Turner and Beckford


William Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey, now mostly lost, has slipped into legend. Sensational as it was, it was painted and studied by many artists contemporary to the construction, one of these was Joseph Mallord William Turner.


Beckford, born in 1760, is mostly remembered for being an author and a showman who inherited a fortune and squandered it on a building that partly collapsed and withered away over the next 50 years. Although he died in 1844, during his life he had a natural talent for self promotion. The building was Fonthill Abbey, a mansion with a tower constructed to make a statement, but it was also built to house his collection of fine works of art and keep the complete library of Edward Gibbon he had bought.

The stained glass windows in the building were painted by Francis Eginton. Other works in Beckford’s collection for the Abbey were Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, Agony in the Garden and Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan by Bellini, Philip IV in Brown and Silver by Velázquez. In time when the estate was sold off the list of possessions would show the near shop-a-holic mania of his collection.


It was in the early days of Beckford’s Fonthill Abbey obsession he invited Turner to paint seven large watercolours of the house and it’s grounds. Turner spent three weeks at Fonthill in August, 1799 making drawings for the commission. His sketchbooks from this time show the building under construction and the five watercolours eventually completed, show the abbey from different vantage points and at different times of day.


In having Fonthill Abbey documented by a fashionable young artist (Turner was 24 at the time) he would have no doubt hoped that by association, he and his building would too become fashionable. Various scandals in Beckford’s past had lead to him taking a self imposed and strategic exile from Britain, now returning to build the Abbey he was upsetting neighbours and the Royal court by outbidding them for contractors in their building programs.

Beckford had also invited the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, Benjamin West, and Henry Tresham to join Turner on his visit.

When Turner arrived at Fonthill, its building was in full flow. The speed and scale of the work were exceptional. Turner sat and sketched the workmen whom Beckford was employing around the clock in night and day shifts. In another sketch he captured the vast brown scar on the hill on which the building was positioned, created by the small forest of trees that Beckford had felled for the work.
As for Beckford himself, he was rarely seen. The group of artists ate their meals with Williams, Beckford’s steward, rather than being entertained by the patron himself, who spent much of his time engaged in supervising the work on the house as well as riding in his extensive grounds. ♠

At the point when Turner returned to Fonthill its master was losing his battle to regain social acceptability and was already showing the signs of a man who preferred his own company. Beckford was beginning to see his abbey as less a summer pleasure house with which to impress guests, and more a fortress against the wider world. What time Turner did get with Beckford, however, was sufficient to impress on him the profoundly dark tone of his patron’s mind. ♠

In the end Beckford only purchased one of the paintings of Fonthill from Turner. The rest were exhibited by the Artist at the Royal Academy in 1800.


In time Turner’s sketchbook became an important document to Fonthill’s structure as by 1825 the majority of the building had fallen down. Beckford however had cunningly sold the estate some years before and moved on to building another tower in Bath.

The picture of the completed building painted by Turner was based on the architectural plans and projections and finished five years before the building was, the final building ended up with no spire. During the building process the tower would get higher and higher, maybe one reason for it’s downfall, the foundations where not strong enough for this babel like building.


 J.M.W. Turner, Projected Design for Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, 1798

Beckford’s fascination with his pet project meant that he spent no time at all keeping the family business – the foundation of his wealth – active. The family owned a series of sugar plantations in Jamaica but due to the 1807 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and Beckford’s poor business management meant that by 1822 he is seriously in debt. Selling the estate, he moves to Bath where he builds a neoclassical tower to house his collection. Below is an account of the sale of the Abbey:

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 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. 


In his later life and typical of the showman act, Beckford would later go on to show off his Turner and describe him thus,

He took me to a small room, where there was a water-colour drawing of Fonthill Abbey. “Ah” “ah there’s the abbey,” he literally exclaimed, pointing to it. I asked him by whom it was painted.
“Turner?” I asked; “he does not paint like that now.”
“Oh! gracious God! no! He paints now as if his brains and imagination were mixed up on his palette with soapsuds and lather. One must be born again to understand his pictures.”


It maybe that Turner painted Fonthill Abbey so far away due to the noise and confusion of the building site, or that he preferred to be a landscape artist and thought it more romantic to have it pictures from a-far. Either way Beckford’s quip about ‘soapsud’ watercolours is something that haunted Turner in the later days as his work became more abstracted.


Beckford’s Turner was originally listed in the Christies sale as lot 112 on the 8th day of the 9 day sale.


