The Morning Post,
September 22, 1823
ANECDOTES OF MR. BECKFORD.
Since the property at Fonthill was announced for sale, the name of Mr. BECKFORD has so frequently been mentioned in connection with matters of a most extraordinary character, that the Public have felt not a little curious respecting his history. That curiosity we purpose in some degree to gratify, not by recounting all the extravagant and injurious reports which have from time to time been put in circulation, and which we rejected last year as being too stale for insertion, but by stating a few facts which we have on respectable authority, and which we confidently believe may relied upon.
Mr. BECKFORD commenced life with means such as few mortals ever had at their disposal. Eight hundred thousand pounds in money he is reported to have possessed, besides the enormous income of 160,000l. per annum. With such wealth the ordinary objects of human ambition were so easily purchased, that to him they seemed cheap and valueless, and his mind could only find solace in courting that which, from its being beyond the reach of all other men, or nearly so, were calculated to astonish. Hence the thought of Fonthill. When Mr. BECKFORD first consulted the late Mr. WYATT on the subject of building, it was not such a mansion as the one now on view that he proposed to erect. He wished to build a lofty tower, (a sketch of which may now be seen in the small apartment at the end of the vaulted library,) at the top of which he proposed that his remains should repose after death, an iron grating being provided to exclude birds from acclerating [sic] their decomposition. The tower was not to be wholly untenanted during his life. It was occasionally to be used as a sort of summer house, and it was proposed to be so constructed that that carriages might ascend to the apartment which was to occupy the place of a first floor. By degrees he enlarged his plan, and began to act upon it; but the architect was frequently required to execute fanciful deviations, and thus eventually the present magnificent structure was raised. Of the impetuosity with which he urged on the workmen the public have already been told.
Situated as Mr. BECKFORD was, it is perhaps not to be wondered at that he was in some instances petulant and impatient. The orders which he issued were as peremptory and almost as extraordinary as those given by Aladdin to the Slave of the Lamp. When he required a task to be performed, it was in vain that difficulties opposed its execution. These, on the contrary, excited him to pursue the object which he had in view with increased ardour, and his mind and his means were such as to enable him, in most cases, to triumph over obstacles which seemed to be insuperable.
He wished to preserve his game; but, in spite of his prohibition, a hare or a fox was one day killed within sight of his residence. This he deeply resented, and he declared the offence should not long be likely to be repeated. He called for his steward, ordered the map of the grounds to be brought, and drawing a circular line, ordered a stone wall to be erected, enclosing a large portion of the estate, which wall was to be surmounted by pallisades, the whole to be finished in three months. The person to whom this order was given remarked, that the wall which he wished to have built would be more than six miles in extent. This mattered not. Mr. BECKFORD was about to start for Portugal; on that day three months he meant to return, and on his return he expected to find the wall erected. On giving the order he took care that no pecuniary impediment should be urged. The stone of which the wall was to be composed was then in the quarry, but the work was completed by the time he had named, and the intrusion of the neighbouring sportsmen was effectually prevented by that defence, which is now called the barrier wall. The expense of this, the stone being on the estate, was 12,000l.
The statement that there is no bell in the Abbey is not strictly correct. Bells, however, are somewhat scarce, and in Mr. BECKFORD’s time there was none to those apartments which he inhabited. Mysteriously secluded from the world, he lived in regal state. Attendants were constantly in waiting to do his bidding, who passed the word which he deigned to give, from one to another, with echo-like rapidity, and when descending from the sublime reveries, in which much of his time passed, he gave the word for ”cheese,” or ”fruit,” ”cheese,” or ”fruit,” were vociferated by all the menial train. Cheese or fruit resounded through the portals, halls, galleries, and towers of Fonthill Abbey. Though alone, or only with his Secretary, the Chevalier FRANCHI, twenty dishes were served up on plate of the most costly description, and it is said, the slightest neglect in preparing one of these was sure to meet with detection. Thus surrounding himself in solitude, with luxury and splendour, Mr. BECKFORD placed himself in a situation not unlike that of Luke in ”Riches.” Could he like Luke exclaim – ”this is bliss.”
His impatience would sometimes break out when his tenantry broke in upon his rides. They might poach with impunity; the might remove the dead wood on the estate; and if occasionally a young tree was cut down, little notice was taken of it; but if they came in his way, so as to give him personal annoyance, he was not slow to chastise the offender. Some curious rencontres of this sort are told in the neighbourhood. Once a rustic had to complain of a broken head in consequence of such a mishap as we have alluded to; Mr. BECKFORD, however, had hardly got home before he wished to make reparation, and accordingly sent money to the party who had incurred his resentment. The man, ”so runs the tale,” experienced a grateful surprise at this, and remarked, on receiving the cash, that Mr. BECKFORD should be perfectly welcome to break his head every day on the same terms.
But he was sometimes believed to be more irascible than he was in reality. Eager to see one of his day dreams realized, he urged on the building of part of the Abbey so rapidly to conclusion, that the persons employed to comply with his wish, for the sake of expedition, forgot to give their work proper strength. The tower, which had been hastily run up, came down still more hastily. This drew from Mr. BECKFORD the exulting exclamation, ”What a jaw that must be which could sustain the loss of such a tooth!” But the individual who had superintended the erection, fearing the passionate temper of his employer, absented himself for some time. Little blame attached to him, as in addition to the disadvantages of hurry, he had had to contend with unfavourable weather. But he had no expectation that these excuses would be admitted by the mortified Proprietor. Mr. BECKFORD, after some time, missed him, and desired to know the cause of his not seeing him. He was told that the man was afraid to meet him after the accident that had happened. ”O! (said Mr. BECKFORD) he is very wrong to stay away on that account. I had the gratification of seeing it after it was complete, and I did not calculate on looking on it a second time.”
Expence in the accomplishment of a favourite object he never regarded. This is proved by every thing that meets the eye at Fonthill. All that the wondering spectator meets with there serves but to inspire wonder at the gigantic mind, as well as the gigantic means which were necessary to produce that exhibition which now courts the public view. Oceans were traversed and foreign lands put in requisition for any thing which he coveted to embellish Fonthill. Of this numerous instances might be given. In the outer grounds the water fowl of Canada and the Cape of Good Hope are associated, and in the immediate vicinity of the Abbey immense spaces are covered with foreign shrubs, which elsewhere are exhibited but as lonely curiosities in garden pots, while the very earth and the turf (a velvety mossy turf) are stated to have been procured from Ireland and America at an expense of 28,000l.
(To be continued.)
[No continuation found in the following issues of the Morning Post]