Published: December 11, 2001
William Beckford, 1760-1844:
By Karla Klein Albertson
NEW YORK CITY – By necessity, any study of William Beckford (1760-1844) must divide its focus between two aspects – the man and his collection. The flamboyant personal legend of the collector has tended to overshadow the objects that he gathered and, in many cases, had created as a patron.
Biographies tended to focus on his fascination with the three classical B’s engendered by his Eighteenth Century Grand Tour experience: collecting baubles, designing buildings, and admiring handsome boys. Complacent readers feel they know the man without coming away with any hard facts about what he owned, although most people remember his construction of the doomed Fonthill Abbey.
The current exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture “William Beckford, 1760-1844: ,” which continues through January, has maintained this dual focus with a fine balance.
While the displays at the museum concentrate on objects and architecture, the accompanying catalog of the same title, edited by Derek Ostergard, has room to explore in depth the relationship between this larger-than-life figure and what he bought.
While the Eighteenth Century may seem remote from our contemporary antiques market, the more we read about Beckford, the more we recognize a mania for acquisition that still exists in many obsessed collectors today. Everyone knows someone whose life is collecting, who insists on showing off every new treasure, who has the money to outmaneuver everyone else in the gallery.
Beckford was fortunate enough to be blessed not only with money but also with the aesthetic eye to know what to spend it on. That eye – taken from George Romney’s 1781 portrait of the young Englishman – graces the front of the exhibition catalog.
Ellenor M. Alcorn, a former Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, curator who wrote several important entries in the exhibition catalog, attempts to explain his motivation: “He was really a romantic – he was interested in feeling the objects, in his emotional response to them. And that’s what he writes about in his letters – how these objects made him feel. He’s not what we think of as an antiquarian: analyzing and assessing objects to place them in a historical context. Beckford wanted these objects to thrill him.”
While many collectors share the desire to acquire, few have the extraordinary resources Beckford had at his disposal. His income came from Jamaican sugar plantations, which – like today’s fortunes – was subject to ups and downs in the economy.
Derek Ostergard points out, “As far as wealth is concerned, he may be not unlike certain people in the last few decades whose wealth we have found out were more smoke and mirrors than anything else. I think, he was someone who owed money constantly to people; he wasn’t a great member of the landed aristocracy who had rent rolls coming in. A lot of his wealth was a myth, and he spent a phenomenal amount.”
In many ways, Beckford emerges as one of those can’t-help-myself collectors everyone has known. The curator continues, “All these objects permitted him to have a life, he was always down commissioning a new piece – it gave him something to do. It was not so much an urge to create, it was an urge to fill spaces around him, to have something to do with his life when there were great moments of immense loneliness. When you read Beckford’s letters to Gregorio Franchi, he’s always talking about how he has moved things around. He had a great aesthetic sensibility – there’s no doubt about that – but these objects gave him something to do.”
Another motivation that many can sympathize with is the fact that Beckford did not want to keep what mom and dad had around the house. The son of Alderman William Beckford and the aristocratic Maria Hamilton Beckford, young William grew up on the Fonthill estate in Wiltshire, which his father had purchased in 1744.
After the remodeled Elizabethan structure on the site was destroyed by fire in 1755, the senior Beckford built and furnished a new home in the Palladian manner, later referred to as Fonthill Splendens. Although his son worked on updating and redecorating the house after his father’s death in 1770, he eventually had the decades-old structure demolished in 1807, while work on Fonthill Abbey was underway.
Ostergard notes, “He didn’t really inherit a great ducal collection like many families of the first rank in England, who had literally centuries of accumulation to deal with. Sometimes when you’re raised with so much, you take a lot of it for granted. Because the house had burned down, he had the things his father had commissioned in the style of the time, and 30 years later they looked dated, so he got rid of a lot of his father’s things from Fonthill Splendens.” This familiar story may evoke a been-there, done-that reaction from modern collectors.
Influenced by what he had seen in his extensive travels abroad and contacts with other art patrons of the period, Beckford began to gather a series of exquisite small objects, the display of which is well-suited to Bard’s limited space.
For the installation, Ostergard has chosen deeply saturated purples, blues, and scarlets that set them off well: “A lot of these objects – when you first see them – are rather petite. But in spite of being small, they’re very aggressive objects in terms of their profile and their ornament; he was a master ornamentalist. I felt if one showed these works against pale colors, they would look even more aggressive, and that’s not what I wanted. I wanted them to be seen in something of the context they would have been seen at Fonthill Abbey, so I chose these very dense, rich colors. And we have very low lighting on the walls or none at all. The objects are in sort of a fog. If you think of the size of Fonthill, the scale and the richness of it, those objects were never seen in really bright intense light.”
Ellenor Alcorn agrees, “I think it is important to pull these objects together by seeing them in one room, all at the same time – you get a sense of his taste. There are some surprises: a lot of the objects are smaller in scale than you might suspect. They’re very luscious and rich, but they’re small; it’s a fussy taste. It was not big sculptural material that he was drawn to.”
While the influences on Beckford’s taste are explored at great length in essays by various authorities in the 450-page catalog, Ostergard emphasizes, “Paris is really where Beckford begins to refine his eye because he’s trying to emulate the sophisticated Parisian collectors who are collecting Dutch cabinet pictures, lacquer, mounted Asian porcelains.” Anne Eschapasse’s essay, “William Beckford in Paris, 1788-1814: Le Faste Solitaire” treats this period in detail.
The objects chosen for the exhibition emphasize, among other things, Beckford’s fondness for carved hardstone objects, an historical passion that dates back to the Pharaohs. Alcorn points out, “There are two aspects to that. Precious and semiprecious stones with gold mounts are in the tradition of Renaissance princely collecting – and he certainly aspired to establish himself in that model.
“But also, since he was interested in the Arabic world and had traveled so much in Portugal, he must have seen a lot of mounted precious objects there – rock crystal, Mughul pieces. He didn’t buy so much when he was traveling in Portugal, more when he was in Paris, but he must have seen those things and been taken by them.”
Visitors are also struck by the fact that collecting was never confined by Beckford to the antique. While he would acquire objects from earlier ages, such as an Italian rock crystal casket or reliquary, circa 1600, which may have belonged to the Borghese family, he also was patron to many contemporary jewelers and silversmiths, who created new objects to his design. One example is a pair of silver gilt candlesticks by Paul Storr, 1800, cataloged by Alcorn: “They’re very closely based on a French wood candlestick design that was probably made around 1700. So 100 years later Beckford copied them in silver and called them his ‘Holbein’ candlesticks.”
Alcorn also cataloged a casket of Beckford’s own inspiration, the Franchi box, which was probably made as a gift around 1820 for his companion and purchasing agent Gregorio Franchi. The silver gilt chest, created in England by John Harris, is covered with patterns reminiscent of Arabic calligraphy and contains a secret comparment with a love motto in French. Of particular interest in the exhibition are a series of period illustrations of interiors, which allow us to place the furniture and decorative arts on display in their proper context.
While space limits the amount of time devoted to Beckford’s personality and peccadilloes, his over-the-top character and outrageous exploits makes the scholarly catalog a fascinating “read,” well worth $80 and the price of a sturdy bookstand. Published by Yale University Press, the volume – destined to become and important reference for the period – can be purchased through bookstores or directly from Bard at 212-501-3023.
In conclusion, Alcorn muses, “Who is the Twenty-First Century William Beckford in our society today? There must be someone we all know who was as flamboyant and over the top and spent as much money. I think the act of creating the setting and arranging the objects was the point for him. He was an impresario really. He loved the whirl of activity connected with making things – he was a force of nature.”
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