I have also posted about Fonthill Abbey here: The Father, Son and an Abbey; the story of Fonthill Abbey

† Arliss’s Literary Collections. p105 1830.
‡ The New Monthly Magazine, ‘Conversations with the Late W.Beckford, Esq’. 1844.
♠ Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J. M. W. Turner by Franny Moyle. 2016. 9780670922697

Hadlow Castle

While looking into the previous post and Shell’s advertising I found a lot of the Shell ‘Landmark’ posters – many of the locations in that poster set no longer exist, having been demolished. Hadlow Castle was one of the properties lost, but the tower still stands! It is incredibly similar in appearance to Fonthill Abbey.


 Denton Welch – Hadlow Castle, 1937

Hadlow Castle was built on the site of Hadlow Court Lodge, a country house. The Castle was built over a number of years from the late 1780s, commissioned by Walter May in an ornate Gothic style, it became known as May’s Folly. The architect was J. Dugdale.

His son, Walter Barton May inherited the estate in 1823. It was he, who added a 170 feet (52 m) octagonal tower in 1838, the architect was George Ledwell Taylor. The tower was based in part on James Wyatt’s at Fonthill Abbey.

A 40 feet (12 m) octagonal lantern was added two years later in 1840 and another smaller tower was added in 1852. This was dismantled in 1905. Walter Barton May died in 1858 and the estate was sold.


 An Edwardian postcard of Hadlow Castle

The property passed from many owners in the early twentieth century. During the Second World War it was used as a watchtower by the Home Guard and Royal Observer Corps. The unoccupied castle changed hands several times after the war too, until it was demolished in 1951, except for the servants’ quarters, several stables and the Coach House, which was saved due to campaigning from the society portrait painter and local resident, Bernard Hailstone. The Tower was Listed as a historic structure on 17 April 1951.

Now the entrance gateway and lodges of the Castle still stand – a heavy Gothic presence on the street – as does the Stable Court with two turreted pavilions, which are all in private ownership, and new homes have been built in the grounds.


In the Great Storm of 1987 the tower was damaged and three of the decorative pinnacles fell. The remaining stonework was removed until restoration could take place, in 1995 this still hadn’t happened and the council removed the lantern element of the tower and put it in storage with the other pieces. The tower was bought in 2011 by the Vivat Trust who between 2012 and 2013 restored the tower.

In 1953, the artist Barbara Jones wrote this about the tower:

In 1850 May built himself a vast gothic revival mansion outside Tonbridge, ten years later he added the tower, of brick covered with roman cement. The rest of the house was recently pulled down, but the tower remains, soaring above the monkey puzzles of the garden, taller than any neighbouring church. It is octagonal and divided into tiers by strong horizontal mouldings, the whole gothic in the extreme, and crowned by a tall and slender turret. 

There are various reasons given for why it was built. The perennial story of folly builders that they want to see some distant object – is probably the origin of the story that he wished to see the sea, and forgot the downs. 

The others are more picturesque; that his wife deserted him to live with a farmer, and that he built the tower so that whenever she was in Kent she should be reminded of him; 

or that he wished to thwart a prophecy that the house would go out of his family on his death if he was not buried above ground, and that his coffin was to be deposited on top of the tower. 

He is in fact still above ground, but in a mausoleum. Whatever reason may have caused him to build his tower, it is one of the largest and most sumptuous follies in the country. †


Eric de Mare – An interior shot of Hadlow Castle before it was demolished.


 Eric de Mare – One of the fireplaces from Hadlow Castle before it was demolished.

† Barbara Jones – Follies and Grottoes 1st Edition. Constable, 1953

The Father, Son and an Abbey; the story of Fonthill Abbey


 Fonthill Abbey by Ed Kluz.

This is the story of the rise and fall of Fonthill Abbey, the houses before it and the men who changed a house to live in their own ideas of grandeur.

The Father:


 William ‘Alderman’ Beckford (19 December 1709–21 June 1770)

William ‘Alderman’ Beckford, born in Jamaica to a plantation family, was sent to England in 1723 to be educated where he studied at Westminster School.
He worked in the trade of Sugar (the family plantation) in the city of London and in 1744 Alderman bought an estate at Fonthill Gifford, near Salisbury called Fonthill Antiquus, pictured above. Pictured below: the estate after some improvements to the house and gardens.


 Fonthill Redivivus

Sadly these improvements were of no use as the main house was mostly destroyed by fire in 1755. Announcing that “I have an odd fifty thousand pounds in a drawer: I will build it up again” . Below are the plans for the now Georgian design of the house. He finished the newly named Fonthill Splendens off in the early 1760’s.


 Fonthill Splendens

Resented by local gentry for his Caribbean accent, Alderman spent most of his time at 22 Soho Sq – London, his city home, forging his political and sugar interests and collecting art. Laughed at by some for faulty Latin, his wealth and social power obliged people to respect him. He hosted sumptuous feasts, one that cost £10,000 or £1 million pounds in today’s money. He died in 1770.

