Beckford himself was a fascinating figure who, while not widely known today, still attracts much interest and scholarship. He was a brilliant and precocious only child, born to immense if nouveau wealth, which derived from sugar plantations in Jamaica. Perhaps overprotected by his mother after his father’s early death, he was educated mostly at home and was sent abroad to finish his education in Geneva. This was the first of many European tours that were to encourage his eclectic cultural tastes and make him disinclined to take up the role in English politics for which his mother hoped.
He was a lively and colourful character, fond of music, the arts and, somewhat vicariously, religion and its trappings. He was very attractive to both sexes and it was clear early on that his preferences lay with his own. At 18, he fell madly in love with 11 year old William Courtenay, a relationship which developed over the next six years. In 1783, he married Lady Margaret Gordon, but this did not prevent the so-called Powderham Castle Scandal the following year, over his relationship with Courtenay. Beckford and his wife left England; it was a happy marriage which bore two daughters, but Margaret died in 1786. The scandal over Courtenay resulted in Beckford’s ostracism by English society for the next decade or so, from which he never really recovered. It also reinforced an increasing tendency towards reclusion as Beckford realised that his own liberal attitudes and refined tastes were not those of his social peers, or ‘the Worldlings’ as he called them. A prolific writer, he published a novel, Vathek, and various travel and other works during his lifetime.
He is mostly famous as the builder of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, an extravagant Gothic fantasy based on mediaeval monastic buildings. Its central tower was close to three hundred feet high. It was designed by James Wyatt and was a hugely important building in its day. However, Beckford found he did not enjoy living in it and was heavily in debt. He sold it in 1822 to an aged gunpowder millionaire and moved to Bath. The central tower at the Abbey collapsed in 1825; only a fragment remains today.
The Tower that Beckford built in Bath is an important example of Picturesque architecture, which involved an informal relationship between man and his landscape and was chiefly characterised by its eclectic combination of styles. The Tower and its accommodation block represent a combination of what became known as the Italian Villa Style and of Greek Revival architecture, and they represent early and important examples of both. The blocking of the accommodation block is thought to reflect that of Tuscan vernacular architecture, from which a watchtower often sprang. Beckford and Goodridge’s innovation was in including classical Greek references to that tower. In its liveliness of style and integration to its natural surroundings, the Tower was one of the first introductions of the Picturesque to post-Georgian Bath.
Certainly there are similarities between the soaring shaft and almost top heavy belvedere of Beckford’s Tower and Tuscan campanili. The square shaft of the tower rises as some 130 feet of plain masonry, relieved only by small windows to the spiral staircase it encloses. The tower then bursts out into an exuberant expression of Greek references. The break between the plain shaft and the belvedere is achieved by a deep Doric entablature with a bold cornice. In the belvedere, three recessed windows are emphasised by square piers between. Above the next cornice are long panels of Greek key-fret decoration, while cubic blocks topped by roundels mark the angles. The next tier is a highly decorated polygonal plinth for the crowning octagonal lantern, and is made of wood with a fluted cast iron column at each angle. The observer is then provided with a continuous vista through the ring of round windows, which present themselves at eye-height internally.