William Beckford

The 1844 portrait of William Beckford on his Deathbed by Willes Maddox. Image credit: Beckford's Tower & Museum.

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The portrait was painted for Beckford’s daughter, Susan, Duchess of Hamilton four years after her father’s death. It sits within a rosewood case, surrounded by brass and giltwood decorations that match those used on Beckford’s coffin. Previously owned by the British designer and academic Bernard Nevill (1930-2019), it sold at Christie’s online sale The Collector on February 10 for £13,000 (estimated £15,000-20,000), the purchase price of £16,250 met by the V&A Purchase Grant Fund (£8125) and the Art Fund (£7000).

William Beckford

A detail of the portrait William Beckford on his Deathbed by Willes Maddox. Image credit: Beckford's Tower & Museum.

Telling Beckford’s complex story presents challenges for a 21st century museum. A bisexual writer, composer and perhaps the greatest collector of his age, his huge wealth came from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade.

Beckford’s Tower and Museum is currently under-going a transformation as part of a project to repair the Tower and re-imagine the museum with the input of the British Jamaican community.

Beckford’s Tower

Beckford’s Tower and Museum in Bath. Image credit: Tom Burrows.

The museum, in deciding to secure the picture, was swayed by the knowledge that the proceeds of the sale would be used to set up a charitable foundation in Nevill’s name.

Claire Dixon, director of Museums for Bath Preservation Trust said “We understand that objects relating to William Beckford have a sensitive and sometimes challenging impact. At the Tower we are committed to providing an open, transparent and honest history, that visitors can then engage with and respond to. 

She added “Understanding how the money was going to be used was an important part of our decision process, when considering whether or not to bid for the portrait.”