A Fonthill Compendium
– chronological entries in a Fonthill Abbey timeline


July 20, 1796: ”Wyatt is going to Font Hill to Mr. Beckfords, who after an absence of 3 years, is lately returned to England. Wyatt shewed me the Plan & Elevation of a Tower, which He is going to build for Mr. Beckford. It is to be situated on a Hill, about 3 miles from Fonthill. At the foot is to be 175 feet Square. The height is to be 175 feet. The Story on which He is to live is to be 60 feet from the ground. The Upper Story is to be one room occupying the square of the Building; and to [be] lighted by a lanthorn from the top. It will be upwards of 70 feet high. Mr. Beckford proposed this scheme some four years since, and said, but Wyatt thinks witht. any serious contention, that He would direct that He would be buried at the top of the lanthorn. Mr. Wildman, his agent, startled at the apprehension of such singularity after what had been said of Mr. Beckfords conduct, has hitherto thrown obstacles in the way of it. - Mr. Beckford asked how he shd. get up to his first floor 60 feet high. Wyatt said He should have a Stair Case to a Hall with 4 fire places in it, up which staircase He might drive a Coach & 4 & turn in the Hall. The heigth from the Hall to the first story wd. be trifling.” [Joseph Farington’s Diary]

September 15, 1796: ”William Beckford, Esq. of Fonthill, is collecting the materials for a building of wonderful grandeur and utility: It is to consist of a tower, to be erected on Stops’ Beacon, near Fonthill, the loftiest scite in that neighbourhood: It is to have a square of 80 feet clear, within the walls, at the base, and to be 280 feet high, with a lantern at the top, so that it will command a view of near 80 miles every way, and the lantern be seen by night at a greater distance. It is to be furnished as an observatory, and, notwithstanding its immense height, is to be so constructed as that a coach and six may be driven with ease and safety from the base to the top, and down again. This stupendous work will probably employ hundreds of the neighbouring poor for near ten years.” [The Times]

August 6, 1797: ”Wyatt I called on in morning - saw designs for Beckfords Gothic building - which is now much enlarged - among the furniture are to be four Cabinets of £500 value each - all in Gothic taste - four Gothic statues to be executed by Nollekens, Flaxman, Rossi & Westmacot. The Tower is not proceeding with at present but in his will Beckford has directed that it shall be finished shd. He die before.” [Farington]

November 6, 1797: ”Beckford yesterday told Wyatt that He had an intention of taking down Fonthill House, which is badly situated - and in that case enlarge the Gothic Building now erecting to be His Mansion House...” [Farington]

November 16, 1798: ”New building to be called Fonthill Abbey - the Spire to be 17 feet higher than the top of St. Peters at Rome. - The Abbey to be endowed, & Cathedral Service to be performed in the most splendid manner that the Protestant religion will admit - A gallery leading from the top of the Church to be decorated with paintings the works of English Artists. - Beckfords own tomb to be placed at the end of this gallery, - as having been an encourager of Art.” [Farington]

May 20, 1800: ”SALISBURY, MAY 18. On Friday a heavy gale of wind came on from the S.W. which ere the dawn of Saturday morning had increased to a tempest: the tower of the famous Gothic Abbey, just erected at Fonthill, stood exposed to all its fury, and at three o’clock a considerable portion of this famed building came down with such a tremendous crash as to alarm the country for a considerable distance around. Thus, in a moment, perished the labour of hundreds of feeble mortals bestowed for years on this once favourite object, and the expence of very many thousands.” [The Times]

November 8, 1800: ”Hamilton called - Has been at Fonthill near 4 months ... One wing of the Abbey is finished & furnished. - but Mr. Beckford has never slept in it. - Hamilton remarked on the extraordinary effect which that species of building when suitably furnished, as is here the case, has on the mind. It fills the mind with a sentiment which is almost too much to support, certainly of too melancholy a cast to be long dwelt upon; He therefore is not surprised that Mr. B. has not yet had inclination to dwell in it.” [Farington]

