Originally published in William Beckford, 1760–1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, edited by Derek E. Ostergard. New Haven and London: Published for The Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, New York by Yale University Press, 2001. 33-48.

From the exhibition: William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent.

It is customary to consider William Beckford as a unique and exotic creature, a brilliant but bizarre eccentric who occupied a private fantasy world insulated from contemporary society and culture. The reality is very different: parallels are offered by other collectors and designers who were his near contemporaries, and especially John Soane and Thomas Hope. Like Beckford, all were outsiders in some ways, facing real or imaginary opposition. Beckford suffered years of social isolation after the Powderham scandal. Soane believed that he had been the victim of professional persecution throughout his architectural career. Hope, the ugly opinionated Dutchman who told the English how to design their “household furniture,” was ostracized by the Royal Academicians for behavior that they found presumptuous. All three sought escape in the private self-­contemplation characteristic of the obsessive collector. Beckford, Soane, and Hope lived in houses that they themselves wholly or largely designed, which were, in effect, museums rather than settings for domestic sociability.

The Enlightenment Inheritance

These creative form-givers experienced varieties of alienation, but a contributing factor—the trauma experienced by men of taste at finding themselves at war with France, a country that they regarded as the most civilized in Europe—has often been overlooked in accounts of British society and culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. That men with backgrounds as varied as Hope, Beckford, and Soane admired Napoléon as a romantic hero and artistic patron was merely one disquieting aspect of a world in which their “hero” had assembled an army of 80,000 French troops at Boulogne ready to invade England.

Beckford, Soane, and Hope—all well-known to each other and serious figures intellectually—were united in their cultural identification with eighteenth-century France, in particular with the Enlightenment belief in returning to the twin primary sources (reason and nature), as well as in extending sympathy to non-European culture. This last is expressed in the oriental novels by Beckford (Vathek) and Hope (Anastasius). Soane’s admiration of Vathek is evident in his account of the Monk’s Ruins at Lincoln’s Inn Fields where he refers to the “inimitable humour by the author of ‘Vathek’.”1 Hope owned a copy of the first edition of Vathek of 1786, as well as the French translation of 1816. Vathek and Anastasius were both originally written in French, suggesting the international character of Enlightenment Europe and the cultural dominance of France. The pan-European character of Enlightenment culture meant that the Anglican church was to exercise little appeal for men such as Beckford, Soane, and Hope. Hope largely abandoned Christianity for deism, while his posthumously published book, An Essay on the Origin and Prospects of Man (1831), containing a proto-Darwinian view of evolution, was suppressed by his executors as latitudinarian. Hope was intrigued by Islam, while Beckford and Soane were familiar with Freemasonry, which, as the religion of the Enlightenment in continental Europe, was seen as a survival of the religion of antiquity. Roman Catholicism exercised a powerful appeal to Beckford, partly because the English establishment, which had been responsible for his persecution, so strongly disapproved of it, and partly because it was an historical romantic force beyond contemporary Protestantism. Accordingly, he became “abbot” of Fonthill, while Soane similarly created a reclusive monk called “Padre Giovanni” with whom he identified emotionally. For this fictive monk he created, only half ironically, a cell or “monk’s parlour” in the crypt of his house and museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where he could withdraw from the real world into that of the imagination.

It has been claimed that in Vathek, “through the rich texture of oriental imagery…Beckford was in fact exploring deeply emotional themes and was casting into dramatic form his feeling of rebellion against the adult world of respectability and convention.”2 Thomas Hope’s interest in Islam is clear from Anastasius: Memoirs of a Greek, written at the close of the eighteenth century, a Byronic novel that Beckford admired.3 In the guise of writing the life of Anastasius, a romantic scoundrel at odds with society, Hope painted a vivid portrait of the Ottoman Empire on the verge of collapse. Well-qualified to write a descriptive account of life, manners, politics, and architecture in that empire, Hope understood that, though it included Turks, Greeks, Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Jews, its power structure was so fluid that anyone, regardless of origin, could rise within it, provided he was prepared to adopt the Muslim faith—as Hope’s Anastasius does. The biggest dividing point in the empire as portrayed in Hope’s novel was thus not racial but religious: the distinctions between Christians and Muslims. Anastasius was married three times, had two mistresses and two illegitimate children, and died at the age of thirty-five, exhausted, a condition to which most readers are reduced by the end of the book.

Beckford, Soane, and Hope also shared the complex psychology of the collector, which provides a clue to understanding their complicated personalities. Interior design and furnishing before the eighteenth century had been largely created for kings and princes as an expression of the magnificence of the state and the reality of power. By contrast, as an educated and wealthy middle class developed in early­ eighteenth-century England, the domestic interior and its furnishings became expressions of the personality of an individual, often a woman. The flowering of this new sensibility can be seen in the intensely personal interiors of Hope, Soane, and Beckford, none of whom was of aristocratic birth and all of whom had inherited commercial wealth in the 1780s, enabling them to indulge their visual passions by collecting and by creating personal settings of immense aesthetic individuality.

The father figure of these men was Horace Walpole, who created Strawberry Hill as a portrait of his personality, and commissioned watercolors of its interiors which are among the earliest records of their kind. Soane and Hope followed by writing illustrated accounts of their houses: Soane’s Plans, Elevations and Views of Pitzhanger Manor-House (1802) was probably the first book by an English architect on his own house. Five years later Hope issued an illustrated account of his mansion in Duchess Street, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration Executed from Designs by Thomas Hope (1807), copies of which both Beckford and Soane owned. Beckford actively encouraged the publication of three finely illustrated books on Fonthill Abbey in 1822–23, two by John Rutter and one by John Britton. It has been suggested that, “If the text of Rutter’s Delineations was not actually dictated by Beckford, it certainly represents his views very closely.”4 Britton followed his book on Fonthill with The Union of Architecture, Sculpture and Painting…with descriptive accounts of the House and Galleries of Sir John Soane (1827), while Soane produced his own elaborate monograph on the museum in 1830, revising it in 1832 and 1835–36. Printing this book privately, he sent unsolicited copies to numerous men of distinction and influence in the arts. Hope, meanwhile, owned Britton’s Fonthill Abbey (1823), as well as two copies of Britton’s book on the Soane Museum.

Recalling biographies of living persons, these monographs on houses in which the new emphasis was on interior design and its promotion through publication, were accompanied by the birth of the confessional novel. Both Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (1774) and Rousseau’s Confessions (1781–88) were admired by Beckford and Soane. The libraries of Hope and Soane also contained copies of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788), a Rousseau-esque image of idyllic childhood on a tropical island. Napoléon admired Goethe’s Werther, choosing to discuss it with the author when he met him. Napoléon also honored Bernadin with decorations and a pension, believing that he spoke “the language of the soul.”

Beckford, Soane, and Hope were all bibliophiles who formed important libraries of architecture, archaeology, and travel5; each built more than one house and private museum for himself; each was a creature of the Enlightenment, at home in the world of the eighteenth­century philosophes. Hope and Soane owned Diderot’s Encyclopédie; Beckford met Voltaire, while Soane read his work assiduously, and Hope owned Voltaire’s writings in seventy-two volumes and those of Rousseau in thirty-eight. Beckford and Soane identified with Rousseau as the victim of organized persecution and as a justification for self­obsession; psychologically, both suffered from persecution, real in Beckford’s case, largely imaginary in Soane’s. Alain-René Le Sage’s picaresque novel of the failings and absurdities of human nature, Gil Blas (4 volumes, 1715–35), was a favorite of Beckford and Soane who seem to have regarded Gil as an alter ego.

Persecution and Self-Regard

In a draft of his autobiographical novel, L’Esplendente (ca. 1780), Beckford described the duc d’Arcas, patron of the arts, as a character with whom both he and Soane could identify: an architect and collector who had been forced into retreat as a result of being “disliked and dreaded.”6 This is paralleled in a manuscript that Soane drafted as a personal and explosive history of his own house and museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was written in August and September 1812 at one of the numerous moments in his career when he was weighed down by a sense of failure and persecution. This mood was related to his disastrous relationship with his sons, the suspension of his lectures at the Royal Academy, and the attack on the design of his own house by William Kinnard, the district surveyor. Even while the house was being built, Soane imagined it as a future ruin inspected by visitors speculating on its function—as a convent, the home of a magician, or an architectural museum. He described himself as someone who “had raised a nest of wasps about him sufficient to sting the strongest man to death,” and added that “Melancholy, brooding constantly over an accumulation of evils [had] brought him to a state little short of mental derangement…They smote his rock and he fell as many had done before him and died, as was generally believed, of a broken heart.”7

Soane’s sense of himself as a tragic, persecuted genius was echoed, with far more justification, by Beckford who chose to live in complete isolation at Fonthill for nearly thirty years, some time after the scandal at Powderham Castle in 1784. The accusation that at the age of twenty-four he had a sexual liaison with the sixteen-year-old William Courtenay was doubtless engineered and was certainly publicized by his political enemy, Lord Loughborough, whose wife seems to have been in love with Beckford. Loughborough could think of no better way of punishing both his wife and Beckford than by promulgating this accusation. The fact that there was no proof against Beckford is suggested by Loughborough’s not taking him to court where, if found guilty, he could have been sentenced to death.

