Fonthill Abbey — also known as Beckford's Folly — was a large Gothic revival country house built around the turn of the 18th century at Fonthill Gifford in Wiltshire, England, at the direction of William Thomas Beckford and architect James Wyatt. It was constructed near the site of the Palladian house, later known as Fonthill Splendens, which was constructed by his father, William Beckford, to replace the Elizabethan house that Beckford père had purchased in 1744 and which had been destroyed by fire in 1755. The abbey has now been almost completely demolished.
Fonthill Abbey was a brainchild of William Thomas Beckford, son of wealthy English plantation owner William Beckford and a student of architect Sir William Chambers, as well as of James Wyatt, architect of the project.
In 1771, when Beckford was ten years old, he inherited £1,000,000 (roughly £100 million in 2008 values) and an income which his contemporaries estimated at around £100,000 per annum, a colossal amount at the time (equivalent to £10 million in 2008), but which biographers have found to be closer to half of that sum. Newspapers of the period described him as "the richest commoner in England".
He first met William Courtenay (Viscount Courtenay's 11-year-old son), in 1778. A spectacular Christmas party lasting for three days was held for the boy at Fonthill. During this time (c.1782), Beckford began writing Vathek, his most famous novel. In 1784 Beckford was accused by Courtenay's uncle, Alexander Wedderburn Loughborough, 1st Lord (later Earl of Rosslyn) of having had an affair with William Courtenay. The allegations of misconduct remained unproven, despite being stirred up by Lord Loughborough, but the scandal was significant enough to require his exile.
Beckford chose exile in the company of his wife, née Lady Margaret Gordon, whom he grew to love deeply, but who died in childbirth when the couple had found refuge in Switzerland. Beckford travelled extensively after this tragedy – to France, repeatedly, to Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal (the country he favoured above all). Shunned by English society, he nevertheless decided to return to his native country; after enclosing the Fonthill estate in a six-mile long wall (high enough to prevent hunters from chasing foxes and hares on his property), this arch-romantic decided to have a Gothic cathedral built for his home.
Construction of the abbey began in earnest 1796 in Beckford's estate of Fonthill Gifford near Hindon in Wiltshire, England. He hired James Wyatt, one of the most popular and successful architects of the late 18th-century, to lead the works. What seems contrasting with his success is that, as several sources seem to confirm, Wyatt was often accused of spending a good deal of his time on women and drink. Consequently, he seems also to have caused the ire of many a client of his—including Beckford—because of his all too common absences from client meetings, for a general disregard for supervising the construction works he was in charge of, and for not delivering the promised results in time, with clients accusing him—in certain instances—of years of delay.
Although suffering from a strained, at times, relationship, Beckford and Wyatt engaged, thus, in the construction of the Abbey, but it stands clear that, due to Wyatt's constant absences from the site, and because of the overt personal interest that Beckford had for this enterprise, he often took on the roles of construction site supervisor, general organiser, patron, and client all at the same time. Indeed, his biographers and his correspondence indicate that, during Wyatt's prolonged absences, he took it upon himself to direct the construction of the Abbey, as well as leading the landscaping efforts in his estate. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that he was not only happy to undertake all of those duties, but Brockman even suggests that Beckford must have lived some of his brightest moments of his adult life managing the construction and landscaping efforts of Fonthill. This is not to say that Wyatt's role in the construction of Fonthill was by any means minor to Beckford's, the former having been not only the author of the design of the building (based on Beckford's ideas), but he was ultimately a master at combining the different volumes and scales in the building, and in doing so he achieved a faux effect of layered historical development in the building by combining different stylistic architectural elements.
Glass painter Francis Eginton did much work in the building, including thirty-two figures of kings, knights, etc., and many windows, for which Beckford paid him £12,000.
Beckford's 500 labourers worked in day and night shifts. He bribed 450 more from the building of the new royal apartments at Windsor Castle by increasing an ale ration to speed things up. He also commandeered all the local wagons for transportation of building materials. To compensate, Beckford delivered free coal and blankets to the poor in cold weather.
The first part was the tower that reached about 90 metres (300 ft) before it collapsed. The new tower was finished six years later, again 90 metres tall. It collapsed as well. Beckford immediately started to build another one, this time with stone, and this work was finished in seven years.
The abbey part was decorated with silver, gold, red and purple. Four long wings radiated from the octagonal central room. Front doors were 35 feet (10 m) tall. It was declared finished in 1813.
Beckford lived alone in his abbey and used only one of its bedrooms for his own use. His kitchens prepared food for 12 every day although he always dined alone and sent other meals away afterwards. Only once, in 1800, did he entertain guests when Rear Admiral Lord Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton, visited the Abbey for Christmas.
Once he demanded that he would eat a Christmas dinner only if it would be served from new abbey kitchens and told his workmen to hurry. The kitchens collapsed as soon as the meal was over.
Beckford lived in Fonthill Abbey until 1822 when he lost two of his Jamaican sugar plantations in a legal action. He was forced to sell it and its contents for £330,000 (£25,460,000 in 2014) to an ammunitions dealer, John Farquhar. The main tower collapsed for the last time in 1825. The rest of the abbey was later demolished. Only a gatehouse and a small remnant of the north wing (including a small tower) remain to this day.
Collapse of the building
Beckford's decidedly obsessive haste to erect the building as fast and as grandiosely as he could, coupled with the decision (ultimately pushed by Beckford), of reaching structurally unsound heights in the building's tower spire, and utilising for this a method of building called "compo-cement" by Wyatt, which consisted in using timber stuccoed with cement, led to the eventual collapse of the tower—damaging the western wing of the building too—in 1825, when Beckford had already sold the building (for a good price of £275,000 (£19,110,000 in 2014).) to John Farquhar.
William Beckford died in 1844 in Bath, England.
- For a short, comprehensive historical account see: J. Wilton Ely, "The genesis and evolution of Fonthill Abbey", Architectural History 23 (1980:40–51.
- For more in-depth accounts see: Brockman, H.A.N. The Caliph of Fonthill (London: Werner Laurie, 1956), or Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill (London: Faber and Faber, 1979)
- J.W. Oliver, "The Life of William Beckford" (London: Oxford University Press – Humprhey Milford, 1932), 100, 203.
- Brian Fothergill, "Beckford of Fonthill" (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 169–70.
- Dale,Anthony, "James Wyatt: Architect 1746–1813", see the chapter entitled "Character"
- Brockman, "The Caliph of Fonthill", 63.
- UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2013), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
- Wilton-Ely, 48
- Beckford, William. (2007), Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 8 February 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fonthill Abbey.|
- The Fonthill Abbey section of a Beckfordiana website
- An online facsimile of an illustrated 1823 guidebook to Fonthill Abbey
- Fonthill Abbey Project