Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The fall of Fonthill Abbey

Quite literally. Google 'England's Folly' and the second result is Fonthill Abbey – also known as Beckford's Folly. William Thomas Beckford, called by Lord Byron 'England's wealthiest son', inherited a vast fortune after the death of his father in 1770. Precocious yet eccentric and bisexual, he received piano lessons (aged five) from Mozart, aged nine. However, the young Beckford was more interested in art and architecture and would indulge both passions throughout his life, becoming a knowledgeable art dealer and 'builder of follies'. He also wrote a classic Gothic novel, Vathek, in French, aged twenty one, in a couple of days.

As well as inheriting what in today's money would be £110 million, he received an estate at Fonthill in Wiltshire. Beckford developed the land, building grottos, a boathouse and stables as well as Fonthill Abbey (described by Pevsner as 'the most prodigious romantic folly in England'), designed by Gothic architect James Wyatt. Completion of the Abbey became an obsession with Beckford, with his five hundred labourers working day and night shifts to get it finished. By all accounts, Wyatt was largely absent much of the time, leaving Beckford in command. When finally completed it was one of the most extraordinary buildings in England. Beckford lived there like Citizen Kane in his Xanadu, alone for fifteen years with his antiquities and art collection.

By 1825 Beckford had run out of money and was forced to sell the estate. He sold up in good time; two years later the abbey collapsed in a storm, a combination of shoddy, rushed workmanship, Wyatt's neglect and Beckford's grandiose plans. Nothing today remains of the abbey.

If you're in the area, there's a 'delightful' walk around the parkland beside Fonthill Bishop and Fonthill Gifford, which includes walking through this fine (habitable) archway, ascribed to Inigo Jones.

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