Though spared this ordeal, Beckford instantly lost hope of obtaining the title, Lord Beckford of Fonthill, which he had virtually been promised earlier in 1784 by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Thurlow. Moreover, no book would ever again appear under Beckford’s name, hence the publication of his books after Vathek (1786) as “by the author of Vathek.”8 Worse, for the rest of his life he not only bore the grievance of having been unjustly accused and condemned without a hearing, but was also blamed publicly for the death of his beloved wife in 1786. Once again, there is a striking emotional similarity with Soane who managed to convince himself that his wife had been all but murdered by the behavior of their younger son, George. This conviction was a result of the vicious attacks on Soane’s architecture and personality that George published anonymously in The Champion in 1815. When Soane’s wife died within weeks of their publication, Soane described them as “Death Blows.” Not that he was unfamiliar with such criticism. The Modern Goth (1796) had condemned his “pilasters scor’d like loins of pork,” and there was a sustained attack on his “Sixth or Boetian Order of Architecture” in Knight’s Quarterly Magazine (1824).9

The connections between Beckford and Hope include the facts that Beckford’s illegitimate brother John had been trained in the counting house of Hope and Company in Amsterdam and that Hope courted Beckford’s daughter Susan unsuccessfully in 1805–6. Hope, also like Beckford, grew increasingly isolated from his peers. In 1804 he had been struck off the list of those invited to the annual Royal Academy dinner for two reasons. Firstly, the Academicians were annoyed by the tickets Hope had sent them to view his house, feeling they had been invited “not to meet company but as professional men to publish his fine place.”10 Secondly, Hope had attacked James Wyatt, who would shortly become president of the Royal Academy, in a pamphlet, Observations on the Plans…for Downing College (1804). It is an extraordinary coincidence that just four years later Soane should also have been ostracized by the Royal Academy for attacking a work by a living architect—Covent Garden Theatre, built by Robert Smirke, whose father was a leading Academician. In each case the opposition was partly provoked by the difficult characters of the two men: Hope was the short unattractive Dutchman, and Soane the prickly paranoid son of a bricklayer.

As wounded figures, Soane and Beckford seem in particular to have been made for each other. Both were indebted to the confessional writings of Rousseau, the popularity of which is insufficiently appreciated in accounts of British eighteenth-century patrons, architects, and collectors. Beckford’s Rousseau-esque belief in childhood, for example, is expressed in the emotional pederasty of his adoration of the eleven­year-old William (“Kitty”) Courtenay: “how firmly am I resolved to be a Child for ever!,”11 he wrote at the age of twenty to Alexander Cozens. The twelve-foot-high wall with which he surrounded Fonthill was not only to keep out the prying eyes of those who had ostracized him after the Powderham scandal, but also to prevent others from hunting and shooting on his land. Beckford’s sentimental affection for youth was associated with his passion for untrammeled nature. “Early in life,” he explained, “I gave up shooting because I consider we have no right to murder animals for sport. I am fond of animals. The birds in the plantations at Fonthill seemed to know me—they continued their songs as I rode close to them—the very hares grew bold.”12 He was able to express the notion of genius, imagination, humanitarianism, and spiritual enlargement, in the deep, secluded valley of Fonthill where he re-created Rousseau’s wild Elysium.

In their different ways, Beckford and Soane responded to Rousseau’s disturbing doctrines, which celebrated the primitive, passionate nature of the persecuted, suspicious individual, warring with convention.13 “The heart,” Beckford declaimed, “the heart is everything.”14 As Rousseau, the romantic egoist, began his Confessions with the claim that, “I dare to believe I am not made like anyone else who exists,”15 so the nineteen-year-old Beckford wrote a letter to Alexander Cozens in December 1779, ending with the question, Am I not the strangest of Beings ?”16 Moreover, as Soane sketched Rousseau’s tomb at Ermenonville in one of his copies of Rousseau’s Confessions,17 so Beckford owned numerous editions of Rousseau’s works, including A Tour in France with Rhapsody composed at the Tomb of Rousseau (1789).18

After Rousseau, Goethe was the most important figure in the history of the new confessional literature of the eighteenth century, which celebrated the romantic hero driven through self-contemplation and despair to the point of suicide. Beckford and Soane both owned copies of Goethe’s immensely influential novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, in its English translation, The Sorrows of Werter (1780). Beckford wrote to a friend: “There is a Book called the Sorrows of Werter; read it and tell me if every Line is not resplendent with Genius.”19 Soane, meanwhile, gave a copy of the book to Lady Elizabeth Yorke, for whose husband, Philip Yorke, he had designed the primitive Rousseau-esque dairy at Hammels, Hertfordshire, in 1783.

By a curious coincidence, both Beckford and Soane noted in 1818 the suicide of the legal and political reformer, Sir Samuel Romilly, an important early follower of Rousseau.20 Romilly had been despondent over his wife’s death in November 1818. Beckford’s attitude toward Romilly was characteristically ambiguous because, though he shared some of Romilly’s radical attitudes, he opposed his advocacy of the abolition of slavery which would have adversely affected Beckford’s sugar plantations. “No one ever sold justice more than this ‘honest’ man,” Beckford wrote ironically of him, “—this excellent Jacobin, this good Calvinist, this perfect Genevan.”21 To Soane, at the same time, Romilly was a mirror image of himself as a man cast into despair by the death of his wife. Soane drew this analogy in notes made in the course of copying out passages from Rousseau’s Confessions in November 1818, exactly three years after his own wife’s death.

“The Poetry of Architecture”

The Gothic Fonthill, although the most famous, was not the only expression of Beckford’s architectural tastes. Throughout his career he envisaged an architecture of light, shadow, and mystery, independent of style, frequently subterranean and incorporating mirror-glass. This vision corresponds closely to the poetry of architecture, the “lumière mystérieuse,” which Soane found adumbrated in Le Génie de l’architecture: ou l’analogie de cet art avec nos sensations (1780), by Le Camus de Mézières, a key work of French theory that Soane translated for himself.22 The lavish celebrations for Beckford’s coming-of-age at Fonthill Splendens struck a chord within Beckford. Fonthill, he claimed, “was admirably calculated for the celebration of the mysteries.” He explained how, “under the direction of Loutherbourg, himself a mystagogue … [a] world of decorated chambers…[was bathed in] that strange, necromantic light which Loutherbourg had thrown over what absolutely appeared a realm of Fairy, or rather, perhaps, a Demon Temple deep beneath the earth set apart for tremendous mysteries.”23 Later, when visiting the convent of Mafra in Portugal in 1787, Beckford explained how, “It was growing dark, and the numerable tapers burning before the altars and in every part of the church, [seemed] to diffuse a mysterious light.”24

In his romantic tale of 1777, The Long Story25 Beckford had earlier described a subterranean palace with

stately halls decorated with colonnades of slender pillars inconceivably striking. The lesser order of pillars was formed of a clear white crystalisation, exquisitely beautiful. They supported neither frieze or cornice, nor any ornament in the least degree consistent with the rules of architecture we observe on the surface of the earth.26
Anticipating the floating and disembodied vaulted interiors that Soane began designing at the Bank of England over twenty years later, Beckford also described “an immensely spacious concave, unsupported by any visible cause and glowing with a refulgence.”27 This mood was maintained in Vathek, Beckford’s essay in Burkean sublimity and beauty, owing much to the sensationalist psychology of Locke which Beckford studied from a early age. Beckford wrote about the subterranean palace of the Devil, with domed and vaulted ceilings, “rows of columns and arcades, which gradually diminished, till they terminated in a point radiant as the sun…halls and galleries, that opened on the right hand and left; which were all illuminated by torches and braziers.” Nearby was a mausoleum in the form of “a hall of great extent and covered with a lofty dome….A funereal gloom prevailed over the whole scene.”28