April 13, 1801: ”Hamilton came to tea. – He was at Fonthill at Christmas when Mr. Beckford gave his first entertainment in the Abbey. – Sir Wm. Hamilton & Lady, – Lord Nelson, – Madame Banti, – several French Emigrés, a Portuguese Nobleman, – a few Country neighbours, – West, – Tresham, – & Smith were there. – They went from Fonthill to the Abbey by Torch light and arrived abt. 6 oClock finding Dinner served at the moment.
Lady Hamilton, in the evening between eleven & twelve displayed Her attitudes. – She is bold & unguarded in her manner, is grown fat & drinks freely.” [Farington]
July 18, 1807: ”We are in the midst of all the fracas and dust of demolition on the one hand and building on the other. The Tower and the great Octagon are being finished, but it will all remain unfurnished, for it is not the moment to begin. But at least we enjoy the spaciousness and the great architectural effect of an edifice which without exaggeration does honour to the great artist who has executed it; Wyatt merits and, I am sure, will receive the highest praise. I assure you, my dear Douglas, that you will like it and that you will be in an ecstasy of enthusiasm, inspired by the view of this marvellous tower ...
You will forget the old palace of tertian fevers with all its false Greek and false Egyptian, its small doors and mean casements, its dauberies à la Casali, its ridiculous chimney-pieces and its wooden chalk-coloured columns, without grace, nobility or harmony. No, my dear Douglas, I cannot honestly regret this mass of very ordinary taste, and in my actual circumstances I believe I have performed a fine prudent act ...” [Beckford, in a letter to Franchi, from Life at Fonthill, edited by Boyd Alexander]

June 16, 1811: ”Here everything is gradually lapsing into antiquity - grass up to the very doors, etc. The lake looks as if God had made it, so natural, without the least trace of art ...
The new round tower is bulky and much too big; I don’t like its proportions ...” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

October 24, 1811: ”Blessed abbey, save and defend me from such riff-raff and riff-raffery as this! Grow, you forests, raise yourselves, you walls, and make an everlasting barrier between me and them ...this pure and sacred residence, which, whether I’m alive or dead, shall never be profaned...” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

June 17, 1812: ”Some people drink to forget their unhappiness. I do not drink, I build. And it ruins me.” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

February 10, 1815: ”... I don’t mean to stay here to be blown about like bodies (and not holy ones) hanging from a gibbet. I must tell you that this place makes your flesh creep as soon as night falls. Yesterday I thought that everything was coming down. My tower swayed so that at three o’clock in the morning the dwarf awoke with a terrific ”God-damn!”...” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

September 17, 1815: ”... The craze for seeing the Abbey grows like the tower itself - every day and well-nigh every hour they twist and turn to corrupt my dragoons - so far in vain. This resistance to the power of gold is a miracle - let us thank the Glorious Saint and put all our hopes in him.” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]
December 18, 1818: ”... Yesterday offered the strangest atmospheric effects I’ve ever seen ... The softest and most luminous vapours covered a landscape that might have been Italian: the hills transformed into mountains and the valleys into lakes produced a thousand illusions. Turning Knoyle Point, the whole immense desert of Hindon etc looked like a boundless sea, varied, however, by splendid shores, with here and there little wooded islands clad in the gayest green; all this was on the left hand. On the right, all the Abbey forests were enamelled by a lurid sun under the loveliest blue sky, and from out these forests rose the Castle of Atlas with all its windows sparkling like diamonds! Nothing I’ve ever seen in my life can equal this unique vision in grandeur of form or magic of colour. The semblance of water was so life-like and transparent that one could even see reflections in it. They talk of the mirage in Egypt and in the great desert: I have now seen it, and seen it at Fonthill ...” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

June, 1822: ”Fonthill Abbey. The question so often asked, ’is it possible to obtain admittance to Fonthill Abbey?’ may now be answered. That magnificent edifice will soon open its portals to receive the hitherto mortified and disappointed traveller, who, although his curiosity were powerfully excited by external grandeur, could only catch a passing glance of the solemn pile, raising, in all the pomp of Gothic architecture, from the bosom of a surrounding forest. Now, thanks to the magic hammer of Mr. Christie, he may soon approach, he may enter, he may examine. He will see in the great Octagon what could be effected under the genius of Mr. Beckford, and will there find an infinite variety of forms, most gracefully and harmoniously combined. Taking the whole together, the gigantic structure of the Abbey, the splendour of its decorations, the works of art with which it abounds, the Alpine character of the scenery by which it is encircled, every thing that meets the eye, breathing the purest taste, will afford to the admiring multitude the highest gratification.” [Gentleman’s Magazine]
August 7, 1822: ”... The Holy Sepulchre has at last become one of the most animated spots in England. People go to it as to the waters; they admire it, they devour it with their eyes, they vanish into its thickets, doubtless regretting not yet being able to retire behind West’s great dauberies. Yesterday seventy waggons, each drawn by several horses, followed by innumerable gigs, deposited at the foot of the Great Portal several dozens insipid personages of that diversity of persuasions in which we glory in this blessed Isle.” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

