: Beckford and the Apocalyptic Art of West and
From 1777 onwards, Beckford began to develop a love of travelling through
literary landscapes of the melancholic picturesque and, sometime, of
the apocalyptic sublime. In The Vision, written in Switzerland
and dedicated to his mentor Alexander Cozens, Beckford had absorbed
the central Burkean lesson that out of great fear should come divine
When on the brink of the burning hearth you shrunk back with fear
visage of Malich was altered and Terminga dreaded you would share the
fate of others who had in vain attempted the enterprise. Did you not
remark also that instant your heart dictated a contempt of danger, the
initiation was effected and you were wafted thro the flames?
In 1778, French landscape provided access to apocalyptic mountain peaks
on which Beckford recorded a high moment of adolescent conquest. He
had been conducted by a Carthusian monk from the Grande Chartreuse,
past a mountain shrine to St. Bruno, onto one of the highest local peaks:
A sea of vapours soon undulated beneath my feet, and lightning
began to flash from a dark, angry cloud, that hung over the vallies,
and, probably, deluged them with storms, whilst I was securely standing
under the clear expanse of aether. But the hour did not admit of my
remaining long in this proud station. (2)
By 1780 in Biographical Memoirs, the initiation which the young
Benboaro experienced in the landscape of Mount Etna was no mere circumnavigation
of obstacles but integral to the sentimental education of the youth
in pursuit of his hero, the painter Og of Basan:
the sullen murmur of the volcano, and all the
horrors of the scene worked so strongly on his imagination, that he
fancied he beheld strange shapes descending and ascending the steeps
of the fiery gulph. (3)
By 1782 in Vathek, the Caliph awoke at a certain point in his
travels and felt quite terrified:
Where am I? cried he: What are these dreadful
rocks? These valleys of darkness! Are we arrived at the horrible Kaf!
In the Notes Beckford associated the Kaf with the stone called sakhrat:
at once the pivot of the earth, a vast emerald from which the heavens
derived their azure and the reason for earthquakes when the stone moved
one of its fibres. The Caliphs terror at the thought of the Kaf
showed his failure to appreciate the terrible as a supreme form of the
By 1783, having observed Vesuvius from Hamiltons Villa Angelica
at its foot, Beckford wrote Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents
and reported in Letter XXIV of having had a reverie of two spectacles.
First, there was the volcano with its liquid fire flooding the beautiful
coast with innumerable streams of red-hot lava. Then there
was the blaze of altars with the robed priests supplicating
by prayer and sacrifice the intervention of Isis who had taught
the first fathers of mankind the culture of the earth, and other arts
of civil life (5) At this stage Beckford was seeing how the danger
of the destructive volcano was intimately linked to the beautiful pagan
rites of piety and defiance thriving in its shadow
By 1787, Beckford had written further oriental tales entitled The
Episodes of Vathek, all obsessed by disintegration. In the final
story, there was a nightmarish sequence where the Climber (in contrast
to his former helpful Carthusian guide) led the narrator into a labyrinth
He opened a door, and made me enter, with him, into a narrow passage,
not more than four feet high
At every step I caught my feet in
viscous plants that issued from certain cracks and crevices in the gallery
upon little wells that had
been dug to right and left of our path. Through the black waters in
these wells I seemed to see reptiles with human faces. (6)
The apocalyptic imagery in Beckfords writing during the years
up to 1784 can be directly related to his early personal development.
The young Beckford was essentially a precocious literary talent who,
through London seasons and European travels, persisted in cultivating
a considerable level of lonely defiance, self-absorption and arrogant
contempt for his elders trapped by the importance of politics. Society
was beginning to ensnare him. By 1784, Beckford as a married man became
an M.P. for Wells and then quickly sought a barony with the title of
Lord Beckford of Fonthill. Only scandal and disgrace were to prevent
his ennoblement. When Lord Loughborough accused Beckford of corrupting
the seventeen year old William Courtenay (the future earl of Devon),
English society believed Loughborough and began treating Beckford as
a pariah. Doubtless the doom-laden aspects of The Episodes of Vathek
owed much to Beckfords increasing anxiety that from Loughboroughs
human revelations may grow his own personal catastrophe.
