PORTRAITS AND BIOGRAPHY
Saturday, No. 18. Oct., 4, 1823.
Series of Portraits
WITH THEIR MEMOIRS.
”Prize little things, nor think it ill
That men small things preserve.” – Cowley
Printed and Sold by GEO. SMEETON, 15, Royal Arcade,
Pall Mall; LIMBIRD, (Mirror Office,) 355, Strand, and
all Booksellers and Newsmen.
WILLIAM BECKFORD, ESQ.
This celebrated gentleman is of royal and noble descent: as appears by an order registered in the Herald’s College, bearing date 20th March, 1810, which recites that his father (the celebrated Lord Mayor of London, whose statue is in the Guildhall, London,) married Maria, daughter and at length co-heir of the honourable George Hamilton, who was the second surviving son of James, the sixth Earl of Abercorn. This lady was descended, in a direct line, from James, the second Lord Hamilton, by the Princess Mary Stuart, his wife, eldest daughter of James II. King of Scotland.
Mr. Beckford married the Lady Margaret Gordon, only daughter of Charles, late Earl of Aboyne, by whom he has issue two daughters, namely, Margaret Maria Elizabeth Beckford, and Susanna Euphemia Beckford, who married the present Duke of Hamilton.
It is remarkable that individuals of three branches of the noble house of Howard are descended from the family of Beckford; viz. 1. Henry Howard, Esq. (only son of Lord Henry Molyneux-Howard and nephew to the present Duke of Norfolk), whose grandmother, Mary Ballard Long, was daughter and heir to Thomas Beckford, Esq. grandson of Peter Beckford, Esq. Lieutenant-Governor of Jamaica. 2. Charles Augustus Ellis, Lord Howard de Walden (of the Suffolk branch of Howard), whose great-grandmother Anne, the wife of George Ellis, Esq. was elder sister to the Countess of Effingham, and aunt to the present Mr. Beckford. 3. Thomas and Richard, the two last Earls of Effingham, sons of the above Countess.
Mr. Beckford, on coming possessed of his fortune, made the grand tour, and resided many years in Italy; it was here that he improved that exquisite taste and love of [ii] the Fine Arts, for which he is pre-eminent. On his return to England, he resolved on building Fonthill – which he accomplished; and in August, 1822, he as hastily determined to dispose of it – and accordingly gave directions to that eminent auctioneer, Mr. Christie, of Pall-Mall, London, to dispose of it; and so great was the anxiety to view the splendid edifice, that upwards of 9000 catalogues, at one guinea each, were sold before the day of the sale; on the day preceding which, to the surprise and mortification of the public, notice was given that the estate of Fonthill, with all its immense treasures, was sold to Mr. Farquhar for 300,000l. This gentleman has since employed Mr. Phillips to sell the whole of the effects, which will occupy thirty-nine days!
We are told the possessor of this splendid treasure left it almost without a pang. His first resolution was to build a cottage lower down in the demesne, near the fine pond, and let the Abbey go to ruin. ”I can live here,” he said to his woodman, ”in peace and retirement for four thousand a year – why should I tenant that structure with a retinue that costs me near thirty thousand?” Subsequently, however, he resolved to part with the entire, and announced his intention without a sigh. ”It has cost me,” said he (gazing at it), ”with what it contains, near a million. Yet I must leave it, and I can do so at once. Public surprise will be created, but that I am prepared for. Beckford, they will say, has squandered his large fortune: to me it is a matter of perfect indifference.”
It would much exceed our limits to attempt even a description of this justly celebrated Fonthill.
On one occasion, whilst the tower was rearing its lofty crest towards Heaven, an elevated part of it caught fire, and was destroyed. The sight was sublime; it was a spectacle, it is said, which the owner of the mansion enjoyed with as much composure as if the flames had not been devouring what it would have cost a fortune to repair. This occasioned but a small delay in its re-creation, as the building was carried on by [iii] Mr. Beckford with an energy and enthusiasm, of which duller minds can form but a poor conception. At one period, it is said, that every cart and waggon in the district were pressed into the service, though all the agricultural labours of the country stood still. At another, even the royal works of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, were abandoned, that 460 men might be employed, night and day, on Fonthill Abbey. These men relieved each other by regular watches, and during the longest and darkest nights of winter, the astonished traveller might see the tower rising under their hands, the trowel and torch being associated for that purpose. This must have had a very extraordinary appearance, and it is said, was another of those exhibitions which Mr. Beckford was fond of contemplating. – He is represented as surveying the work thus expedited, the busy levy of the masons, the high and giddy dancing of the lights, and the strange effects produced on the woods and architecture below, from one of those eminences in the walks, of which there are several; and wasting the coldest hours of December’s darkness, in feasting his sense with this display of almost super-human power. He had, for a long time, more than four hundred persons employed at both, who were regularly paid every week. The works went constantly on; there have been instances of individuals paid for sixteen days’ work during a week, including Sunday as a double day. Mr. Beckford superintended all himself. He stood amid torch-light, urging on the growth of the Abbey towers, and rode during the day among his labourers to see the plantations made. These traits of character will not surprise those who have made mankind their study: the minds most nearly allied to genius, are the most apt to plunge into extremes, and no man at present in existence, can make higher pretensions to a mind of this cast, than the founder of Fonthill Abbey.
