William Beckford

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William Beckford in 1782, painted by George Romney
William Thomas Beckford (1760–1844) was a novelist, art collector, and politician. He is particularly remembered for his Gothic novel Vathek (1786) and for his architectural follies, including Fonthill Abbey.

Beckford was born on 1 October 1760 in the family's London home at 22 Soho Square. At the of ten he inherited a vast fortune from his father. He was MP for Wells from 1784 to 1790, and for the "rotten borough" of Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820.

Beckford was bisexual. He married and had two daughters, but had an affair lasting several years with William "Kitty" Courtenay. In the autumn of 1784, a house guest overheard an argument between Courtenay and Beckford over a note which Courtenay had. There is no record of what the note said, but the house guest said that Beckford's response on reading it was that he entered Courtenay's room and "horsewhipped him, which created a noise, and the door being opened, Courtenay was discovered in his shirt, and Beckford in some posture or other — Strange story."[1] Beckford was subsequently hounded out of polite British society when his letters to Courtenay were intercepted by Courtenay's uncle Lord Loughborough, who then publicised the affair in the newspapers.[2] Beckford then fled with his wife to the continent.

He later returned to England but lived in seclusion. From 1796 onwards he had a vast gothic house, Fonthill Abbey, constructed on his inherited lands at Fonthill Gifford, Wiltshire. The Abbey was poorly constructed: the tower collapsed three times and was rebuilt twice, and most of the house has since been demolished. Beckford also accumulated an important art collection, and wrote music, having briefly studied with W A Mozart.

He is buried in Bath, near another of his architectural follies, Beckford's Tower on Lansdown Hill.


  1. Bill Bryson At Home: A Short History of Private Life Doubleday 2010
  2. http://books.google.com.au/books?id=ybtkoNXz7XUC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Who%27s+who+in+lesbian+and+gay+writing++By+Gabriele+Griffin&source=bl&ots=miTSOlpm7C&sig=ZmrJz3tyKZz-KHgCsnQCCaImI4M&hl=en&ei=JgTpS7_ZOc-GkAWlvIDxCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false Gabrielle Griffin, "Who's Who in Gay and Lesbian Writing," (Routledge, New York, 2002), P.17]