IN 1787, Beckfords family resolved to send him into exile to his
Jamaican sugar estates via Lisbon. An ailing Beckford decided to go
no further than Lisbon where he stayed for eight months, his first of
three protracted visits to Portugal. The British Minister, Robert Walpole,
refused to receive Beckford or present him to the court of the Queen
of Portugal, Maria 1. By good luck Beckford was introduced to one of
the Queens favourites, the Marquis of Marialva, who became Beckfords
devoted friend and arranged for his limited entry into the aristocratic,
diplomatic, ecclesiastical and royal circles of Portugal. Beckfords
life-long gratitude to Portugal and St. Anthony, so well expressed in
his journal entries for the period between May and November 1787, helped
him to feel safe from his many English enemies.
Beckford was in Paris on the 14 July 1789 when the Bastille fell. (7)
Revolution had its apocalyptic appeal. Radical stirrings were expressed
in anonymous pieces: Modern Novel Writing (1795) with Pitts
England lampooned as The Isle of Mum; and Azemia
(1797) with its angry castigation of the idle and wasteful rich
who treated their horses and dogs better than their poor neighbours.
Yet Beckfords imaginative sympathies with the climate of political
revolution were not to be developed by him into further literary works.
Instead he began to see himself as a patron of painters who would reflect
the new age of catastrophe as the millennium approached. Commissioned
apocalyptic pictures became an early important part of the plans for
Fonthill Abbey whose buildings and landscaped grounds would be Beckfords
highly ambiguous version of revolution in England.
Beckfords main apocalyptic idea for Fonthill Abbey was that there
should be a Revelations Gallery of some 125 feet long and 12 feet wide
which would contain a Revelation Chamber, with 5 foot thick walls:
in which are to be recesses to admit coffins. Beckfords
coffin is to be placed opposite the door. The room is not to be entered
by strangers, to be viewed through gratings. The floor is to be Jaspar.
This gallery and room are to be over the Chapel. West is to paint all
the pictures. (8)
Benjamin West, President of the Royal Academy, was promised £1000
a year while he was completing the pictures. He began producing sketches
in 1796, hoping later to produce full-scale pictures and/or stained
glass windows. Probably Beckfords first interest in West was stimulated
by the appearance of a version of Death on a Pale Horse exhibited first
at the RA in 1796, a subject which had become associated with Burkes
cult of the terrible and the sublime. Writing years later (1810) to
Franchi, Beckford remembered Wests version as political prophecy:
For the future I discover only phantoms stranger and more terrifying
than than those in the Apocalypse. Where is the mountain that will hide
us from the wrath of a God justly angered by the massacres and ravages
caused by our Cabinet, so coldly hypocritical and so basely mercantile?
At the recollection of Quiberon and Copenhagen, of the siege of Saragossa
and the sack of Evora, on imagining the Russian horrors in Finland,
we are forced to expect a day of vengeance
this terrible day
not dawn on Windsor or London, for the Bank, Palace, Castle and cathedrals,
all will have vanished. Over deserted, smoking plains pale Napoleon
will be seen galloping. It will be Wests Apocalypse, his Triumph
of Death, painted in the same terrible colours, a mingling of mire and
blood. To such scenes is our fine reign of every kind of borrowing leading
Beckfords patronage of West may well also have been linked to
the fact that George III had commissioned West for an iconographical
programme from Revelations in the Royal Chapel at Windsor.
Wests first apocalyptic design for Beckford was probably St. Michael
which had the Archangel shown with great wings, a golden cuirass and
plumed helmet and his defeated adversary given bat wings, a subhuman
head and a spiralling tail. In another sketch, A Mighty Angel Standeth
Upon the Land and on the Sea, the Angel stood in a contraposto position
with the rainbow above him, a book in one hand and an arm raised to
heaven. A companion sketch for A Mighty Angel was The Beast Riseth out
of the Sea which showed the Great Red Dragon passing the sceptre of
power to the Beast, while a woman holding a child in her arms was beseeching
mercy: a most grotesque depiction of the gross abuse of power. There
was the sketch of The Woman Clothed with the Sun Fleeth from the Persecution
of the Dragon with its vivid contrasts between the graceful beauty of
the woman, baby and attendant angels, and the grotesqueness of the demonic
forces erupting from below. A West design, probably intended as a cartoon
for a painted glass window, was John Called to Write the Revelation;
Wests John was an athletic young man with a quill in his right
hand and a scroll in his left on an island beside an enormous eagle
and before the vision of Christ, in the midst of the Seven Golden Candlesticks,
commanding his young disciple to write.(10) The Angel in the Sun was
the last of Wests apolacyptic sketches for Beckford.
