Beckford relocated to London in 1744, and also purchased the estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. He kept enslaved people in England to serve him. 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 (his trading interests were restricted to the goods produced by his Jamiacan estates), 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 enslaved people working in Jamaica.
When Beckford purchased Fonthill in 1745 the original Elizabethan house was extant. This, however, was destroyed by fire in 1756, and Beckford replaced it with Fonthill Splendens, a Palladian house built to designs by an unknown Mr Hoare (dates unknown) in c1757-c1770. During this time Robert Adam was commissioned to make unexecuted designs for the new house, its interior, and a bridge for the park. It is possible that Beckford had become acquainted with Adam through his old school friend William Murray (later Lord Mansfield), who was Adam's great patron at Kenwood, but Beckford's roles within Parliament and the City would have also brought him into contact with a great many other Adam patrons. Later minor alterations were made to Fonthill Splendens by Sir John Soane (1753-1837) in 1787. But the house was demolished in 1807, having been replaced by Fonthill Abbey, a large Gothic Revival house built by Beckford's son, William Thomas Beckford, on a site near to his father’s house, and to designs by James Wyatt (1746-1813). Fonthill Abbey was constructed in 1796-1812, and part of the house collapsed in 1825.
See also: Witham Park, Frome, Somerset
H. Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of George II, 1849, Volume II, p. 177; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index pp. 13, 62; E. Harris, The genius of Robert Adam: his interiors, 2001, p. 185; D. King, The complete works of Robert and James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, p. 218; 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill Abbey, nr. Hindon, Wilts', The history of Parliament online; 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill, Wilts', Oxford DNB online; Legacies of British Slavery database, UCL: www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs
Frances Sands, 2012
Sir John Soane's collection includes some 30,000 architectural, design and topographical drawings which is a very important resource for scholars worldwide. His was the first architect’s collection to attempt to preserve the best in design for the architectural profession in the future, and it did so by assembling as exemplars surviving drawings by great Renaissance masters and by the leading architects in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries and his near contemporaries such as Sir William Chambers, Robert Adam and George Dance the Younger. These drawings sit side by side with 9,000 drawings in Soane’s own hand or those of the pupils in his office, covering his early work as a student, his time in Italy and the drawings produced in the course of his architectural practice from 1780 until the 1830s.
Browse (via the vertical menu to the left) and search results for Drawings include a mixture of Concise catalogue records – drawn from an outline list of the collection – and fuller records where drawings have been catalogued in more detail (an ongoing process).
Contents of Fonthill Splendens, Tisbury, Wiltshire: unexecuted designs for the house, interior decoration, and a bridge for Alderman William Beckford, date range: 1758-70 (9)
- Design for the house, 1758-63, unexecuted (1)
- Design for the library, 1758-63, unexecuted (1)
- Design for the parlour, 1758-63, unexecuted (1)
- Variant designs for a ceiling, 1763, unexecuted (2)
- Alternative preliminary design and designs for a bridge, 1758-70, unexecuted (4)