In the first of our series on great collectors of rare books, we introduce William Beckford. His grandfather — Peter Beckford — prospered magnificently from the West Indian trade in slaves and sugar. William’s father, William Thomas Beckford, became an eminent politician. However his son, also William Thomas, cut another path. He set out to enjoy his family’s wealth and became known as an aesthete; great homes were built for him including Fonthill Abbey by Thomas Wyatt… and these he filled with great books.
So you want to get rich? Nowadays I suppose you would go into financial services, maybe hedge funds, that is, if you can master the higher mathematics and algorithms required to make a go in such a rarified world. The way to riches, however has not always been so abstract; in the middle ages wool was king, and I mean actual wool, not wool as some commodity traded faraway in an exchange. In the sixteenth century the spice trade was the way to make your fortune, bringing exotic scents and flavours half way around the world. Later, in the nineteenth century, Britain witnessed the rise of the “Beerage” — the great brewing families providing for the industrial masses. However, if you wanted to get ahead from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth, the most assured means was that marriage made in hell – slaving and sugar, and the product of this, the great plantations in the West Indies, was the perfect example; riches beyond compare.
Among plantation owners, the Beckford family was more minted than most, owning no less than twenty plantations. Upon the death of the founder of this empire, Peter, the estates passed to his son, William Thomas, an eminent politician who became Lord Mayor of London. On his death, everything passed to his son, William, our William, a man with very different interests. A taste of what was to come was the party he threw when he reached the age of 21. It cost £40,000 in 1781, equivalent today to over £6,000,000!
A keen traveller, when passing through Germany he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria so grand was his entourage. All the time whilst on the road, he keenly observed the grand palaces and abbeys and it was this influence that informed the great home he had built for him by Thomas Wyatt, Fonthill Abbey. This extravaganza reflected Beckford’s love of the Gothic and he proceeded to fill it with all manner of treasures including a vast library of books.