“Ah Dear Comet…”: Beckford and the Apocalyptic Art of West and Danby
Jerry Nolan

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 revelation:

“When on the brink of the burning hearth you shrunk back with fear…the 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?” (1)

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 solitude…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!” (4)

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 Caliph’s terror at the thought of the Kaf showed his failure to appreciate the terrible as a supreme form of the beautiful.
By 1783, having observed Vesuvius from Hamilton’s 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 of doom:

“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…the moon’s rays…shedding light…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 Beckford’s 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 Beckford’s increasing anxiety that from Loughborough’s human revelations may grow his own personal catastrophe.
IN 1787, Beckford’s 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 Queen’s favourites, the Marquis of Marialva, who became Beckford’s devoted friend and arranged for his limited entry into the aristocratic, diplomatic, ecclesiastical and royal circles of Portugal. Beckford’s 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 Pitt’s England lampooned as ‘The Isle of Mum’; and Azemia (1797) with it’s angry castigation of the idle and wasteful rich who treated their horses and dogs better than their poor neighbours. Yet Beckford’s 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 Beckford’s highly ambiguous version of revolution in England.
Beckford’s 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. Beckford’s 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 Beckford’s 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 Burke’s cult of the terrible and the sublime. Writing years later (1810) to Franchi, Beckford remembered West’s 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…will 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 West’s 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 us.” (9)

Beckford’s 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.
West’s 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; West’s 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 West’s apolacyptic sketches for Beckford.
Of course, West’s own enthusiasm for the apocalyptic did not originate from Beckford’s commission. West drew his mystical inspiration from the millenarian circle of the Rev. Jacob Duche, a fellow American and devotee of Emanuel Swedenbourg. Beckford’s reservations about West were technical. He could not help noting West’s 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 West’s 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)

West’s apocalyptic sketches were never enlarged for the Revelation Chamber at Fonthill Abbey; indeed, the proposal for such a chamber disappeared from Beckford’s plans. West’s apocalyptic designs were widely dispersed throughout Fonthill Abbey, according to Storer. Two pictures from West’s 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;
Heaven’s vengeance upon Egypt dealt;
Its blood, - its darkness to be felt;…
So DANBY finds, an artist’s 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.” (14)

Beckford’s passion for an artist’s fire led him to admire Francis Danby’s An Attempt to Illustrate the Opening of the Sixth Seal. Beckford paid 500 guineas for it in 1828. The acclaimed picture lacked John Martin’s 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 Danby’s 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 slave’s 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)

Danby’s emancipated slave as image must have much appealed to Beckford’s 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 Beckford’s 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 Danby’s 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) Beckford’s patience with Danby’s 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 Danby’s 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 Nature’s 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 Belvidere.
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 Christe’s Fonthill Sale Catalogue of 1822 was: ‘A Grand Mass in the Interior of St.George’s Chapel at Windsor, in which are introduced the Kings of France and Scotland when Prisoners at Windsor’. (22) Here was the ultimate emblem of Beckford’s 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 West’s sketch of Lear in the Storm: Act 111 Scene 1V (probably acquired after West’s death in 1820) was one of Beckford’s favourite pictures in Lansdown Crescent. (24) Did Beckford perhaps catch a gleam of his own past energy and fire in West’s figure of the old King still defiant in the full force of the storm?

Afterword: List of Beckford’s 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, New York)
Information from:
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).
See also:
M.F. Rogers Jr., ‘Benjamin West and the Caliph’ in Apollo LXXX111 (1966), 420-5.
N.L.Pressly, Revealed Religion: Benjamin West’s 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, , 1971,283-4.
3. Beckford, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters, 1977, 88.
4. Vathek and Other Stories, 57 & 106-7.
5. Ibid.,219.
6. Beckford, The Episodes of Vathek ed. M.Jack, 1994, 206.
7. Boyd Alexander, England’s 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. Farington’s 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. Beckford’s comment on Martin’s 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 Danby’s Sixth Seal at the Bristol Institution, Park Street in 1835.
16. Life at Fonthill, 107.
17. See Boyd Alexander’s England’s 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 Danby’s 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 NGI.
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


Benjamin West, detail from "Lear in the Storm" (c. 1788)