Of course, Wests own enthusiasm for the apocalyptic did not originate
from Beckfords commission. West drew his mystical inspiration
from the millenarian circle of the Rev. Jacob Duche, a fellow American
and devotee of Emanuel Swedenbourg. Beckfords reservations about
West were technical. He could not help noting Wests unsatisfactory
progress in the Royal Chapel at Windsor. The problem with West was inability
to develop sketches into full-scale pictures. On 1 November 1797 Wyatt,
the architect of Fonthill Abbey, reported that Beckford admired Wests
sketches for their visionary vitality but doubted if such power would
survive in the large finished pictures. (11) Later Beckford discussed
with Lansdown his reservations about the painting of West:
the original spirit evaporated long before the completion
of the great tame painting, where his men and women too often look like
wooden lay figures covered with drapery. (12)
Wests apocalyptic sketches were never enlarged for the Revelation
Chamber at Fonthill Abbey; indeed, the proposal for such a chamber disappeared
from Beckfords plans. Wests apocalyptic designs were widely
dispersed throughout Fonthill Abbey, according to Storer. Two pictures
from Wests Revelations were hung in the northern tribune room.
A picture of Saint Michael Overcoming the Dragon was in the state bed-chamber
off the Lancaster gallery. In a dressing room reached via the staircase
that led to the Great Tower were two other pictures from the Revelations
by West. (13)
By the mid 1820s, there was considerable controversy in the London art
world about the point and value of apocalyptic pictures. Rev. John Eagles,
the Bristol connoisseur, waxed polemical in verse:
themes sublime the fiery rain,
Departing Lot, the blazing plain;
Heavens vengeance upon Egypt dealt;
Its blood, - its darkness to be felt;
So DANBY finds, an artists fame.
Learn this, ye painters of dead stumps,
Old barges, and canals, and pumps.
John Constable became the representative of the still, small voice of
England as expressed in his picture Dedham Lock:
John Martin looked at the Royal Academy from the Plains of Ninevah,
from the Destruction of Babylon, etc
I am content to look at the
Academy from a gate, and the highest spot I ever aspired to was a windmill.
Beckfords passion for an artists fire led him to admire
Francis Danbys An Attempt to Illustrate the Opening of the Sixth
Seal. Beckford paid 500 guineas for it in 1828. The acclaimed picture
lacked John Martins sense of historical landscape and architectural
reconstructions, but it powerfully depicted a landscape alive with political
allegory. (15) The two figures most dramatically highlighted in the
great earthquake are the King and the Slave. The King has fallen to
the dust with his cross and sceptre lying at the foot of the Slave.
The Slave, alone and fearless amid the fury of the warring elements,
is shaking the manacles off his hands and raising his newly freed arms
to the heavens. Perhaps in Danbys picture Beckford found a compelling
image of both the rebellious individual and the doomed tyrant set down
in an apocalyptic landscape. The evocation of the tail of the
comet in a letter to Franchi of 19 October 1811 provided the best
Beckfordian gloss on that slaves ambition for:
seeing this infamous realm of cruel, bitter, coarse and
hypocritical brutes ended by a stroke of the tail of the comet. Ah dear
Comet, suppress the suppressors, the false novelists, the false prophets,
the false Kings and the false Shepherds. (16)
Danbys emancipated slave as image must have much appealed to Beckfords
personal reverie. The grand passion for self-liberation, necessarily
apocalyptic in such a politically oppressive time, never led Beckford
to advocate the liberation of other slaves. As a slave owner whose vast
fortunes were the direct result of slavery in Jamaica, he instinctively
opposed the abolition of what had been his main source of patronage.
