home improvement ideas from the rich and famous

***William Beckford (1760-1844) was once the wealthiest man in England. Wherever he travelled he was accompanied by his personal doctor, cook, valet, baker, two dogs, three footmen, 24 musicians and a Spanish dwarf.

image found here

It was said that for one trip to Portugal, he even took with him a flock of sheep in order to improve the view from his window. Wherever he stayed, he supplied his own bed, cutlery, crockery and wallpaper.

Vintage wallpaper found here

He also appears to have been a paedophile. (I’m not condoning the behaviour, just reporting a sad, strange, interesting and possibly wasted life)

By the time he died at the venerable age of 84, he had built the loftiest domestic residence in the world, had assembled a virtual harem of boys, had his own militia to protect his Fonthill estate of 6,000 acres, had written the first Oriental-Gothic horror novel in English literature, and had become the most scandalous connoisseur of hedonism in the modern world.

Fonthill Abbey ceilings found here

Beckford received a brilliant education, and was widely learned in French, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, philosophy, law, literature and physics by the age of 17. His private piano teacher was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — at least that is the legend, too romantic to be discouraged.

piano students found here

When this self-styled Caliph was 19, he fell in love with the Hon William Courtenay, later 3rd Viscount and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old and regarded as one of the most beautiful boys in England. Beckford and Courtenay saw each other frequently for nearly six peaceful years.

William Courtenay found here

But in 1784, a visitor to Powderham claimed to have heard some “strange goings on” in Courtenay’s bedroom, with Beckford apparently in bed with the lad. Soon the newspapers started circulating rumours about the country squire and his “Kitty,” as the beautiful Courtenay was effeminately dubbed. Beckford and Courtenay were forced to separate to avoid further reprisal.

The scandal of 1784 was partly fabricated or at least exaggerated by Courtenay’s vindictive uncle Lord Loughborough, and we cannot be sure that specific sexual acts took place; but the general charge was almost certainly true.

Laughing Lord Loughborough found here

Upon his eventual return to England, Beckford shielded himself behind an eight mile long, twelve foot high wall topped by iron spikes, surrounding his estate (it was also built because he loved animals, and wanted to keep out hunters). He imported a dwarf to be his doorkeeper (and with whom he shared the pornography occasionally sent by Franchi from London), an abbé from France as spiritual advisor (and also as tolerant confidant concerning boy-troubles), a physician from Italy, and a harem of boy-servants for diversion, some picked up in England.

More paintings by Velazquez here

His household of young male servants were all given revealing gay nicknames: “there is pale Ambrose, infamous Poupee, horrid Ghoul, insipid Mme Bion, cadaverous Nicobuse, the portentous dwarf, frigid Silence, Miss Long, Miss Butterfly, Countess Pox, Mr Prudent Well-Sealed-up, The Monkey, The Turk, and others.

“Butterfly Boy” by Jerome Leibling found here

His exclusion from society was compensated for by the transformation of Fonthill Abbey into a Gothic cathedral to rival nearby Salisbury Cathedral. With the help of the leading architect of the day, James Wyatt, he raised a tower that was nearly 300 feet high.

By the 1820s, Beckford had spent so much money on Fonthill that he was forced to mortgage it. In 1823 he sold it to a gunpowder maker for nearly five million dollars. He then bought an estate near Bath and built what he called Lansdown Baghdad, with a much shorter tower. Then in his late sixties, he became respectably eccentric, rather than scandalously debauched, until his death.

Fonthill Abbey found here

Beckford’s personality still remains enigmatic, even for his modern biographers. “He was,” in the opinion of Alistair Sutherland, “as much a martyr as Wilde, and almost certainly a more interesting and civilised man.” He was immensely intelligent as well as a hedonist, a serious artist as well as a social rebel, and more honest than eccentric.

***Excerpted from the web page of Rictor Norton found here

Published in: on March 21, 2011 at 7:16 am  Comments (44)  
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44 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I love the pic of Butterfly Boy.

    • Isn’t he adorable?

      • Absolutely!

  2. From a great distance, paedophilia looks like an amusing peccadillo. Until you remember that a % of abused boys turn into paedophiles themselves. I wonder how many of today’s young boys are being abused by “descendants” of those eccentrics from centuries ago.