As early as December 1779, Beckford envisaged a room that seems strangely close to the domed and mirrored Breakfast Parlour which Soane created over thirty years later at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. “Think,” Beckford wrote, “how we should exult at finding ourselves in arched Chambers glowing with yellow light—amidst Vases formed in another Hemisphere—and Cabalistic Mirrors where Futurity is unveiled.”29 A few years later Beckford seems to anticipate Soane’s acquisition of the sarcophagus of Pharaoh Seti I. In January 1783, Beckford wrote to William Hamilton, “You cannot imagine the solemn appearance of the Hall [at Fonthill Splendens] with its expiring Lamps towards midnight. I often fancy myself in the Catacombs of Egypt and expect to stumble over a Mummy.”30

Soane acquired the prize of his collection in 1825 and celebrated it with a series of remarkable evening parties.31 Lit with numerous lamps, some inside the sarcophagus of Seti I, which Soane housed, characteristically, in the crypt of his museum, the scene must have recalled Joseph Gandy’s visionary painting, The Tomb of Merlin (1815), which Gandy offered to Soane in 1816. Beckford, meanwhile, had even earlier, in November 1780, written to Alexander Cozens from Naples imagining a future with him in which, “Every month we shall invent some new Ornament for our Apartments and add some exotic rarity to its treasures…; sometimes we shall inhabit…our vast range of solemn subterraneous Chambers visible by the glow of Lamps and filled with Cabalistic images.”32

Staying with his cousin Sir William Hamilton at Naples in 1780, Beckford visited the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, of which Soane had made drawings on his visit a couple of years before. Beckford described the “covered cloister,” “the pediment of the chapel [sic] with a symbolic vase relief; ornaments in stucco on the front of the main building, consisting of the lotus, the sistrum, representations of gods, Harpocrates, Anubis, and other objects of Egyptian worship.”33

Soane and Fonthill Splendens

Between the composition of Vathek and the design of Soane’s early interiors at the Bank of England, Beckford had commissioned Soane to transform a seventy-foot-long corridor on the second floor at Fonthill Splendens into a top-lit, picture gallery. Soane was chosen on a visit that Beckford made to Fonthill in January 1787, before leaving in March for his long stay in Spain and Portugal. Lit from two shallow, oval domes with ribbed pendentives, the gallery was a key design in Soane’s early career, forming an important link between the similar Guildhall Council Chamber of 1778 by his master, George Dance, and Soane’s Yellow Drawing Room at Wimpole of 1791. Soane visited Fonthill in April 1787, taking drawings of the gallery with him34 which he showed to Beckford’s mother in London in the following month.35 He was intending to incorporate plaster reliefs of the ancient Roman wreathed eagle at SS Apostoli in Rome, with which he was also to adorn the front of Pitzhanger Manor.

It has recently been shown that Soane’s gallery was not executed.36 Beckford’s idea for hanging prints of the Vatican logge frescoes in the gallery, however, was probably adopted, for John Britton described in 1801 that an adjacent room was “decorated with illuminated prints from the Loggias of Rome, coloured by Francesco Pannini in a very superior manner, and also [with] original drawings of the cielings [sic] and ornaments still remaining amongst the ruins on the Palatine.”37 In the Tapestry Room on the piano nobile, Soane designed the decoration for the apses of two niches which he filled with 140 “pannels of mosaic work run in with double squares, Vitruvian scrolls, flowers, and waterleaves.”38 He also designed a chimneypiece adorned with cornucopia for the same room which was executed by Thomas Banks in June 1787.39 Soane employed Banks for various chimneypieces at Fonthill between 1787 and 1792, and for the Bank of England in 1790. Soane designed another chimneypiece for the southeast parlor, and in 1788 a sumptuous state bed.40 In the form of a lit-en-alcove, both the bed and the arch above it are girt with scarlet hangings trimmed with gold fringes. At the foot, two pairs of gilded foliate columns with lotus capitals support a vast domical superstructure inspired by the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates as published in James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens (1762). It is a piece of archaeological spectacle, untypical of Soane who was not noted as a furniture designer but who here responded to Beckford’s flamboyant side. An alternative, unexecuted design, more Soanean, had an octagonal form based on the Tower of the Winds in Athens.

Soane’s work at Fonthill Splendens was executed by his old friend Edward Foxhall, a fellow student at the Royal Academy. A decorator, carver, furniture-maker, and purveyor of pictures, furniture, and fittings, Foxhall was subsequently employed by Beckford at Fonthill Abbey. Soane’s master mason at Fonthill Splendens, James Nelson, also worked for him at the Bank of England and at Halwood, which he was remodeling for William Pitt the Younger.41 Though Beckford would not have seen Soane’s work at Fonthill Splendens until his return from his travels in October 1789, Soane had the advantage of seeing Beckford’s picture collection. It must have made a deep impression on him as he was subsequently to make important purchases from it: when the contents of Fonthill Splendens were dispersed in 1802, he bought Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress which was then hanging in the second­floor corridor, the remodeling of which he had proposed in 1787. At the six-day sale at Fonthill Abbey in 1807, Soane bought a major work by Canaletto, known as “Venetian Scene.”42

The House as Museum

After Beckford’s collection, Hope’s was one of the most important and influential ever assembled in Britain. Formed in the Napoleonic era (1795–1803), it was the last great British collection to be assembled on and from the soil of Italy. Soane’s, by contrast, was formed in England, not shipped back from the Continent in the established manner of the Grand Tour.43 Hope’s mansion in Duchess Street, which he bought in 1799 and remodeled with galleries in 1800–1804, was not spatially interesting in disposition.44 In contrast, if somewhat later (1808, 1812, and 1824), Soane created the spatially complex Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, although in a plan of 1812 he was considering creating a series of rectangular galleries close to those of Hope, whose collection he admired as an example of Enlightenment civic virtue. He wrote to Hope in March 1804 to thank him for “the high gratification in viewing again some days since your collection,” which he described as “a lasting monument of your civic spirit and classical taste.” He added that he would be “happy on further occasions to avail myself of your kindness and taste.”45

When Hope finished his house and opened it to the public in 1804, visitors would have been struck on arrival by Sir William Beechey’s romantic portrait of Hope in Turkish dress, which hung on the staircase. Seeing one civilization through the eyes of another, this was an expression of Hope’s vision of Greece as a living place. This cumulative effect was close to Soane, who was happy to mingle Egyptian, Greek, Indian, and Gothic objects.

Hope conceived his picture gallery as a kind of temple of the muses, symbolically guarded by statues of priestesses of Isis. Aware that the ancient Greeks intended art not for private but for public and religious display, Hope created a version of the Greek mouseion, the Greek term for a cult-center built for the cultivation and worship of the Muses of the arts and sciences, not necessarily a temple, but an open portico with an altar. Stressing the sacred character of his picture gallery, Hope explained that the inclusion of an organ, which he provided with a front in the form of a pedimented portico, “gives it the appearance of a sanctuary.”46 Here are parallels with Fonthill, a monastery dedicated no longer to God but to the arts, yet focused on the Chapel of Saint Anthony.

The Lararium, or room of the household gods, described by Hope as a “tabernacle…fitted up for the reception of a few Egyptian, Hindoo [sic], and Chinese idols and curiosities,”47 contained objects representing the different religions of the world. These expressed the belief in the common origins of religious symbolism as explained in the writings of the scholar Pierre François Hugues, normally known as “baron d’Hancarville.” Hope’s objects included a pair of statues after the celebrated many-breasted Diana of Ephesus, of which Soane acquired a more important version. Hope said that the chimneypiece in “the shape of an Egyptian portico” was “placed against a back ground of looking-glass,” thus recalling Soane’s use of mirror in the Soane Museum. The room was roofed with bamboo lathes hung with “cotton drapery … in the form of a tent.” This may have been inspired by A.-C. Quatremère de Quincy’s opinion that the tent, along with the cavern and the hut, was one of the three principal types of primitive architecture,48 a interpretation adopted by Soane in his Royal Academy lectures. Hope also pointed out that the ceiling beams in his statue gallery “imitate a light timber covering.”