Perhaps if he had not neglected his own development as a writer over
the many years of travel, collecting, building and landscaping, Beckford
might well have been inspired to use the tail of the comet
on all unjust kings, including the slave owners. No late stories exhibited
signs of the political and social radicalism which had significantly
stirred in the younger man. (17)
Danby lost Beckfords patronage in 1829, the year in which he exhibited
two angels from the Revelations (out of the four commissioned) meant
to go over doors in Lansdown Crescent, Bath. The art critics pronounced
anit-climax. Constable defeated Danby by one vote for a vacancy at the
RA. Beckford bought Danbys Subject from Revelation but quickly
resold it: the picture depicted a long-haired angel scaled against a
murky sky, with the sun casting a ruddy glow over his legs. (18) Beckfords
patience with Danbys unfilled apocalyptic commissions was waning.
Even the once admired Sixth Seal had been sold on by the time it was
put on exhibition at the Academy of Fine Arts, Barclay Street London
in 1833, perhaps to coincide with the passage of the government bill
abolishing slavery. Critics in reviews of that exhibition made particular
reference to the figure of Danbys slave whose symbolism seemed
obvious to them. (19)
In 1835, Beckford chose to conjure up a picturesque idyllic landscape
in his last book. In a fond vignette of Portugal, he celebrated the
occasion of the Feast of St.Anthony by preferring Natures sky
to a Church enclosure and by expressing a late iconoclastic tendency
towards the liturgical tradition associated with Abbey Churches which
he had once so admired.
Prayer does not always ascend with the greatest fervency from
beneath gilded vaults or gorgeous cupolas
the simple congregation
assembled together in this wild and desolate place to thank the Almighty
for his blessings, appeared far superior in my eyes to those pharisaic
gatherings attracted to church by worldly motives and the parade of
idle vanity. (20)
As he wrote about pharisaic gatherings in the Christian churches, Beckford
was in a position daily to enjoy views from the Belvidere of Lansdown
Tower: its windows opening out on superb views of the Wiltshire Downs,
the Severn Estuary and the mountains of Wales. Unlike the young Beckford
in the company of a Carthusian monk on the way to the Grande Chatreuse,
retirement in Bath permitted Beckford and carefully selected guests
(all well cushioned from storms) to relax in the proud position of the
In old age, Beckford treasured two unsold West pictures which he had
not commissioned. There was the one (painted c.1788) described in Views
of Lansdown Tower as depicting a Coronation, including the ancestry
of Mr. Beckford in the Scarlet Drawing Room. (21) The description
in Christes Fonthill Sale Catalogue of 1822 was: A
Grand Mass in the Interior of St.Georges Chapel at Windsor, in
which are introduced the Kings of France and Scotland when Prisoners
at Windsor. (22) Here was the ultimate emblem of Beckfords
romantic claim of royal descent centred on Edward 111 who had instituted
the Order of the Garter in 1348 and who had been assigned a gallery
at Fonthill Abbey. Beckford left an unpublished manuscript from his
last years, Liber Veritatis, which was a fierce attack on the
newly emerging aristocracy who seemed to him to fall well
short of being his equal obviously reveries of his lost peerage
still haunted him. (23)
Images of storms and eruptions (which had expressed early rebellion
against family tyranny and later identification with political and social
revolution) preoccupied Beckford much less as an old man but there remained
in his possession a West picture which seems to have reminded him of
his lost, and at times heroic, battles. Henry Lansdown has reported
that Wests sketch of Lear in the Storm: Act 111 Scene 1V (probably
acquired after Wests death in 1820) was one of Beckfords
favourite pictures in Lansdown Crescent. (24) Did Beckford perhaps catch
a gleam of his own past energy and fire in Wests figure of the
old King still defiant in the full force of the storm?