    • I could never think of paedophilia as an amusing peccadillo

  3. I think this 19th century “Becks” is far more interesting than the 21st Century celebrity Becks.

    • And he didn’t come with a frowning stick thin wife!

  4. He can keep all his frivolity. I would like to take those piano lessons though. Or at least pretend to take the lessons.

    • Yes, what an incredible opportunity

  5. Wherever he stayed, he supplied his own bed, cutlery, crockery and wallpaper.

    I travel with my own bottle of hot sauce and my friend always takes along his own pillow.

    • Hot sauce? What brand MJ?

  6. supporting the arts never looked more engaging! must find out where they got that piano!

    • I just tried to investigate for you daisyfae but I’m having trouble loading the site. I found it at Wayne’s Nude Musicians, the link is beneath the photo

  7. He sounds a bit like Michael Jackson.
    I have to get myself a Spanish dwarf …

  8. “Oriental-Gothic horror novel”

    Wow,talk about your niche genres.

  9. Those two girls at the piano, eh!!!!!!! To think I used to get excited at the thought of Ferranti and Teicher – but then I WAS a complicated little lad!!!!!!!

  10. He took his own wallpaper? Was it ready-pasted, or did he have to do it himself?

    • Haha…. good point!

  11. …sometimes I wonder what these persons would do if they don t have all that money…

    Im on my way to buy an antique Mahjong set.
    pricey! but play with style and with an original set will be nice.

    • Will you post a photo on your blog?

      • …if I buy it, possibly

  12. I know I will hate to ask but what was the dwarf’s job???

    • He was the door-keeper and pornography-sharer

  13. I think I saw that guy on a plane once…
    the flight was delayed half an hour because he kept insisting his Spanish dwarf was carry-on…

    • Haha… that earns you ‘comment of the day’

  14. Excellent stuff. Rictor Norton’s site is a goldmine of fascinating information isn’t it?

    • Yes it is, I only discovered it by googling William Beckford’s name

  15. Isn’t it marvellous what an English aristocratic upbringing can produce. It made us the country we are today.

  16. I read he sold it for 300,000 pounds – were you converting into today’s value? Shame so little of Fonthill remains, especially the incredible list of artworks and literature that he filled it with.

    Fascinating stuff

    The King

    • No, the conversion is a direct quote from Rictor Norton’s site. Have you been to Fonthill Your Majesty? I’d like to go there one day. Perhaps in 2012, via Scotland?

      • Sounds like a plan. Perhaps ‘Corset Fonthill’?

        The King

  17. What an interesting blog you have here, myra. One of my Open University courses was on this period and – having read this here – I am not surprised that Beckford was missed from the syllabus.

  18. I like the idea of travelling with a flock of sheep to improve the view from your window. Not much help though if you were confronted by a nuclear power plant.

    Glad to see the piano students finally found the perfect use for their incompetent piano teacher. And if he protested, a quick jab of the stiletto would stop him moving.

  19. I find Spanish dwarves to be untrustworthy. The Czech ones are better.

    • I’ll bear that in mind when I’m hiring

  20. You should really have a History Channel Special

    • Can you put in a good word for me Malach?

  21. Yeesh, the paedophile eccentric who made notable (questionable?) contributions to history. It’s always the weird ones. 😉

  22. …the loftiest domestic residence in the world.

    It’s a good thing he didn’t give that money to the poor and needy. They would have just wasted it on stupid things.

    …as much a martyr as Wilde.

    I don’t recall Wilde molesting children. No martyr, he.

  23. Spaniard dwarfs? Double the duplicity, half the size! Perhaps I’d have a whole militia of vicious and crafty Spanish dwarfs to protect my villa, if I could only achieve the impossible task of assuring their loyalty. Oh, and I’d need a villa too.

  24. It’s good to know the wealthy have healthy pursuits and don’t squander their money.

  25. I travel in a somewhat similar fashion except I have three Spanish dwarves instead of three footmen, and no footmen because I’m not sure what they do. I’m guessing they do something with the foot, but don’t quote me on that.

  26. What’s better than roses on Denny’s piano?

    Tulips on his organ.


  27. Ideas are fine but who among us has this kind of money?

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