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Fonthill Splendens, Tisbury, Wiltshire: unexecuted designs for the house, interior decoration, and a bridge for Alderman William Beckford, date range: 1758-70 (9)

1758-70
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.

When Beckford purchased Fonthill in 1744 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 But the house was demolished in 1807, having been replaced by Fonthill Abbey, a large Gothic Revival house built by Beckford's son, William Thomas Beckford, on a site near to his father’s house, and to designs by James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

Literature:
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', The history of Parliament online

Frances Sands, 2012
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