August 24, 1822:
UPRAISED as by a wizard’s powerful spell,
Or like the fitful scenery of a dream,
Far on the eye the towers of Fonthill gleam,
While memory wakes the ancient minstrel’s shell.
Borne on the breeze now choral anthems swell,
Now fancy scenes of long past years will frame,
Scenes swept away by Time’s devouring stream,
Which crush’d the monkish fane and hermit’s cell.
Yes, they have vanish’d; but this gothic pile,
With magic power, the mental eye inspires
To trace long trains, amid the vaulted aisle,
Of holy monks and red-cross knights and friars;
To raise the spirit of those days of yore
When steel-clad warriors strove on Judah’s shore. M. J.”
[The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review]
September 2, 1822: ”The rage is at its height. They dream only of the Abbey, they talk only of it. I doubt whether since the beginning [p. 338] of printing they have ever uttered such extravagances. Semiramis, babylon, Persepolis no longer count for anything: they proclaim that Vathek and his tower have surpassed them. The poet Bowles and God knows how many other versifiers are indulging themselves to their heart’s content. In short, it is a veritable Rage, and buyers present themselves from all sides.
... Before the most attractive object in the whole world (according to the frenzied impression of the day) is for ever lost to us, come and glance at it, try to glide one fine sunday up to the demonstrator of the magic lantern, our faithful and beloved Franchi. He will tell you what is passing, what has passed. He will relate a thousand anecdotes which would make a fortune of one cared to print them - for the avidity with which they swallow everything which people choose to scribble about Fonthill is unexampled.
... an object which all England beholds agape. It seems that they believe in Fonthill as blindly as in pious times they believed in the most inconceivable legends.” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

October 7, 1822: ”... Fonthill is sold very advantageously. I am rid of the Holy Sepulchre, which no longer interested me since its profanation ...” [Beckford, Life at Fonthill]

1824: ”FONTHILL. Fonthill Abbey, the superb seat of Wm. Beckford, Esq. This magnificent mansion, justly considered unique, whether viewed collectively, or in its sub-divisions, cannot fail to awaken the most delightful sensations. The enclosure measures about 7 miles, surrounded by a stone wall, the internal features of which are diversified with a variety of scenic capabilities; and such has been the taste and judgement exercised in the disposition and arrangement of the embellishments, that a journey of upwards of 20 miles may be made without retracing the same steps, in the progress of which, the scenery will be found equally varied and interesting. From the apex of a hill amidst these luxuriant and beautiful grounds, rises a mansion, called the Abbey, crowned with a lofty tower (visible at the distance of 40 miles), turrets, pediments, and pinnacles, bearing every external appearance of an ancient monastic edifice. It is composed of a tower in the centre, a spacious and lofty entrance hall, and three wings extending from the tower to the east, north, and west, each of which is dissimilar to the others, and each appropriated to the purposes of a commodious and elegant family mansion, adorned in the most costly manner with the choicest productions of the fine arts. The tower of this mansion has its base on an eminence considerably above the top of Salisbury steeple, and commands extensive views over beautifully picturesque and abundantly diversified scenery.” [Paterson’s Roads, 17th ed., London 1824]

December 28, 1825: ”FONTHILL ABBEY. We cannot but regret having to announce the demolition in great part, of that most magnificent fabric Fonthill Abbey, which has been so universally and deservedly admired. On Wednesday afternoon, about half-past three o’clock, the tower, which rose to the height of 270 feet from the centre of the building, fell with a tremendous crash, breaking through a great portion of the roof of the abbey, and instantaneously presenting an immense mass of ruins ...” [The Times]