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QUITE simply, this is a magnificent book and is my choice for Book of the Year. Richly illustrated and produced as the catalogue for an equally splendid exhibition held earlier in the year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it describes the life and times of “England’s wealthiest son”. Using the privilege of great wealth derived from the sugar plantations of Jamaica, William Beckford amassed one of the finest private collections, particularly rich in the decorative arts, of the late 18th and early 19th century centuries.

Beckford, the bisexual boy, the arrogant man, the shrewd and passionate collector, the patron, the builder, the traveller in France, Switzerland and Portugal, the gardener and the man who commanded the attention of his generation, is developed in 16 scholarly chapters that precede the catalogue entries, with highly readable discussions, separated for the general reader and for the specialist, of some 175 of the finest paintings, engravings, and lithographs that were once part of Beckford’s legendary collection.

In his introduction, Derek Ostergard, associate director of the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, comments on Beckford’s tendency to both erase and embroider his past, and in the first chapter Timothy Mowl sets the biographical tone for Beckford, who showed neither emotional nor aesthetic consistency, by saying: “In one person Beckford combined Wordsworth’s appreciation of the integrity of peasant simplicity, Byron’s confident amorality, Shelley’s revolutionary sympathies and a modicum of Keats’ gift for negative capability.

That he achieved nothing lasting in any of these four personae is unimportant because he was rich. By his intensely individual lifestyle he created a mood... becoming, long before his death, an icon of defiance for most hesitant fellow Romantics.”
Beckford’s hobbies were the fine and decorative arts, boys and architecture, and the chapters include discussions on Fonthill Splendens, the remarkable house his father built, which Beckford loved and then demolished, and Fonthill Abbey; the design and construction of that astonishing and fantastical Gothic Revival edifice that was Beckford’s greatest single achievement, the construction and furnishing of which took 25 years of his life and vast amounts of his fortune, branding him as a recluse and a bizarre eccentric.

This catalogue’s main thrust is with Beckford, “this wayward child of fortune”, as a collector of the decorative arts. In her chapter, A Celebrated Collector, Bet McLeod looks at Beckford’s lifelong enchantment with small scale, exquisitely crafted works of art; his anxiety about quality is evident in his letters, “I trust to the Saint that they are not junk and unworthy of this sanctuary and refuge of Good Taste.” Andriana Turpin’s essay on Beckford and furniture charts Beckford’s growth from a patron of contemporary neoclassical furniture and of boulle furniture in the late 18th century to a collector of 17th century pieces during the Regency period.

Metalwork and the mounting of hardstones and porcelain were highly important interests, and Michael Snodin has built on earlier research to discuss the largest body of objects that have retained their Beckford provenance. Beckford’s remarkable holdings in rare lacquer, begun when he lived in pre-revolutionary Paris, are detailed by Oliver Impey and John Whitehead, who have reconstructed the elusive history of the major sales of the period.

Among the first of the great connoisseurs to collect Asian and Islamic art while breaking with the taste of his contemporaries, this book tells us how Beckford bought and commissioned pieces... anyone wondering how to spend a collector’s fortune today might find Beckford’s methods educational.

This dazzling book is highly recommended for its importance to the history of decorative arts of one of the greatest collectors of his time and is a vivid portrait of Beckford as seducer, collector, architect and writer. Not Princess Diana or John Lennon, nor Isaac Newton in a wig; instead I nominate William Beckford as a contender for the Great Britons.