “look upon taste and sentiment as acquisitions of less importance than the right use of reason.” They could not have failed more dramatically. As Beckford grew older, his interest in the exotic strengthened, providing an enchanting escape from the “English phlegm and frostiness” that seemed to nip his enthusiasms in the bud. He began writing magical, romantic stories and at the age of twenty-one, his head swimming with both the Arabian Nights and the haunting Carceri d’Invenzione etchings of Giovanni Piranesi, he wrote in three days the book on which his reputation rests—Vathek.

Vathek is a novel of rebellion. It tells the fate of the Caliph Vathek, ruler of the Arabian empire, a man obsessed with embracing sensuality and forbidden knowledge. Yet despite having a giant palace with five wings devoted to the five senses, Vathek remains unfulfilled, “for he wished to know every thing.” He thus constructs a giant tower, 1,500 steps tall, from which to commune with the stars and penetrate the secrets of heaven—a gross offense against the divine. One day a mysterious stranger arrives at his court, carrying with him incredible splendors, and offers the Caliph access to the Palace of Subterranean Fire within whose vaults he will be able to contemplate the diadems and inventions of Solomon and the pre-Adamite Sultans. Like Faustus before him, Vathek is enamored of such an offer. He renounces Islam, surrenders to the magic arts, and begins a series of human sacrifices to the malignant spirit that tempts him. After years of bloody corruption, Vathek eventually travels to a deserted mountain where the earth opens beneath him, and he descends into the Palace of Subterranean Fire. The mysterious stranger did not lie; here are the talismans promised him, but a sense of despair and hatred invests the place. The palace’s mournful inhabitants stagger to and fro, their hearts consumed by fire, for Vathek’s promised land is nothing other than Hell. 

Now four years after the completion of his great work, Beckford was shunned by society. With his long-suffering but loyal wife in tow, Beckford kicked the dust of England from his heels and began thirteen years of peripatetic wandering across Europe. While his fortune could not buy back his shattered reputation, it did make his movements easier. His traveling retinue included a doctor, baker, cook, valet, three footmen, and twenty-four musicians. His bed traveled with him, as did his cutlery, plates, books, and prints. It was reported that he required any inn at which he stopped to have his rooms repapered for him, and, on one occasion, in Portugal, he was said to have imported a flock of sheep from England to improve the view from his window. 

He became a rapacious collector, of both objects and people. During the French Revolution, he regularly bought the books, art, and furniture of the fleeing aristocracy and he reputedly made fine purchases in the teeth of both the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France. He was accepted into the highest society in Portugal, France, and Switzerland, but the death of his wife and the increasingly vociferous European wars drove him back to England’s shores in 1796.

Still excluded by his peers, Beckford retreated to his estate at Fonthill and directed his ceaseless enthusiasms into creating a concealed kingdom for himself. To keep what he termed “unbelievers” from intruding upon his fantastical life, he now enclosed the 519 acres of his estate within a twelve-foot-high wall that stretched for seven miles, much to the annoyance of his fox-hunting neighbors (Beckford, unlike most of his class, was a fierce opponent of blood sports). 

For some years he had been mulling over plans to construct a “little pleasure building” on his property. But his vision had grown monstrously since his return. With the fashionable architect James Wyatt in his pay, the proposed “Fonthill Abbey” was to be a vast Gothic structure in the shape of a cross, with the two axes meeting at a central octagonal building. Almost inevitably, towering over all else, was to be a 300-foot tower, or as Beckford dubbed it, his “grand Babel.” 

When building finally began, Beckford was at the heart of construction. Five hundred laborers worked in shifts throughout the day and night, and when they were not progressing quickly enough, Beckford bribed 450 more away from the erection of King George III’s chapel at Windsor Castle with large quantities of ale. He could regularly be seen traversing the scaffolding, ninety feet in the air, grasping a blazing lamp, “shouting, supervising and singing out of tune.” In the middle of a letter to a Swiss friend he broke off, “Farewell. The Octagon is calling me—j’entends sa voix.” 

Within Fonthill, Beckford became Vathek—even his own daughters took to calling him “our Caliph”—and his fortune allowed his every sensual desire to be fulfilled. He turned the Abbey into a cornucopia of fine art and furniture. There were cabinets and boxes of Japanese black-and-gold lacquer, giant porcelain jars, yellow damask drapes, alabaster tables, ornate oak ceilings, massive marble fireplaces, and fifty-foot purple curtains hung behind chairs of purest ebony and ivory. On the walls were Rembrandts, Canalettos, Dürers, Hogarths, and Poussins, and every surface was covered in crystal, amber, and stone curiosities. 