Mr. Beckford’s style of living, as described by persons who had daily opportunities of witnessing it, is calculated to excite surprise and astonishment. The gorgeous [iv] array of the banquet he provided for Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton has long since been detailed with all its splendid attributes of pomp; but his ordinary mode of living, which regarded only himself and his solitary foreign guest, was costly and luxurious beyond what the most extravagant Englishman could possibly imagine. He allowed his cook 800l. a year, and appropriated 2000l. a month to supply provisions for his kitchen. He has been known on frequent occasions to sit down with Franchi, (for there was scarcely ever a third person at table) to a dinner consisting of twenty covers, served upon gold plate. Meanwhile the servants were all stationed in a line of communication between the dining room, the pantry, and the kitchen, so that they were in constant readiness to pass his orders from one to another. With him the words servant and slave were synonymous, and he considered it derogatory to his dignity not to have a train of menials waiting his commands at all hours. He was as despotic in this respect as an Eastern Rajah, yet at the same time never was any man more liberal to his servants. They not only enjoyed his bounty, but shared his magnificence, and while they trembled at his nod, they feasted on viands with which the first potentates of the earth might regale themselves.
Among the many anecdotes of this gentleman, the following is related: –
Mr. Beckford resolved on going to Italy, and accordingly purchased two vessels and fitted them up in the greatest magnificence: he had scarcely been at sea a day, before he encountered a stiffish breeze, which continued one night and part of the next day, during which time the vessels made but little way on their voyage: this so enraged Mr. B. that he summoned the captain to his presence, and asked him how long he imagined the breeze would continue. ”Perhaps, Sir,” says the captain, ”it may last another day or so.” ”Another day!” replied Mr. B. ”land me, my servants, and the carriages immediately at the first port.” This order was obeyed; and Mr. B. remained on shore, [v] making the captain a present of the vessels for his trouble.
It is not, perhaps, generally known that no man living is more fanatically superstitious than Mr. Beckford. He is said, while he resided here, to have had so great a veneration for St. Anthony, that when he once made a vow in his name he never in any instance failed to fulfil it. A ludicrous proof of this occurred while he was building the Abbey. He vowed, by all the power of his favourite Saint, that he must have his Kitchen built within a certain number of days, so that his Christmas dinner should be cooked in it. The workmen knew right well that the vow was not made in vain. The plied their labours incessantly; the kitchen was actually built; but in consequence of the extreme wetness of the weather the mortar could not cement the stone and brick-work. The Christmas dinner was, however, cooked in time to save Mr. Beckford’s conscience, but scarcely was it dished for dinner when the walls of the kitchen tumbled about the ears of the domestics. Fortunately nobody was injured by the crash, for it gave just notice enough for them to escape its effects. How strange that a man of Mr. Beckford’s great intellectual powers and vast attainment should labour under such an influence!
Mr. Beckford, it is generally supposed, possesses little now beyond the remnants of what he acquired by the sale of Fonthill. His once magnificent income has fallen to almost nothing. He lost a large portion of his West India estates from defect of title, after a most expensive legal contest of several years, and was subjected to the heavy arrears of produce while he held them. So far from deriving any thing from the remnant of those once proud possessions, there was last year a loss on the expenditure and produce of 200l. Mr. Beckford possessed a fine taste, but he attached little value to any thing that was not costly, and is said to have been long the dupe of picture-dealers and collectors. His establishment, too, for years, was most lavishly expensive. ”The lazy vermin of the hall, those trappings of his folly,” swarmed [vi] at Fonthill. Mr. Beckford never moved but with a circle of them in attendance. They formed an appendage of his invincible pride; there was not a bell throughout the entire Abbey; but he needed no summons to command attendance. His liveried retainers stood, in numerous successions, watchful sentinels at his door, and at fixed periods anticipated their proud master’s wants. With all this expense few visitors were ever seen within the Abbey gates, and his own habits were most temperate. The Chevalier Franchi had been his companion for years; Mr. Beckford met him, we believe, in Portugal. The Chevalier was then a married man, and with a family, but was induced to attend his patron to England: his wife and children did not, however, accompany him, or quit Portugal during the many years the Chevalier remained in England. He acted for several years as comptroller of the household at Fonthill, is said to be a man of very cultivated mind, and is now with Mr. Beckford at Bath, who took from the Abbey 16 or 18 servants with him beside. Soon after the latter’s first visit to Portugal, he became, it is generally supposed, a Catholic, and a member of the monastic order of St. Anthony. The Chevalier Franchi was also an extern associate of that order, and initiated with Mr. Beckford in its mysteries: both always wore the cross of the order, as a distinguishing character, in their breasts; and, like Louis XI. of France, Mr. Beckford always carried about him a small silver image of the saint. He had also in his chamber a picture of the Anchoret, to which he addressed his constant orisons. Mr. Beckford for years rose early, and retired as early to rest. He read constantly during the evening; half the books in the library bear marks of his studies; his days, with few exceptions, were devoted to the improvements in the building and demesne.