The elaborately iconographical decoration of Hope’s Flaxman Room at Duchess Street and its furnishings referred to the religious symbolism of the ancients. This was inspired by the uncovery of the symbolical language of antiquity by scholars such as d’Hancarville, whom both Soane and Hope studied carefully. On either side of Flaxman’s statue, Aurora Abducting Cephalus at Dawn on Mount Ida, were strange rarities preserved in glass showcases rather like relics of saints in a Catholic church. In one case was a male arm, long thought to be from a Lapith on one of the Parthenon metopes. Hope, unlike Soane, had been in Athens, so this fragment may have had a genuine Athenian provenance, though its whereabouts is now unknown. Hope unexpectedly displayed it as a counterpart to a stalactite from the grotto on the Greek island of Antiparos in the opposite showcase. This juxtaposition was clearly adopted to show the characteristic Enlightenment belief, which Soane shared, in the origin of Greek design in nature.

Beckford, Soane, and Hope are linked in their knowledge, unusual in England at that time, of the advanced architecture of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, the most brilliant architect of late-eighteenth ­century France. Hope owned engravings of Ledoux’s Hôtel de Thélusson, while in 1784 Beckford visited Ledoux’s atelier in Paris where he looked through the French architect’s startling designs for public and private buildings, including the barrières and the visionary Ideal Town of Chaux. The catalogue of the sale of Beckford’s library in 1882 contains a lot described as “M. Le Doux, plans des édifices, 54 plates, n.d.,”49 which must have been part of Ledoux’s visionary publication, L’architecture considérée sous le rapport de l’art, des moeurs, et de la législation (1804). One of the few other copies of this work in England in Beckford’s lifetime was eagerly acquired by Soane on its publication in 1804. Soane annotated his copy briefly and made extensive notes on it,50 clearly impressed by Ledoux’s romantic and obscure prose, rich in Orphic and Freemasonic rhetoric, and outlining a speaking architecture of character and desire. Soane may have identified with the self-pitying, sentimental tone of a book largely written while Ledoux, who was a victim of persecution as much as both Beckford and Soane, had been in prison.

The links between Beckford, Ledoux, and Soane need to be set in the context of Soane’s obsession with French architectural theory and practice of the Enlightenment, and Beckford’s parallel devotion to the cultural and social life of Paris. After his first formative visit in 1777, Beckford spent much of the years between 1787 and 1793 in Paris, paying further extended visits in 1801–2 and 1814. He moved in an intellectual and social circle close to that of Ledoux, which included the painter and garden designer, Hubert Robert; the Comte de Buffon, son of the great naturalist; the financier, Jean-Joseph, Marquis de Laborde, creator from 1784 of Méréville, near Paris, one of the greatest Picturesque gardens in France; the literary hostess and writer, Madame Necker; and the Emperor Joseph II, a subscriber to Ledoux’s book. From 1784 onward, one of Beckford’s principal reasons for visiting Paris was to buy books and works of art.51 Through the services of a Dutch dealer, he acquired porcelain from Sèvres, carpets for Fonthill Splendens from the Savonnerie factory, and neoclassical silver designed by Jean-Guillaume Moitte and made by Robert-Joseph Auguste, goldsmith to the king from 1778.52

Writing to Hamilton about Auguste in 1792, Beckford asked, “will your man ever be able to complete the Herculaneum drawings, a volume of which he sold me last summer? If he could, I might treat with him. Pray reserve a fine copy of your new work for me; I am continually asked when it will make its appearance.”53 “The new work,” on Hamilton’s vases, was A Collection of Engravings from Ancient Vases (1791), a copy of which Beckford, Hope, and Soane each acquired. From Auguste, Beckford acquired four ewers and, in 1788, a set of twelve dessert plates, while Lady Ann Hamilton recorded in 1803 that a statue of Saint Anthony of Padua on an altar at Fonthill Abbey “was surrounded by 36 wax lights in gold branches and candlesticks (f[ro]m) Auguste at Paris.”54 In all these activities, Beckford reveals himself as no Goth, but as an advanced classicist, buying and commissioning works from artists such as Auguste and Moitte, who were central figures in the development of the Empire style.

In a letter inviting Hamilton to stay with him in Paris in April 1791, written in a state of euphoria at the atmosphere of liberty then prevailing in the capital, Beckford explained that, “I have the pleasantest appts [sic] imaginable either in Paris or in the most beautiful part of the country near it.” He tempted Hamilton further by explaining that, “The reign of grim Gothic prejudices is nearly over, & people begin to serve God and themselves in the manner they like best.”55 It is striking that Beckford should be ready to use “Gothic” as a term of abuse. On his continental travels, too, he enthused over classical buildings such as Palladio’s Redentore in Venice, which he described as “a structure so simple and elegant, that I thought myself entering an antique temple.”56

Freemasons and Symbols

Beckford’s interest in hermeticism and in cabalistic signs was paralleled by the preoccupation of Hope and Soane with the symbolical language of ancient ornament. All three men, for example, were in touch with the arcane scholar, James Christie, who gave each of them a copy of his remarkable book, Disquisition upon Etruscan Vases; displaying their probable connection with the shows at Eleusis, and the Chinese Feast of Lanterns (1806). Beckford acquired two copies of this work, annotating one to draw attention to its somewhat risqué subject matter: “Is it not rather strange that such an acknowledged and exemplary a Purist as Mr. Christie should have given the public at large a free translation of these passages.”57 Hope and Soane owned Christie’s Essay on that Earliest Species of Idolatry, the Worship of the Elements (1814), which Soane annotated, while Beckford, Soane, and Hope all owned copies of the rare and far more risqué work by Payne Knight, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus … to which is added a Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and its connexion with the Mystic Theology of the Ancients (1786).

Soane annotated his copy of Christie’s Essay on that Earliest Species of Idolatry, a book that provided him with many explanations of ornament and symbolism. Beckford owned a book referred to in an inventory as A Dissertation on the Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries. This is probably to be identified with Christie’s Essays on the Mysteries of Eleusis (1817) which Christie sent to Soane in 1817 and doubtless to Beckford. Christie subsequently wrote to Soane that Soane’s lamplit reception for the sarcophagus of Seti I coincided with his own views that the paintings on Greek vases “were copied from transparent scenes” at occasions such as the Eleusinian mysteries.58

Both Soane and Hope owned d’Hancarville’s Recherches, a work that Soane studied constantly, while Hope acknowledged d’Hancarville’s Vases in the bibliography to Household Furniture.59 When Hope wrote about his Vase Room at Duchess Street, he explained that his reading of his Greek vases was influenced by his study of d’Hancarville. Thus, in a “Room containing Greek fictile vases … [the] vases were all found in tombs…[and] relate chiefly to the Bacchanalian rites, which were partly connected with the representations of mystic death and regeneration.” The terms on the cases were accordingly “surmounted with heads of the Indian or bearded Bacchus.”60 Hope’s furniture and interiors were an early attempt to recreate the kind of symbolical ornament along lines envisaged by d’Hancarville in his Recherches.

Both Beckford and Soane owned a strange work by Antoine Court de Gébelin, Monde primitif, analysé et comparé avec le monde moderne, considéré dans son génie allégorique et dans les allégories auxquelles conduisit ce génie (1773–84), which shed further light on this mysterious world of light and symbolism. Believing that symbolism and allegory were the keys to historical interpretation, Gébelin was preoccupied by the sublime horror and drama of initiatory rituals. Beckford and Soane were similarly intrigued by the ceremonies of initiation in Freemasonic ritual which were often seen in the eighteenth century as survivals from antiquity. Soane, of course, became an enthusiastic Freemason, while Beckford, after meeting Ledoux, who was in close touch with that world, accompanied the French architect in 1784 to the bizarre ceremonies of a secret society, linked to the Mesmerists and Freemasons. These took place in an unidentified château near Paris which Ledoux had dramatically remodeled for the purpose. Having renounced all right to knowledge of the locality and nature of the premises, Beckford was conducted there in a closed carriage. He left a lengthy account of his extraordinary experiences, describing a path of initiation from avenues of woodpiles like thatched cottages, through a salon with a coved ceiling “richly painted with mythological subjects,” and designed by Ledoux, up a staircase reminding Beckford of the Scala Regia in the Vatican, and so into a tribune overlooking a chapel which was in darkness though “suddenly a stream of light, such as might be supposed to emanate from the tapers of an altar, shone forth through the perforations of a lofty screen of carved work.”61

Beckford had been selected for the honor of this visit partly because he was thought to possess certain hermetic powers: he had, apparently, “mesmerized” a lion in the Jardin des Plantes, and charmed animals in the grounds of Fonthill. Moreover, the artist Jacques de Loutherbourg, who had staged Beckford’s theatrical coming-of-age party at Fonthill, was known as a disciple and friend of Count Alessandro Cagliostro, the alchemist and forger, and eventually claimed powers of healing and prophecy.62 Here, too, Soane joins the strange web of connections that links him to Beckford, for he too was a friend of Loutherbourg who was, in turn, a friend of Soane’s patron, Sir Francis Bourgeois. Loutherbourg even sent Soane one of his healing recipes, and Loutherbourg’s widow asked Soane to design a monument over her husband’s tomb in the Chiswick churchyard in 1812.63

