Beckford was born at Fonthill, Wiltshire, in 1760. He was educated privately, studying music under Mozart (at the age of five), painting under Alexander Cozens and architecture under Sir William Chambers. His father, a former Lord Mayor of London, owned considerable estates in Jamaica, and Beckford inherited a vast fortune at the age of nine. Chatham, his guardian, said that he was “all air and fire” and warned him against reading The Arabian Nights; George Selwyn predicted that he would end in a madhouse. He completed his education at Geneva. In 1780 and 1781 he made the grand tour of the Low Countries, Germany and Italy, and published an account of these travels anonymously in 1783 as Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents, a work which he immediately suppressed with the exception of six copies. In the same year he married Lady Margaret Gordon. Next year he was involved in the Courtenay scandal and left England for Switzerland with his wife, who died two years later. From 1785 to 1798 Beckford travelled extensively in Portugal, Spain and France, and, on one of his longer visits to England in 1790, began to rebuild Fonthill as a vast Gothic abbey, with James Wyatt as his architect. It was completed in 1807, but so hurriedly constructed that its three-hundred-foot spire (modelled on the spire of Salisbury Cathedral) collapsed in a gale. Beckford furnished Fonthill with the treasures of the palaces of Europe—pictures by Raphael, Bellini, Breughel, Leonardo, Velasquez, and Rembrandt, an ebony cabinet designed by Bernini, a Cellini vase. The library was stocked on the same scale of splendour. Here Beckford shut himself up for the next twenty years, a seclusion broken only by visits to Paris and to London for the opera season, while legends circulated about his dark practices. By 1805 his income had fallen to a mere £30,000 a year and he was forced to sell estates in Jamaica, Bedfordshire, and St. Pancras. By 1821 his income was still further reduced and Beckford sold Fonthill itself and retired to Bath, where he built Lansdown Tower, a structure as classical in design as Fonthill was Gothic. Italy, with Sketches of Spain and Portugal, based on the suppressed Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents and his travel- diaries of 1787-8, appeared in 1834, giving a remarkable picture of Europe before the French Revolution. At the age of seventy-four he published his masterpiece, Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, based on a travel-diary of 1794. Beckford died at Bath on 2 May, 1844, his face, it is said, showing scarcely a trace of age. He left two daughters, one of whom married the tenth Duke of Hamilton.

G. Chapman and J. Hodgkin, A Bibliography of William Beckford of Fonthill, 1930; J. W. Oliver, Life of William Beckford, 1930; S. Sitwell, Beckford and Beckfordism, 1930; Guy Chapman, Beckford, 1937; new edition, 1952.

Editions of Vathek: First London edition, Henley’s translation, 1786; French text published at Lausanne and Paris, 1787; definitive London edition of French text, 1815; ed. by Stephen Mallarmé, Paris, 1893; ed. by Dr. Richard Garnett (Henley’s trans.), 1893; Nonesuch Press edition by H. E. Grimsditch (trans. of 1815 edition), 1929; Episodes of Vathek, French text ed. by Lewis Melville, 1912, English trans. by F. Marzials, 1912; The Travel-Diaries, ed. by Guy Chapman, 2 vols., 1928; Vathek with the Episodes, ed. by G. Chapman (from the Paris text of 1787), 2 vols., 1929; The Vision and Liber Veritatis, ed. by G. Chapman, 1930.

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