No record of English eccentrics would be complete without a chapter on William Beckford. He had a passion for building towers and creating enormous gardens; he was a recluse who, nevertheless, fathered natural children with an abandon that shocked even the eighteenth century; he bought Gibbon’s library at Lausanne, and shut himself up for a year to read through it; and when he rode out at Bath, top-hatted and mounted on a splendid Arab horse, he was generally preceded by his steward and two grooms carrying long whips, with a further two grooms bringing up the rear.
All these extravagances, of course, needed money, and Beckford was a very rich man indeed. His father was a millionaire sugar planter who was twice Lord Mayor of London; and when he died, he left William £27,000 and the magnificent family estate at Fonthill Gifford in Wiltshire. Here Beckford built a gigantic 300 foot tower, enlarged the garden, and spent twenty years amassing a huge collection of object d’art; in 1823 it was disposed of in a sale that lasted thirty-seven days, and prompted Hazlitt to describe its contents as ‘a desert of magnificence, a glittering waste of laborious idleness’.
Beckford, however, was a shrewd collector and dilettante; he had an aptitude for grandiose landscape gardening, and he was an author of considerable merit. As a young man he wrote a novel called Vathek; it is an oriental fantasy, telling the story of a caliph who sold himself to the powers of evil, and it is still widely regarded as his masterpiece.
A serious decline in revenues from his Jamaican sugar plantations obliged him to sell Fonthill in 1822. He came to Bath when he was sixty-three, and took two houses in Lansdown Crescent to which, as a contemporary noted, ‘was added a gallery thrown over an archway, constituting the prolongation of a magnificent library’. On Lansdown Hill, overlooking Bath, he built another tower, not as gigantic as Fonthill, but impressive enough; it still attracts admiring visitors. His tomb can be seen nearby.