Collectors of Books

Given the artistic and intellectual parallels drawn between Beckford, Hope, and Soane, it is not surprising that their libraries should overlap, a point already noted. It is revealing to compare the mentality of these three men as obsessive, but professional book collectors. Beckford collected for sixty years, beginning at the age of nineteen, and Soane for over fifty years. Hope, Beckford, and Soane were among the numerous visitors to post-Revolution Paris, Hope in 1815 and 1816, Beckford and Soane in 1814. Soane, in particular, scoured the leading Parisian bookshops. British interest in and, to some extent, sympathy for Napoléon was expressed by Soane’s acquisition in Paris of the sumptuous edition of Percier and Fontaine’s Palais, maisons, et autres édifices modernes déssinés à Rome (1798), with hand-colored plates, which its authors had inscribed and presented to the future Empress Joséphine. Soane and Hope also owned Percier and Fontaine’s illustrated books on their decorations for Napoléon’s coronation in 1804 and wedding to Marie-Louise in 1810.

Beckford rented a house in London for the season each year, spending much time with his bookdealers. Like Soane, he had the mentality of the true book collector, acquiring more than one copy of the same book, attracted by special editions such as those extra-illustrated with proof or colored plates, as well as by books with associations to previous owners.64 Hope owned the Cabinet du Roi, twenty-three volumes of engravings celebrating the reign of Louis XIV, whose arms and monogram were stamped on the bindings. One of Soane’s many association copies was Beckford’s copy of Gray’s poems illustrated by Richard Bentley. Soane, like Beckford, used many booksellers and binders, the best of the binders employed by both of them being the German immigrant, Christian Samuel Kalthoeber. They were not aesthetes who bought books to admire them: they bought them to read them, both making extensive annotations or notes on them. Despite the great fortune which Soane spent on his library, he unwisely enclosed his books in glazed bookcases which deprived them of air. Beckford, by contrast, looked after his books far more meticulously, denying them access to light but not air.

Both Beckford and Soane collected the great French works of archaeology and travel,65 as well as all the standard architectural and archaeological works of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain.66 Beckford owned Soane’s Plans, Elevations and Sections of Buildings (1788), to which he was a subscriber, his Sketches in Architecture (1793), and an inscribed copy of Designs for Public Improvements in London and Westminster (1828), given to him by Soane.67

The libraries of Beckford and Soane were also rich in works by Leon Battista Alberti, Sebastiano Serlio, Athanasius Kircher, Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach, Francesco Bianchini, Pietro Santi Bartoli, Johann Joachim Winckelman, and Scipione Maffei. Soane owned fourteen folio volumes of works by Piranesi, Beckford at least eighteen, and Hope twenty-three.68 Soane also owned objects from Piranesi’s own collection, as well as an antique capital, adorned with dolphins, and a cinerary urn, both of which had been illustrated by Piranesi, respectively, in Della Magnificenza (1761) and in Vasi (1778). The importance of Piranesi’s plates to Soane’s crowded and evocative display of casts and antiquities can hardly be exaggerated. The libraries of Beckford and Soane also contained the key texts by British, French, and German authors on the philosophy and practice of Picturesque gardening.69 Beckford’s signed and dated presentation copy of William Chambers’s Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), presumably given to him at a time when he may have been Chambers’s pupil, is dated “19th March 1773.”70 It was at exactly this time that Soane was a student at the Royal Academy where he was also under the influence of Chambers.

One singular study of Gothic that united Beckford and Soane was Plans, Elevations, Sections, and Views of the Church of Batalha in the Province of Estremadura in Portugal, with the History and Description by Fr. Luis de Sousa … To which is prefaced an Introductory Discourse on the Principles of Gothic Architecture (1795), by the Irish architect and antiquary, James Murphy. Following Beckford’s visit to Batalha in June 1794, this work was used by Wyatt in his designs for Fonthill Abbey.71 Before publication, the book was issued in parts to subscribers, including Beckford, from 1792 to 1795.72 Soane valued his copy of this book, which he bought as early 1796, annotated, and, after 1802, inserted into it a list of the plates.73 A second and rare edition of 1836 was dedicated to Soane who acquired a copy of it.74

A Shift from Gothic to Classic

In their complicated attitudes to Gothic, Beckford and Soane had much in common.75 It was not Gothic to which Soane was totally opposed, but its cheap, flimsy, and incongruous contemporary imitation. Both men admired the “delirium” provoked by Gothic at its most sensational. Indeed, the passages in Soane’s Royal Academy lectures on Gothic are written in the language of Edmund Burke’s Sublime and Beautiful and the opium dreams of Beckford and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Beckford and Soane, though admiring genuine Gothic, came to have the same low view of James Wyatt, the architect of Fonthill. According to the diarist, Joseph Farington, Beckford told Benjamin West as early as 1804 that, “He [Beckford] is much disatisfied with Wyatt who perpetually disappoints Him.”76 Beckford also complained: “if Wyatt can get near a large fire, and have a bottle by Him He cares for nothing else.”77 Moreover, ten years later, following a visit to Longleat where James Wyatt’s nephew, Jeffry Wyatt (later Wyatville), was working, Beckford wrote that: “Throughout the building one recognises the hall-mark of Bagasse [James Wyatt]—his poor lazy methods, his eternal vulgar architraves and his false arches etc—a plague of Wyattiana. That infamous style will corrupt all England and like mice and bugs will riddle beds, tables, roofs, walls etc, etc.”78

Beckford was impressed by Thomas Hope’s criticism of Fonthill in 1804 that, “had the Grecian orders been employed, a mansion might have arisen, unrivaled in the most distant parts of the island, [but] a style had on the contrary been adopted, which subjected every one of its details to disadvantageous comparisons with the Cathedral at Salisbury, whose proud spire arises in its very sight.”79 Having read this passage in March 1804, Beckford told Benjamin West that, “Tom Hope was right in His remarks.—He said He felt the force of what He observed of the Abbey at Fonthill being a Gothic design ill placed within view of Salisbury Cathedral.”80 Soane also agreed: in lecture notes of 1810 he wrote ironically of “The rich abbey of Fonthill with its lofty tower aping the spire of Salisbury.”81

Though admitting the justice of Hope’s criticism of Fonthill, Beckford defended himself by explaining, rather improbably, that his choice of Gothic for Fonthill was partly dictated by the fact that “Gothic windows & compartments afforded him opportunities to blazon and introduce the arms of the various great families…from which His daugtrs. are descended or to which they are allied.”82 Though Soane also thought that architecture should be capable of commemorating great men and events through painting and sculpture, he complained of Gothic that “notwithstanding the blaze of its architectural beauties, this system was not calculated to call forth the energies of the painter and sculptor. Painting would have been confined to little more than portraits, and sculpture to busts and single statues.” He explained that “the costly abbey at Fonthill which, being partly finished and the mansion house [Fonthill Splendens] in consequence pulled down, the pictures by ancient and modern masters were sold, being found too large, and unsuitable to the decoration of a modern Gothic abbey.”83 Since Soane knew Beckford, and bought at his sales, it is possible that this explanation of Beckford’s dissatisfaction with Fonthill derived directly from Beckford.