The handful of guests Beckford allowed to enter his estate were overawed by what they saw. Attendees of a dinner party, at which Lord Nelson was present, were greeted by Fonthill’s resident dwarf standing by the Abbey’s thirty-five-foot-tall oak doors (a visual trick employed to accentuate their already colossal height). Dinner was served at dusk under the gaze of hooded servants holding flaming torches. Word of the wonders of Fonthill made Beckford an irresistible poison. His neighbors, who still avoided him for his youthful indiscretion, attempted to arrange visits to the Abbey when the master of the house was elsewhere. However, if Beckford caught wind of such a visit, he would surprise his ungracious guests with a banquet, which he knew that etiquette (the same etiquette which saw them spurn him) would compel them to attend.

• • •

Whether it was the bibulous bribes to the Abbey’s builders or Wyatt’s preferred construction materials (cement and timber), no sooner was a wing completed than it began to crumble. On one occasion Beckford insisted on having Christmas dinner in the Abbey in spite of the fact that the mortar in the kitchen was still wet. As the servants carried the food into the dining room, the kitchen collapsed behind them. The grand tower soon followed, destroyed in a gale, and when the builders ran out of stone during its rebuilding, Beckford demolished his ancestral home of Fonthill Splendens in order to supplement their materials.

The more enmeshed Beckford became in his creation, the more isolated he grew. He set mantraps in the grounds to ward off trespassers and refused visitors altogether. The construction of the Abbey overwhelmed his life. “Some people drink to forget their unhappiness,” 
he wrote, “I do not drink, I build.” Indeed the crumbling of the Abbey seemed to excite him, offering as it did the chance to begin building once more. His one complaint the second time the tower fell was that he had not been there to witness it. 

An innate melancholy infused the building. Its dark 
and dank rooms spoke of a grandiloquence underscored by loss, of majesty exiled. Even the wonders of the Abbey’s scale were undercut by something infinitely sad. The 
painter Constable thought it “strange that such a place, 
so fairy-like and so filling by every standard a role of taste and elegance, should be standing alone in these melancholy regions of the Wiltshire Downs.” The same could be said 
of Beckford himself. 

By 1817, it was rumored that he was enlivening his solitary existence by ordering lavish meals for twelve at which he would be the sole guest. With twelve servants attending to his needs, he would eat just one dish before leaving the table. In gloom and isolation he lived, his only constant companions his four dogs—Nephew, Tring, Mrs. Fry, and Viscount Fartleberry. Beckford felt compelled to continue stocking his house with new treasures and to keep rebuilding. Rooms were constantly redesignated and redecorated. Like Vathek’s Palace of Subterranean Fire, the Abbey had become both the prize Beckford sought and his eternal punishment. He was trapped in a fairy tale of his own creation.

However Beckford was not as blind to his fate as the Caliph Vathek had been. Entombed alive in his crumbling monster he wrote to his son-in-law, “I will die ... if I vegetate here many more months in this state of solitary abandonment.” As his sugar plantations suffered major reversals, he desperately tried to sell the Abbey, but each attempt was aborted. “I am suspended between the sky and the earth,” he wrote to one prospective buyer, his words infused with genuine dread, “I implore you to release me from this insupportable position.”

In 1822, a buyer was finally found, and as if by magic Beckford was released from the curse of Fonthill Abbey. “I am rid of the Holy Sepulchre,” he wrote as if awakening from a nightmare, “not for twenty years have I found myself so rich, so independent, so tranquil.” When the tower at Fonthill collapsed for the third and final time in December 1825, destroying much of the Abbey, Beckford seemed to have escaped the fate that had been destined for him. “Would to God it had been more substantially built!” wrote one contemporary architect who visited the site. “But as it is, its ruins will tell a tale of wonder.”

Giovanni Battista Paranesi, “The Man in the Rack” from Catalogo delle opere date finora alla luce da Gio. Battista Piranesi, 1743–1761.

George Pendle has written for the Times (London), the Sunday Times, the Financial Times, Frieze, and Bidoun. His first book, Strange Angel: The Otherworldly Life of Rocket Scientist John Whiteside Parsons was published by Harcourt in February 2005. He is currently working on The Remarkable Millard Fillmore, an unusual biography of the thirteenth president of the United States of America, to be published in 2006.

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