List of Beckfords Apocalyptic Art mentioned in this essay:
A. BENJAMIN WEST (1738-1820)
1. St. Michael (1797), 128 x 60 cm. (Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)
2. A Mighty Angel Standeth Upon the Land and Upon the Sea (1797), 78
x 53 cm. (last known owner: Mrs. Linden T. Harris, Penn)
3. The Beast Riseth out of the Sea (1797), 80 x 54 cm. (Professor &
Mrs. T.J. McCormick)
4. The Woman Clothed with the Sun (1798), 144 x 65 cm. (Hirschl &
Adlen Gallery, New York)
5. John Called to Write the Revelation (1797), 144 x 65 cm. (The Sarah
Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston, Texas)
6. The Angel in the Sun (c.1801), 78 x 51 cm. (Location unknown, but
pen and ink wash drawing in Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio)
7. Lear in the Storm (c.1788), 52 x 70 cm. (Detroit Institute of Arts)
B. FRANCIS DANBY (1793-1861)
1. An Attempt to Illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal (1828), 185
x 255 cm. (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin)
2. Subject from Revelations (1829) , 61 x 77 cm ( Robert Rosenblum,
Helmut von Erffa & Walter Staley, The Paintings of Benjamin West,
1986. Illustrations included are as follows: A1:396 (b & w);A2:
392 (b & w);A3: 109 (colour); A4: 393 (b & w); A5: 387 (b &
w); A6: 398 (b & w); A7: 101 (colour).
Morton D. Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime, 1986). Illustrations included
are as follows: A1: 43 (b & w); A3: 40 (colour); A5: 39 (b &
w); B1: 175 (b & w); B2: 177 (b & w).
M.F. Rogers Jr., Benjamin West and the Caliph in Apollo
LXXX111 (1966), 420-5.
N.L.Pressly, Revealed Religion: Benjamin Wests Commissions for
Windsor Castle and Fonthill Abbey (San Antonio Catalogue, 1983)
Eric Adams, Francis Danby: Varieties of Poetic Landscape, 1973
Francis Greenacre, Francis Danby (Tate Gallery Catalogue 1988)
1. Beckford,Vathek and Other Stories, ed.Malcolm Jack ,1955, 24. See
also Edmund Burke, Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas
of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1756) and Kim Sloane, Alexander and
John Robert Cozens: the Poetry of Landscape (1986)
2. Beckford, Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, ed.Robert J. Gemmett,
3. Beckford, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, 1977, 88.
4. Vathek and Other Stories, 57 & 106-7.
6. Beckford, The Episodes of Vathek ed. M.Jack, 1994, 206.
7. Boyd Alexander, Englands Wealthiest Son, 1962, 142.
8. The Diary of Joseph Farrington, ed. K.Garlick & A.MacIntyre,
1979 Vol.3 1091.
9. Life at Fonthill, ed. Boyd Alexander, 1957, 96.
10. See M.D.Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime, 1986, 35-47.
11. Faringtons Diary, Vol.3, 912.
12. H.V.Lansdown, Recollections of the late William Beckford 1893, 13.
13. J.Storer, A Description of Fonthill Abbey, 1812, 18-20.
14. G. Grigson, The Harp of Aelous, 1974, 69-78. Beckfords comment
on Martins The Capture of Babylon was: Oh, what a sublime
thing! in Life at Fonthill, 279.
15. See The Apocalyptic Sublime, 172-181. Also a copy of the advertisement
for the exhibition of Danbys Sixth Seal at the Bristol Institution,
Park Street in 1835.
16. Life at Fonthill, 107.
17. See Boyd Alexanders Englands Wealthiest Son for comment
on Beckford as slave-owner, 151 & 207-219.
18. See The Apocalyptic Sublime, 176-7.
19. For information about public incidents in connection with Danbys
Sixth Seal before it was acquired by the National Gallery of Ireland
in 1871, see the Danby Tate catalogue ,99-100 and the archives of the
20. Recollections of an Excursion, Centaur edition 1972, 189.
21. See Edmund English, Views of Lansdown Tower, Bath 1844, 7.
22. Lot 97 on the Seventh Day.
23. Liber Veritatis, edited by Guy Chapman, was eventually published
in 1930 and remains little understood..
24. Recollections of the Late William Beckford, 13. Also see Lewis Melville,
Life and Letters of William Beckford, 1910, 294.