Beckford and Soane in London and Bath

Hope and Soane are recorded as having visited Fonthill.84 In a letter from John Britton to Soane, written from Fonthill on August 29, 1822, Britton made arrangements for Soane’s forthcoming visit, anticipating that they would “have some delightful strolls through the most enchanting grounds imaginable.”85 Soane is also known to have been on calling terms with Beckford in London from at least as early as 1813.86 There are further references in Soane’s notebooks to his meeting Beckford in April and May 1829, and in the following autumn when he was taking a cure in Bath. On September 19, after a walk to Beckford’s house at 20 Lansdown Crescent, Soane wrote in his note book, “Left card for Mr Beckford,” and two days later, “Mr B called early. Saw Mr Beckford home.”87 The late-Georgian terraced houses in Bath and London of these two curious old gentlemen—Beckford, now nearly seventy, and Soane, seventy-six—had certain features in common. Apart from the general limitations as to the narrow width of Georgian row houses, the reasons that prompted the two men to occupy at different times, sometimes at the same time, parts of three adjacent terraced houses—Beckford in Bath and Soane in London, are hard to discern.88

In 1823, having sold Fonthill, Beckford acquired two recently completed houses in Bath: 20 Lansdown Crescent and the adjacent building, 1 Lansdown Place West. He linked them curiously with a bridge, probably designed by Henry Edmund Goodridge, a gifted local architect stylistically influenced by Soane.89 By 1832 Beckford had sold 1 Lansdown Place West, though retaining the bridge, and by 1837 had bought 19 Lansdown Crescent, again remodeled for him by Goodridge who filled one end wall of his bridge library with a huge looking glass from floor to ceiling, rather like the mirrors in Soane’s library. At the same time, Goodridge created another handsome library, always described by Beckford as his “Grecian Library,” on the ground floor of 19 Lansdown Crescent. Formed in 1837, the year of Soane’s death, and today the only surviving Beckford interior in any of his three adjacent houses, it is surely a room in which Soane would have been at home. A beautifully articulated space, defined by mirrored arches and scagliola Siena marble pilasters, it contains fitted bookcases of red mahogany veneer over walnut.90

Staying in Bath in December 1832, Soane sent a letter to Beckford, which indicates the considerable intimacy between them and the high regard in which he held Beckford’s contribution to the arts, as well as his admiration for the Lansdown Tower:

Accept my dear Sir, my best thanks for your obliging attention. I regret very much that indisposition has prevent[e]d me [having] the pleasure of seeing you which circumstance will also cause me to lose the opportunity of your permission to view your truly classical mansion and noble Tower—objects which once seen can not be easily be [sic] forgotten. I hope to revisit Bath in the Spring and to have opportunity to assure you in person of the sense I have of what you have done for the advancement of the Fine Arts. I have the honour to be,
Dear Sir,
Your very ob[e]d[ient] and obliged Serv[t] John Soane.91

It is interesting to speculate on the topics of conversation during their visits to each other: architecture and literature, illustrated books, certainly, and perhaps in addition, France, Freemasonry, politics, persecution, and Napoléon, for whom both had a romantic admiration. Beckford had visited Malmaison in 1814, and Soane five years later. Soane noted that he was “much interested…[in] those things which once had the care and attention of Josephine.”92 Both Beckford and Soane were able to bring back souvenirs of Napoléon and Joséphine from their visits to Paris.93 Soane acquired Josephine’s copy of Percier and Fontaine’s Palais, maisons, et autre édifices modernes déssinés à Rome (1798), while at the sale of Malmaison in 1816, Beckford bought a magnificent circular table with a top then believed to be formed from a slab of marble brought from Egypt by Napoléon and given to Joséphine.94 Afforded pride of place in the Grand Drawing Room at Fonthill Abbey, the table rested on a neoclassical Savonnerie carpet from the château de Saint-Cloud, made for Napoléon in 1814. Indeed, Beckford’s neoclassical acquisitions and his consistent patron­ age of neoclassical silversmiths—his favorite silver designer, Auguste, had, incidentally, provided the goldsmith’s work on Napoléon’s crown—preclude casting Beckford in the role of a Romantic Goth rather than as a figure akin to Hope or Soane.

A curious link between the collections of Soane and Beckford is that they both acquired objects associated with the Sultan of Mysore, known to the English as Tippoo Sahib. By 1823 Soane had bought a set of ivory furniture of around 1790 from southern India: he described it as among the belongings of Tippoo that were captured at the siege of Seringapatam in 1799 when Tippoo was killed. Beckford proudly displayed what he claimed to be Tippoo’s hookah on the Malmaison table in the Grand Drawing Room at Fonthill.

Soane’s arched library and dining room in Lincoln’s Inn Fields are not without similarities to Napoléon’s library at Malmaison. After his visit to these interiors in 1814, Beckford wrote: “I like the gallery at Malmaison well enough and am pleased by the vault, the general colouring and the not too great height of the walls; it is Imperial-like, Italianate and comfortable…The marble columns at each end of the room give an air of grandeur and the perspective discovered through them of another apartment beyond is enchanting.”95

It seems likely that Beckford took Soane to see progress on Lansdown Tower in September 1826, or that Soane saw it in 1829, two years after its completion. A drawing of September 1826 shows the tower without its tall crowning cupola of iron columns which, according to tradition, was added by Beckford as an afterthought. Certainly, the building was originally conceived as a castellated tower with round-headed windows in a sort of “Saxon” manner. Beckford made sketches in this style, which he gave to Goodridge, who seems to have persuaded him to adopt Classical, though still asymmetrical forms.96 To that extent, the tower, as built in 1825–27, may also be seen as Beckford’s response to Hope’s criticisms of the shoddy Gothic of Fonthill, criticisms shared by Soane who doubtless made them clear to Beckford. In view of the links between Beckford and Hope, it is interesting to note that a visitor to the Lansdown Tower recorded seeing in a glass case

a little ivory reliquior [sic], four or five hundred years old. It was given to Mr Beckford by the late Mr Hope. It is in the shape of a small chapel; on opening the doors, the fastenings of which were two small dogs or monkeys, you found in a recess the Virgin and Child, surrounded by effigies, all carved in the most astonishingly minute manner.97

The Picturesque quality that unites Hope, Beckford, and Soane is further underlined by the fact that John Britton was responsible for producing illustrated books on the homes of all three—Hope’s Deepdene in 1821–26, Fonthill in 1823, and “the House and Galleries of John Soane” in 1827—stressing their relation to the theory and psychology of the Picturesque. The exteriors of the Lansdown Tower are not especially Soanean, but the Italianate tower is certainly close to that of around 1818 at Thomas Hope’s Deepdene. In a European context it can be related to the contemporary work of Karl Friedrich Schinkel in Berlin and Potsdam: Schloss Glienicke (1832) and Schloss Charlottenhof (1829), especially the nearby Guest House and Court Gardener’s House complex of 1829–33. Schinkel expressed his belief in “architecture as the continuation of nature in her constructive activity,” capable of growth and expansion. To that extent, Schinkel’s work was like Fonthill, which had been altered considerably between 1796 and 1818, and also like the Lansdown Tower, which similarly grew and changed as the building rose. Like Schinkel’s work, the Lansdown Tower combined Grecian scholarship with asymmetrical forms in an expression of that eighteenth-century Enlightenment belief, shared by Soane, in the origins of Greek architecture and ornament in nature and natural forms.

The finial of the crowning lantern of the Lansdown Tower is directly based on that of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, as restored by Stuart and Revett. Schinkel was to use the same source a year or so later for the Belvedere at Schloss Glienicke, known as the Grosse Neugirde, the “great curiosity.” Soane, as we have seen, had adopted the same form for the domed canopy of the state bed that he designed for Beckford at Fonthill Splendens in 1788. It was subsequently used by Goodridge in his unexecuted design of 1817 for a monument to Princess Charlotte.98 Goodridge also followed the example of both Beckford and Soane by buying recent architectural books in Paris: a copy of Percier and Fontaine’s Recueil de décorations intérieures (1812) bears Goodridge’s inscription and notes which indicate that he bought it on a visit to Paris in or before 1818.99 Moreover, the rather heavy forms of the entrance gateway built by Goodridge in 1848 in the grounds of the Landsown Tower, which had become a cemetery in 1847, may be indebted to Soane’s ponderous monument to his wife in Saint Pancras Gardens (1816).100

Unfortunately, there is no record of what the interiors of the Lansdown Tower were like in the 1820s when Soane would have seen them, for they were completely redecorated and refurnished by Beckford and Goodridge in an early-Victorian manner between 1841 and Beckford’s death in 1844. The forms and lighting of rooms such as the sanctuary, however, are close to late interiors by Soane such as his gallery of 1830–31 for Sir Francis Chantrey at 30 Belgrave Place. The Soane Museum is recalled by the very small scale of the rooms at Lansdown Tower and their rabbit­warren-like quality. Here, the two men, both given to dreams and reverie, could have indulged in melancholy and poetic reflections, for the view north from the summit of Lansdown Hill reminded Beckford of the Roman Campagna which he had first visited in 1780, two years after Soane. For Beckford, it was a “land of solemn recollections, of perished nations, the memento of an approaching eternity.” In going on to add that, “I shall never forget how I first passed over that land of the Dead, strewed with…ruined sepulchres and shattered columns,”101 he showed how totally he had entered into Soane’s mind.