The Son:


Born in 1760 in the family home at 22 Soho Sq, William Thomas Beckford at the age of ten, inherited a fortune from his father William ‘Alderman’ Beckford, consisting of £1 million in cash or £117 million as of 2014. 

He was briefly trained in music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his drawing master, Alexander Cozens, was a greater influence. At 20 years old he wrote Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780). He then went and journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book on his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783).

William Courtenay
On 5 May 1783 he married Lady Margaret Gordon, daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. Beckford was bisexual, “indiscreetly attracted to boys” and had a disastrous affair with William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon. Although the pair met when Courtenay was 10, it is believed the affair started when Courtenay was 13 and Beckford 18. In 1784 with a visit to Powderham Castle, the Courtenay’s family home; letters were intercepted by the boy’s uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers. London newspapers were talking of the “detestable scene lately acted in Wiltshire, by a pair of fashionable male lovers.” The scandal blossomed and Beckford retreated to Switzerland with his wife and their baby daughter. In May 1786, in Switzerland, his wife died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a second daughter.

It was at this time Vathek (1786), written originally in French was published; he boasted that it took a single sitting of three days and two nights, though there are letters between Beckford and Samuel Henley that show this to be untrue. At the time of his wife’s death, Beckford also learned that Vathek, which he had given to the Reverend Samuel Henley for translation, would be published anonymously, with a preface in which Henley claimed that it had been taken directly from the Arabic. Beckford remained abroad for many years.

The Abbey:


 Fonthill Abbey

After a return to England and becoming more reclusive, it was the opportunity to purchase the complete library of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that gave Beckford the basis for his own library, and with the architect James Wyatt built Fonthill Abbey in which to house this and Beckford’s art collection.


 Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey was built a mile south-west of Fonthill Splendens, in deep woodland and away from public roads. He demolished large parts of Fonthill Splendens for building materials on the Abbey. Building a 12 foot high wall to enclose his new structure and the 524 acres around it.

Wyatt was often accused of spending a good deal of his time on women and drink, causing him to miss many meetings and the overseeing of construction on the Abbey. Beckford thus took it upon himself to direct the construction of the Abbey.

Beckford’s 500 labourers worked in day and night shifts. He bribed 450 more from the building of the new royal apartments at Windsor Castle by increasing an ale ration to speed things up. He also commandeered all the local wagons for transportation of building materials. To compensate, Beckford delivered free coal and blankets to the poor in cold weather.

The first part was the tower that reached about 90 metres (300 ft) before it collapsed, apparently from having a large flag upon it, with strong winds. When informed of the mishap, Beckford, merely regretting that he had not seen it fall, gave an immediate order for the construction of another. The new tower was finished six years later, again 90 metres tall. It collapsed as well. Beckford immediately started to build another one, this time with stone, and this work was finished in seven years.

The abbey part was decorated with silver, gold, red and purple. Four long wings radiated from the octagonal central room. Francis Eginton painted many windows in the property with his realistic style of reproducing oil paintings and the front doors were 35 feet (10 m) tall. It was declared finished in 1813. Beckford employed a dwarf as a doorkeeper to those massive doors.


 The massive west doorway.

Beckford lived alone in his abbey and used only one of its bedrooms. His kitchens prepared food for 12 every day although he always dined alone and sent other meals away afterwards. Only once, in 1800, did he entertain guests when Rear Admiral Lord Nelson and Emma, Lady Hamilton, visited the Abbey for Christmas.

Once he demanded that he would eat a Christmas dinner only if it would be served from new abbey kitchens and told his workmen to hurry. The kitchens collapsed as soon as the meal was over. In 1822 when he lost two of his Jamaican sugar plantations in a legal action. He was forced to sell the Abbey and it’s contents for £330,000 (£25,460,000 in 2014) a year later to John Farquhar, a gunpowder contractor from Bengal, India.


Within 2 years of this sale the tower at Fonthill Abbey fell down for the last time and Farquhar tried to sell all his land but died in 1826 intestate. The rest of the abbey was later demolished. Only a gatehouse and a small remnant of the north wing remained.

The remaining part of Fonthill Splendens was bought by Haberdasher, James Morrison who’s family went on to rebuilt, restyle and in 1971 practically erase the recognisable parts. 

Beckford moved to Lansdown Crescent, Bath and began constructing another tower on a hill. Designed by Henry Goodridge and completed in 1827, Beckford used the tower as both a library and a retreat. At 120 feet tall, Beckford’s Tower still stands.


 Beckford’s Tower