William Thomas Beckford

Posted on October 6, 2010


Reportedly the richest commoner in England, William Thomas Beckford inherited a vast fortune at the age of 11 on his father’s death. Trained in drawing by William Cozens and briefly in music by Mozart, he was a collector, author, patron, sometime politician and profligate spender – of his 1.2 million pound fortune, worth more than a hundred times that today, he died with 80,000 pounds in principal.

Although he was married, love letters that Beckford sent to William Courtenay, the future 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by Courtenay’s uncle who advertised the romance in the papers. Beckford was hounded into exile with his wife. After her death, he returned to England and built the monstrous gothic revival mansion, Fonthill Abbey (when he later sold it, the poorly constructed central tower fell, destroying much of the house).

Beckford was also a writer, most famous for the novel Vathek, written in French when he was 21. The novel combines two popular styles of the time: gothic and Orientalist. He was also a voracious collector of art, and most interestingly, of newspaper clippings and other material about gay scandals in England, a collection of which parts still remain in the Bodleian Library.

Beckford died at the age of 84 in 1844.

Beckford has a wikipedia page, here. The complete text of Vathek is also available at wikisource.