Beckford becomes more comprehensible by being set in the context of his near contemporaries who, like him, were authors, designers, and collectors, aware of the psychology of interior design. He might be compared with the Prince Regent who was constantly criticized for extravagance by his father and was thought ridiculous by many of his subjects. Children of the pan-European vision of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, they were all rancophiles who had to decide what attitudes to adopt toward revolutionary and Napoleonic France. Part of the international community of men of taste, promoted by Quatremère de Quincy, they found themselves in a cultural world in which the Protestant Church of England seemed to have little relevance, especially in comparison with Continental Freemasonry and Roman Catholicism. Moreover, the preoccupation with self and personal sensations, which had been encouraged by the associationalist philosophy of Locke and Burke, and by the confessional literature of Rousseau and Goethe, led them to live in a world of the imagination.

© Bard Graduate Center, David Watkin.

1.John Soane, Description of the House and Museum on the north side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields (London: privately printed, 1835): 28.

2.Malcolm Jack, Introduction, Vathek and Other Stories: A William Beckford Reader (London: Penguin Books, 1995): xix–xx. Hereafter cited as Beckford Reader.

3.Lewis Melville, The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill (London: Heinemann, 1910): 283.

4.Timothy Mowl, William Beckford: Composing for Mozart (London: John Murray, 1998): 266.

5.Hope’s library is known from the auction sale. See Catalogue of the Valuable Library of Books on Architecture, Costume, Sculpture, Antiquities, etc., formed by Thomas Hope … being a Portion of the Hope Heirlooms removed from Deepdene, Darking, sale cat., Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 25–27 July 1917. Despite the claim that the collection was formed by Hope, it contains some works published after his death.

6.Cited from Boyd Alexander, “The Decay of Beckford’s Genius,” in William Beckford of Fonthill, 17601844: Bicentenary Essays, ed. Fatma Moussa Mahmoud (1960; reprint, Port Washington, N.Y.: Dover, 1972): 20.

7.“Crude Hints … ,” AL Soane Case 31, fols 53–56, Soane Museum, London. See also Christopher Woodward , ed., Visions of Ruin (London: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 1999): 61–74.

8.Alexander, “Decay of Beckford’s Genius” (1960; 1972): 20.

9.Gillian Darley, John Soane: An Accidental Romantic (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996): 278.

10.Quoted from David Watkin, Thomas Hope (17691831) and the Neo-Classical Idea (London: John Murray, 1968): 10.

11.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 96.

12.Ibid., p. 216.

13.For Soane’s emotional debt to Rousseau, see David Watkin, Sir John Soane: Enlightenment Thought and the Royal Academy Lectures (Cambridge University Press, 1996): 114–15, 206–10.

14.Quoted in Guy Chapman, Beckford (London: Jonathan Cape, 1952): 187.

15.Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Les Confessions, vol. 1 (Geneva 1781): 1. [Author’s translation.]

16.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 78.

17.Reproduced in Watkin, Sir John Soane (1996): pl. 2.

18.This title was among the books sold in the 1823 sale: see The Valuable Library of Books in Fonthill Abbey, sale cat., Phillips, London, 1823, lot 2085

19.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 76.

20.For Beckford, see Beckford to Gregorio Franchi, 5 November 1818, quoted in Life at Fonthill 18071822 … From the Correspondence of William Beckford, ed. and trans. Boyd Alexander (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1957): 253. For Soane, see AL Soane Case 164, fol. [179], Soane Museum.

21.Alexander, Life at Fonthill (1957): 253.

22.AL Soane Case 160, Soane Museum.

23.Quoted in John W.O liver, The Life of William Beckford (Oxford University Press, 1932): 89–91.

24.Beckford, “The Portuguese Journal,” in Beckford Reader (1995): 232.

25.Written in 1777, it was first published by Guy Chapman as “The Vision” see William Beckford, The Vision, Liber Veritas, ed. with an introduction and notes by Guy Chapman (London: Constable, 1930).

26.Beckford, “The Long Story,” in Beckford Reader (1995): 22.

27.Ibid., p. 23.

28.Beckford, “A History of the Caliph Vathek,” in ibid., pp. 91–93.

29.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 77.

30.Ibid., p. 165. The hall referred to is the Egyptian Hall at Fonthill Splendens.

31.See Helen Dorey,”Sir John Soane’s Acquisition of the Sarcophagus of Seti I,” Georgian Group Journal I (1991): 26–35.

32.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 96–97.

33.Beckford, “Dreams,” in Beckford Reader (1995): 218.

34.Soane, Miscellaneous drawings and architectural designs, no. II, ff 30–37, Soane Museum.

35.Soane, Journal 1781, no. 1, 25–26 April, 28 May, 5 June, Soane Museum .

36.A point established in Chrisropher Woodward, “William Beckford and Fonthill Splendens: Early Works by Soane and Goodridge,” Apollo (February 1998): 31–40. I am indebted to Christopher Woodward for helpful comments on the first draft of this essay.

37.John Britron, The Beauties of Wiltshire, vol. 1 (London 1801): 238.

38.Soane, Miscellaneous drawings and architectural designs, no. II, ff. 30–37, Soane Museum.

39.Soane, Journal 1781, no. 1, 25 June, Soane Museum.

40.For the subsequent history of this remarkable bed, executed from Soane’s designs, which are signed and dated January 1788, see Woodward , “William Beckford” (February 1998): 31–40. For Soane’s designs, see MS Beckford, c. 84, fols. 111–12, and MS Beckford b. 8, fols. 1–2, Bodleian Library, Oxford. For related designs see 81/1/29 and 32, Soane Museum.

41.Surviving bills for Soane’s work for Beckford include payments of £36.14.4. for Willmott, plasterer; £93.6. to Banks, sculptor; and £135.5.4 to Nelson, mason (Ledger A 1787, Soane Museum). See also a bill from Soane to Beckford for designs of interiors and journey to Fonthill, totaling £284.14.4, and a receipt from Soane of 2 December 1788 for £284.14.10 for surveying and for designing chimneypieces for Beckford (B388 and S823Bb, respectively, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

42.Soane maintained a close interest in Fonthill Splendens, acquiring catalogues of the sale of its building materials and contents in August and October 1801. He annotated his copy of the Catalogue of the Valuable Building Materials of the Two Wing erections and colonnades of Fonthill Mansion with sundry Household Furniture . . . 8 magnificent statuary chimneypieces, sale cat., Phillips, London, 7–9 October 1801, which included the pair of statuary marble chimneypieces in the Picture Gallery “enriched by emblematic figures of exquisite sculpture.” The sale catalogue of the contents in August 1801 contained the bed designed by Soane for the state bedchamber, with “feet posts richly carved and gilt, crimson velvet furniture, inside and outside of tester and valance, richly ornamented with carved and gilt ornaments.”

43.See Cornelius Vermeule, “Sir John Soane, His Classical Antiquities,” Archaeology 6 (1953): 68–74, and idem, “Catalogue of Antique Sculpture in Sir John Soane’s Museum,” typescript, 1951–53, Soane Museum.

44.Peter Thornton and David Watkin, “New Light on the Hope Mansion in Duchess Street,” Apollo (September 1987): 162–77.

45.Drafts of Soane’s correspondence, Soane Museum.

46.Thomas Hope, Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees & Orme, 1807): 24.

47.Ibid., p. 38.

48.For a development of Laugier’s stress on the primitive hut, see A.-C. Quatremère de Quincy, De l’architecture égyptienne (Paris 1803): 229.

[49] Hamilton Palace, sale cat., Christie’s, Jun e 1882, lot 1617.

50.For a full account of these, see Watkin, Sir John Soane (1996): 220–25.

51.For the risk of such travel to Beckford during the Revolution, see John Whitehead, The French Interior in the Eighteenth Century (London: Laurence King, 1992): 33.

52.Beckford claimed that Auguste’s “talents equal if not surpass those of the first artists of antiquity. I think you will be enraptured with the furniture I am having made under his direction in the true spirit of Corinth & Athens; the bronze friezes &c.,. finished as highly as the gold vase you saw at Fonthill” (Beckford to Sir William Hamilton, Paris, February 1792, reprinted in The Hamilton and Nelson Papers, vol. 1, 17561797 [1893], The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents formed by Alfred Morrison, 2d ser. [Privately published, 1882–93]: 165, letter 205).


54.Lady Ann Hamilton, MS Journal, p. 4, Beckford Papers, Bodleian Library (quoted in Michael Snodin and Malcolm Baker, “Beckford’s Silver,” Burlington Magazine [November 1980]: 740).

