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William Beckford

It is the testimonial of this visitor that stands above all the rest, as much for the literary qualities of his tribute as for the inspiration he brought to the fields of architecture and stained glass.

William Beckford (1760-1844) visited Batalha in June 1794, during his second stay in Portugal. In contrast to Murphy, Beckford had inherited what was England’s then greatest fortune at the age of 10, due to the premature death of his father. As an only son, he was raised in the stately home of Fonthill, by a domineering mother and private tutors. At an early age, he learned to speak and write in various languages, play the piano, sing and compose, draw and paint, as well as, at the age of twenty-two, having written the first Oriental short story in the long literary history of Romanticism. As a young boy, he spent much of his time in the pastoral surroundings of Fonthill, enjoying life to the full and acquiring a particular interest in landscaping.

After his Grand Tour, between 1777 and 1779, Beckford would fall in love with the young William Courtenay, who would come to obsess him after the fateful visit he made with his wife to the young man’s family’s property, Powderham Castle, in 1784, when the youth was just 16. He was looking forward to being granted the title of Baron of Fonthill and a political career in the Parliament. Both were denied as a result of the rumours of his affair with Courtenay. The accusation made by Lord Loughborough, Courtenay’s uncle, which never got to court, is these days believed to have been motivated less by moral outrage than by the crush his wife had on Beckford and resentment for the position offered to the son of a politician who had, at times, dared to confront the King himself. Independently of these circumstances, Beckford and his wife, Lady Margaret Hamilton, who stuck by him courageously, were ostracised by English society, forcing them to go live in Switzerland, where their two daughters were born. Unfortunately, Lady Margaret would die of miliary fever following the second birth, leaving Beckford to his fate of restless spirit during the next ten years. It was during this period that he came to live, on two separate occasions, in Portugal.

William Beckford would make his first acquaintance with Portugal in 1788. The favourable impression left by this first visit would result in a stay of about a year. As he got to know the country better – which received him as best it could (the hostility of the Ambassador to the British crown in Lisbon hindered a more open reception by the Portuguese court, at this time) – it began to feel a part of him. Twenty-two years later he could still be compelled to write “the memories of Portugal are those closest to my heart.” He returned in 1793 to leave again only in 1795. In June 1794, he visited the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha. He would already without doubt have heard of Batalha in England, and most certainly come across the serialised instalments published by James Murphy, to which he subscribed. Curiously, there is no mention of his visit to the Monastery of Batalha in his diary, which would inspire his writing of Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha forty years later, one of the works which would elevate him to the higher echelons of literary merit of his time. In this small book he recounts the tale of his arrival at Batalha on the night of June 8, his reception by the monastic community and his stay, which came to an end late in the morning of the following day. It is said he returned to Alcobaça with great reluctance, accompanied by his entourage in an eye-catching convoy. And without much ado he would be back in Batalha, on June 10, crossing the desolate plains of Aljubarrota on his Arab horse.

For those unfamiliar with its context, this story seems at first rather far-fetched or just plain fantasy. These are the difficulties inherent in accurately assessing the complex personality of Beckford. Other accounts tell us how much the Monastery of Batalha impressed him – and not just the building itself. It is more than likely that he had to jog his memory with the aid of Murphy’s drawings, (who he called ‘that tiresome architect’) and the diary of his voyage, published in 1795, as well as this author’s own translation of Friar Luís de Sousa. However, the description he makes of the unfolding of his visit is not sufficiently explained away by his having had access to these eyewitness accounts alone. His version of events – which manages to be much more than that due to its poetic quality – of his first visit to Batalha is steeped in the vivid recollection of the architectural space, furthermore in perfect accord with the day-to-day of the resident community at that time. Beckford’s text to this day is recognised as a unique eyewitness account of this extraordinary way of life, which, as we shall see, its author would try to import to Fonthill, helping us to understand the workings of the monastic nucleus as it was lived in the middle of the 16th century, since erased following the demolition carried out during the restoration work of the 18th century. Beckford’s second visit to Batalha, on the other hand, has been identified as a fictional elaboration on the texts of Murphy and Friar Luís de Sousa. Its intention is to commit to the page the voyage this intrepid gentleman wanted, at the age of 75, to offer himself, some thirteen years after the failed pipedream of a Gothic Fonthill. Taken on these terms, the narrative of the second visit is as truthful as the first, in the sense of their being one and the same.

It may well be that James Wyatt, a subscriber to Murphy’s writing, as was Beckford, suggested to him that he visit Batalha, during his second stay in Portugal. It would also come as no surprise if he had seen some drawings of the Monastery done by another of his clients and Murphy’s patron, William Conyngham, as before Murphy’s first instalment even came out, the construction of the central tower, octagonal in shape, of Lee Priory was directly inspired by the old pinnacle of the Founder’s Chapel, without his having yet visited Batalha. Similarly, it can be seen in the project Beckford commissioned in 1796 from Wyatt, architect to King George III of England, after more than a decade in exile which nonetheless failed to erase the whiff of scandal he endured after Powderham. In his kingdom of Fonthill, where his father had constructed a grand neoclassic mansion, he began to build a neo-gothic structure which would not stop growing till 1812, absorbing not just the old mansion, which ended up being completely demolished, but also all of Beckford’s time and fortune. The only reference we have of a first version of the central tower, eight-sided and adorned with its flying buttresses, is thanks to a watercolour which clearly showed the inspiration of the Founder’s Chapel, though it collapsed during a storm in 1800. It is seen again, moreover, in another work of Wyatt’s, in the decade of 1790 – Cassiobury. In the reconstructed tower four stained glass windows were to be installed that copied works from Batalha, the ‘Batalha windows’. Also in the expansion of Fonthill the genealogy and heraldic symbols of the House of Lancaster were to be incorporated, from which Beckford was increasingly convinced he was descended.

And so grew the legend of a man whose extravagance, taste and artistic temperament would shape the arts in England, through the sheer grandiosity of Fonthill Abbey’s exterior and interiors, accessible to just the select few that found Beckford’s favour. The approximately twenty years than Beckford lived in Fonthill Abbey would nonetheless be marked by loneliness; he fraternised only with his waiting staff, artists and some religious refugees from revolutionary France to whom he gave shelter. High walls, which he ordered to be built around the property and supposedly were to stop hunters trespassing and poaching, only added to the mystery, isolation and malicious gossip.

At the beginning of the 1820s, Beckford began to have serious problems maintaining Fonthill Abbey, whether through the decline in profits from his sugar plantations in Jamaica, or due to the scale of his pet project, which resulted in his putting the abbey and all its extraordinary contents up for sale. The auction, which was to take place in 1822 failed to materialise, after the unexpected purchase of the entire property by a new millionaire, with not much time to spare.

Beckford then moved to Bath, where he saw through the last two, more sedate decades of his life, once again passionate about neoclassic architecture, continuing to collect rare books, paintings and decorative arts, riding his horse every day and working on his gardens with that natural flair he had already shown in Fonthill and in Monserrate, Sintra, during his third stay in Portugal (1798-99). He also built a new tower, Lansdown Tower, where one can still experience his legacy and where he wrote down the memories of his trip to Alcobaça and Batalha.