Biography of William Beckford Eccentric Builder Part 1

About the eccentric English builder and aristocrat William Beckford and the strange construction projects at his abbey.

WILLIAM BECKFORD (1759-1844). Eccentric builder.

William Beckford was the most eccentric builder who ever lived. A pampered child of the 18th century, he was a prolific author, a pianist of great promise, and a brilliant linguist; but history remembers him best for his wildly bizarre tastes in architecture, and the equally extravagant fashion in which he satisfied them.

He was born in London in 1759, the son of a wealthy and influential landowner with especially extensive holdings in the West Indies. When his father died, 10-year-old William inherited those estates, as well as pound 1 million and the Beckford family estate--Fonthill--in Wiltshire. The Earl of Chatham was entrusted with the boy's raising, and young William learned to play the piano from Mozart. He was well-schooled in languages, including Arabic and Persian; and he traveled widely through Europe, educated entirely by private tutors, for his mother did not believe in formal education.

At the age of 20, he found himself in Venice enjoying the favors of an aged paramour who had previously been the mistress of Casanova. He later married a lady of title and fathered 4 children, but was accused widely of homosexuality. One rumor-which he never tried to quash--had him sodomizing a young friend in the village of Powderham.

For all the philandering he did in his 20S, Beckford was quite productive, writing 10 or 11 books (2 under the improbable pseudonyms of Lady Harriet Marlowe and Jacquetta Agneta Mariana Jenks). His literary output included Vathek, an oriental romance that has come to be considered a masterpiece of Gothic literature. (Its protagonist is a caliph who builds 5 palaces, each one devoted to one of the 5 senses.) He wrote the novel in French and then had it translated into English. He also dabbled in literary criticism, offering a collection of rather unconventional marginal scribblings entitled Fruits of Conceit and Flowers of Nonsense to a less than enthusiastic public.

It was in 1790 that young Beckford took over the managing of his own business affairs, and returned to Fonthill bent on living the life of a gentleman of leisure. He had picked up some knowledge of architecture during his travels abroad, and was determined to build himself a new home of epic proportions. More than merely a home, it would be a monument to himself; even as he had once told Lady Craven in the tones of a biblical patriarch, "I grow rich and mean to build towers."

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