55.Hamilton and Nelson Papers (1893): 153, letter 191.

56.The Travel-Diaries of William Beckford of Fonthill, ed. with a memoir and notes by Guy Chapman, vol. l (London: Constable, 1928): 85.

57.Howard Gotlieb, William Beckford of Fonthill: Writer, Traveller, Collector, Caliph, 18701844, exh. cat., Yale University Library (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960): 61.

58.James Christie, A Disquisition upon Etruscan Vases (London, 1806): iv.

59.Watkin, Sir John Soane (1996): 256–71; Hope, Household Furniture (1807): [141].

60.Ibid., p. 24.

61.Oliver, Life of William Beckford (1932): 176, 168, respectively. Some of Beckford’s biographers have doubted the authenticity of this account, but for a defence of its accuracy from an authority on Ledoux and eighteenth-century secret societies, see Anthony Vidler, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux: Architecture and Social Reform at the End of the Ancien Régime (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1990): 337–40.

62.See James Stevens Curl, The Art and Architecture of Freemasonry (London: Batsford, 1991): 172.

63.Giles Waterfield, ed., Soane and Death, exh. cat. (London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 1996): 100–101.

64.See Eileen Harris, “Sir John Soane’s Library,” Apollo (April 1990): 246.

65.For example, Antoine Desgodetz, Edifices antiques de Rome (Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1682); Antoine Le Pautre, Oeuvres d’architecture (Paris: Jombert, 1682); Claude Perrault, Ordonnance des cinq éspèces de colonnes (Paris: Jean Baptiste Coignard, 1683); Jean-François Félibien des Avaux, Maisons … de Pline (Paris 1699); Augustin-Charles d’Aviler, Cours d’architecture (Paris: Jean Mariette, 1710); Corneille Le Brun, Voyage au Levant (Paris 1714); Bernard de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée (Paris: E. Delaune, H. Foucault, M. Clousier, J.-G. Nyn, E. Ganeau, N. Gosselin, P.-E. Giffart, 1729); Engelbert Kaempfer, Histoire naturelle … du Japan (The Hague 1729); Frederic Louis Norden, Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie (Copenhagen 1755); Julien­David Le Roy, Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce (Paris: H. L. Guerin, L. F. Delatour, Jean-Luc Nyon, and Amsterdam: Jean Neaulme, 1758); Pierre Pane, Monumens érigés en France à la gloire de Louis XV (Paris: the author and Desaint and Saillant , 1765); Nicolas Ponce, Description des Bains de Titus (Paris: the author and Barbou, 1786); Cornelius De Pauw, Recherches philosophiques sur les Chinois et les Egyptiens (Paris 1773); and Denis Vivant Denon, Voyage en Egypte (Paris: P. Didot, 1802). I have drawn these parallels by comparing Soane’s library with the sale catalogues of Beckford’s books in 1804, 1808, 1817, 1823, and 1882.

66.For example, Vitruvius Britannicus, and books by Giacomo Leoni, William Kent, Robert Castell, Matthew Brettingham, Isaac Ware, James Paine, William Chambers, James Stuart, Thomas Major, Charles Cameron, Robert Adam, Charles Heathcote Tatham, Thomas Hope, William Wilkins, Benjamin Wyatt, and, of course, Soane himself.

67.Hamilton Palace, June 1882, lot 2080.

68.Two plates of antique marble vases in Piranesi’s Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi (Rome 1778) bear fulsome dedications to William Beckford, presumably the Alderman, though he had died in 1770 (see vol. 1, pl. 24, and vol. 2, pl. 78). His son was eighteen in 1778 but had not yet visited Rome.

69.These are principally by Christian L. Cay Hirschfeld, René-Louis, Marquis de Girardin, Thomas Whately, William Chambers, Uvedale Price, and Richard Payne Knight.

70.Hamilton Palace, June 1882, lot 1788; and see Robert J. Gemmen, William Beckford (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977): 35. For Beckford as Chambers’s pupil, see Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill (London: Faber and Faber, 1979): 25–26.

71.Though Beckford later referred to “that dull draughtsman Murphy” (Beckford, Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha [London: Richard Bentley 1835]: 136–37).

72.See Clive Wainwright, “William Beckford, his Collection and the Influence of his Excursion to Alcobaça and Batalha in 1794,” in Portugal e o Reino Unido: A Aliança Revisitada, exh. cat., (Lisbon: Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian, 1994–95): 99.

73.I am indebted to the late Clive Wainwright for drawing my attention to the fact that copies of some of Murphy’s letters, as well as all his drawings for this book, survive in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries, London, bound in an album as MS 260.

74.It is possible that Sir William Chambers, who knew Murphy, was responsible for introducing him to both Beckford and Soane. Murphy mentioned that Chambers had told him that when he had been in Paris, Soufflot had shown him drawings he had made of Gothic buildings (James Cavanah Murphy, Plans … of Batalha [London: I. & J.Taylor, 1795]: 12.) Soufflot had prepared these as part of his aim in the church of Sainte Geneviève of “uniting in one of the most beautiful forms,” as his pupil Brébion put it in 1780, “the lightness of construction of Gothic churches with the purity and magnificence of Greek architecture”: an ambition of which Beckford and Soane would have approved.

75.Beckford even criticized the flamboyant Gothic of the mausoleum at Batalha, which he compared to “Saxon crinklings and cranklings … the preposterous long and lanky marrow-spoon­shaped arches of the early Norman … and the Moorish horse-shoe-like deviations from beautiful curves.” He went on to wonder “how persons of correct taste could ever have tolerated them, and batten on garbage when they might enjoy the lovely Ionic so prevalent in Greece, the Doric grandeur of the Parthenon, and the Corinthian magnificence of Balbec and Palmyra” (Recollections of an Excursion [1835]: 137).

76.The Diary of Joseph Farington, ed. Kenneth Garlick and Angus Macintyre, vol. 5 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979): 2283, entry dated 29 March 1804.


78.Beckford to Gregorio Franchi, 12 September 1813, quoted in Alexander, Life at Fonthill (1957): 157.

79.Thomas Hope, Observations on the Plans and Elevations designed by James Wyatt, Architect, for Downing College (London: D. N. Shury, 1804): 15.

80.Diary of Joseph Farington (1979).

81.Cited from Watkin, Sir John Soane (1996): 336.

82.Diary of Joseph Farington (1979).

83.Watkin, Sir John Soane (1996): 556.

84.Melville, Life and Letters (1910): 238.

85.Private correspondence III.B.1.26, Soane Museum.

86.He noted that Beckford called on him on 5 December 1813 and that he called on Beckford in his London house on 17 December (Notebook, 1813, Soane Museum).

87.A point noted in Dorothy Stroud, Sir John Soane: Architect (London: Faber and Faber, 1984): 60.

88.Beckford enjoyed teasing his neighbors by claiming that he had only bought no. 19 so that he would not be disturbed by anyone when sitting in his library next door (Oliver, Life of William Beckford [1932]: 292).

89.In 1829, Goodridge altered Hardenhuish House, Wiltshire, incorporating suggestions by Soane.

90.James Lees-Milne, “Beckford in Bath,” Country Life 29 (April 1976): no 6–9.

91.MS Beckford c.35, fols. 52–54. The date is very faint but it is almost certainly 7 December 1832. I am indebted for assistance with this previously unpublished letter to Timothy Rogers, Department of Western Manuscripts, Bodleian Library.

92.Notebook of Soane’s visit to Paris, August–September 1819, Soane Museum.

93.On Soane’s Napoleonic acquisitions, see Peter Thornton and Helen Dorey, A Miscellany of Objects from Sir John Soane’s Museum (London: Laurence King, 1992): 123.

94.See Clive Wainwright, Romantic Interiors: The British Collector at Home, 17501850 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989): 141.

95.Alexander, Life at Fonthill (1957): 166–67.

96.See Philippa Bishop, “Beckford in Bath,” Bath History 1 (1986): 85–112.

97.Henry Venn Lansdown, Recollections of the Late William Beckford (Bath, 1893): 24.

98.The drawing is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I am indebted to Christopher Woodward for bringing it to my attention.

99.Architecture of the Continent of Europe, cat. 44 (London: B. Weinreb Architectural Books, 1981): no. 355.

100.For further information on Goodridge and on his villas in Bath, see Christopher Woodward, “Aerial Boudoirs of Bath,” Country Life 4 (September 1997): 68–71.

101.Boyd Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son: A Study of William Beckford (London: Centaur Press, 1962): 226–27.