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Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire: (unexecuted) picture gallery, (executed) chimney-pieces and a state bed for William Beckford, 1787-1788 (14)

Signed and dated

  • 1787
    Main Year


William Beckford (1709-70), a politician and landowner, was born in Jamaica, the son of Peter Beckford (1672-1735), a plantation owner. Having been educated in England, and then returned to Jamaica on his father’s death, Beckford relocated to London in 1744, and also purchased the estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. In 1756 he married Maria, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton, second son of James, 6th Earl of Abercorn. His only legitimate son, William Thomas Beckford (1759-1844), inherited the majority of his estate, although eight illegitimate children were also recognised and provided for in Beckford’s will. Beckford served as MP for Shaftesbury in 1747-54, and London in 1754-70. In 1752 he was elected Alderman of Billingsgate, in 1755-56 he was the Sherriff of London, and in 1762-63 and 1769-70 he served as Lord Mayor of London. Despite his many successes Beckford was criticised as nouveau riche and a vulgar colonial. Horace Walpole described him as a ‘noisy good humoured flatterer, vulgar and absurd, pompous in his expense, and vainglorious’. His rivals enjoyed illustrating the contradiction between his fight for liberty in Parliament, and his great wealth founded on the backs of slaves working in West Indian sugar plantations.

According to Colvin (op.cit) a Mr Hoare appears to have been the architect and builder of Alderman William Beckford's magnificent Palladian house at Fonthill, Wiltshire, begun c. 1757 and demolished by Beckford's son in 1807. The son had earlier commissioned James Wyatt (1746-1813) to build, in a Gothic style, Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire, the tower of which collapsed in 1825, the remainder being subsequently demolished. H.E.Goodridge (1797-1864) designed the Lansdowne Tower, Bath (1824-7) for the same patron and, happily, it still remains.

Soane's first visit to Fonthill Splendens was made on 25 April 1787 (SM Journal No 1, f.34). On 5 June he called on Mrs Beckford (William Beckford's mother) 'to show her the Section'. By then his patron had left for the Continent having apparently commissioned the lesser designs for chimney-pieces, bed and niches that were carried out.

Soane's unexecuted designs for a picture gallery have been divided (by Christopher Woodward) into two stages. A first stage (drawings 1 to 4) for a three-part gallery with a larger central area having an oval dome larger and higher than the circular domes on either side. Two free-standing pairs of columns emphasise the centre which is 'left plain to contrast with the richness of each end & side'. The 'richness' was provided by placing sunk panels in the doors and walls for a series of coloured prints of Raphael's arabesques in the Vatican loggie; they are the only exhibits in drawings 1-4 and are entirely subordinate to the architecture. In fact, these prints described by John Britton (in The Beauties of Wiltshire, 1801, volume I, p.238) as 'coloured by Francesco Pannini in a very superior manner' were eventually hung in an adjacent room.

In the final designs (drawings 5 to 7) the three-part plan becomes two-part with two elliptical domes of equal size and the walls are now shown with layouts for framed pictures . What seemed like a richly decorated corridor has now become a picture gallery. However, it was never carried out. The other of Soane's surviving drawings for Fonthill are for two chimney-pieces and a state bed (see drawings 8 -13) - which were executed. No designs for two niches with mosaic work have survived though the valuation for £36.14s.4d has.

Literature. C. Woodward, 'William Beckford and Fonthill Splendens: early works by Soane and Goodridge', Apollo, February 1998, pp.31-40; D. E. Ostergard (editor), William Beckford 1760-1844: an eye for the magnificent, 2001 (published in conjunction with an exhibition at Bard Graduate Center ... U.S.A. and Dulwich Picture Gallery, London); pp. 38-9 'Soane and Fonthill Splendens'; H. Colvin, Biographical dictionary of British architects 1600-1840, 2008

This catalogue is largely based on an earlier (c. 1996) typescript catalogue by Christopher Woodward and on his article published in Apollo. The attribution of drawing 7 to George Dance is mine.

Jill Lever, September 2011
With additions to the introductory notes by Frances Sands, September 2020



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Contents of Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire: (unexecuted) picture gallery, (executed) chimney-pieces and a state bed for William Beckford, 1787-1788 (14)