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Witham Park, Frome, Somerset: designs for the house for Alderman William Beckford, partly executed with alterations, 1762-70 (10)

1762-70
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 sugar plantations.

In 1761 Beckford purchased Witham Park, once England's first Carthusian monastery, which had been much altered since the Dissolution. Final alterations were made to the house for Sir William Wyndham in c1717 to designs by James Gibbs (1682-1754), before it was sold by Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont. Although Beckford's principal residence was Fonthill Splendens, Wiltshire, he demolished the old house at Witham in c1764 in favour of a new house built on a nearby site to designs by Robert Adam. It is possible that Beckford had become acquainted with Adam through his old school friend William Murray (later Lord Mansfield), who was Adam's 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. The work at Witham began in c1762, and the shell of the fabric was well advanced, but it was abandoned after Beckford's death in 1770, and finally demolished in 1791. Despite this the house is illustrated in the fifth volume of Vitruvius Britannicus (1771, pl. 38-42).

See also: Fonthill Splendens, Tisbury, Wiltshire

Literature:
J. Woolfe, and J. Gandon, Vitruvius Britannicus V, 1771, pls. 38-42; 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. 31, 62; R. Wilson-North, and S. Porter, 'Witham, Somerset: from Carthusian monastery to country house to gothic folly', Architectural History, Volume 40, 1997, pp. 81, 93-96; E. Harris, The genius of Robert Adam: his interiors, 2001, p. 186; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, p. 105, Volume II, pp. 81-85, 134; 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill Abbey, nr. Hindon, Wilts', and 'Beckford, William (1709-70), of Fonthill, Wilts', The history of Parliament online

Frances Sands, 2012
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