elisa_rolle (elisa_rolle) wrote,
elisa_rolle
elisa_rolle

Queer Places: Beckford's Tower

Address: Beckford's Tower & Museum, Lansdown Rd, Bath, Bath and North East

The opportunity to purchase the complete library of Edward Gibbon gave William Thomas Beckford the basis for his own library, and James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey in which to house this and the owner's art collection. Lord Nelson visited Fonthill Abbey with the Hamiltons in 1800. The house was completed in 1807. Beckford entered parliament as member for Wells and later for Hindon, quitting by taking the Chiltern Hundreds; but he lived mostly in seclusion, spending much of his father's wealth without adding to it. In 1822 he sold Fonthill, and a large part of his art collection, to John Farquhar for £330,000 (£26.9 million as of 2016), and moved to Bath, where he bought No. 20 Lansdown Crescent and No. 1 Lansdown Place West, joining them with a one-storey arch thrown across a driveway. In 1836 he also bought Nos. 18 and 19 Lansdown Crescent (leaving No 18 empty to ensure peace and quiet). Most of Fonthill Abbey collapsed under the weight of its poorly-built tower the night of 21 December 1825. The remains of the house were slowly removed, leaving only a fragment, which exists today as a private home. This interestingly is the first part which included the shrine to St Anthony — Beckford's patron when he was living in Lisbon.



Beckford spent his later years in his home at Lansdown Crescent, during which time he commissioned architect Henry Goodridge to design a spectacular folly at the northern end of his land on Lansdown Hill: Lansdown Tower, now known as Beckford's Tower, in which he kept many of his treasures. This is now owned by the Bath Preservation Trust and operated by the Beckford Tower Trust as a museum to William Beckford; part of the property is rented to the Landmark Trust which makes it available for public hire as a spectacular holiday home. The museum contains numerous engravings and chromolithographs of the Tower's original interior as well as furniture commissioned specifically for the Tower by Beckford. There is also a great deal of information about Beckford, including objects related to his life in Bath, at Fonthill and elsewhere.
After his death at Lansdown Crescent on 2 May 1844, aged 84, his body was laid in a sarcophagus placed on an artificial mound, as was the custom of Saxon kings from whom he claimed to be descended. Beckford had wished to be buried in the grounds of Lansdown Tower, but his body was instead interred at Bath Abbey Cemetery in Lyncombe Vale on 11 May 1844. The Tower was sold to a local publican who turned it into a beer garden. Eventually it was purchased by Beckford's elder daughter, Susan Beckford, 10th Duchess of Hamilton, who gave the land around it to Walcot parish for consecration as a cemetery in 1848. This enabled Beckford to be re-buried near the Tower that he loved. His self-designed tomb – a massive sarcophagus of pink polished granite with bronze armorial plaques – now stands on a hillock in the cemetery the centre of an oval ditch. On one side of his tomb is a quotation from Vathek: "Enjoying humbly the most precious gift of heaven to man — Hope"; and on another these lines from his poem, A Prayer: "Eternal Power! Grant me, through obvious clouds one transient gleam of thy bright essence in my dying hour." Goodridge designed a Byzantine entrance gateway to the cemetery, flanked by the bronze railings which had surrounded Beckford's original grave in Lyncombe Vale.



William Thomas Beckford, usually known as William Beckford, was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest commoner in England. His parents were William Beckford and Maria Hamilton, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820. He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek, the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower ("Beckford's Tower"), Bath, and especially for his art collection.
On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtenay, 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy's uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers. Courtenay was just ten years old on first meeting Beckford, who was eight years older. For many years Beckford was believed to have conducted a simultaneous affair with his cousin Peter's wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755–1791). Beckford was discovered (according to a house guest at the time) to be 'whipping Courtenay in some posture or another' after finding a letter penned by 18 years old Courtenay to another lover. Although Beckford was never punished for child molestation, fornication, or attempted buggery, he subsequently chose self-exile to the continent in the company of his long-suffering wife (who died in childbirth aged 24).

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