Another installment of dining with history. Today four silver second course dishes from the extravagant service commissioned by the richest commoner in England, William Thomas Beckford (1759-1844), kindred spirit.

Lot 65, L14314

by Dr. Jeffrey Lant

Author’s program note. The catalog entry for Lot 65 in Sotheby’s 23 January, 2014  “Of Royal And Noble Descent” sale was arid and sharply descriptive in the usual  fashion:

“Four Georgian second course dishes, one Smith & Sharp, one John Robins, two  Philip Rundell for Rundell, Bridge & Rundell, London, respectively 1781, 1809 and  1823.

circular, engraved with a coat of arms below applied gadroon borders.

10 1/4 in. diameter 2786 gr. 89 oz. 12 dwt.”

All standard, nothing to elevate your blood pressure. Then the facts that did the  trick for these were part of the lavish commission ordered by William Thomas  Beckford, the wonder, the envy of England, inheriting as he did, just 10 years old,  over one million pounds sterling, the equivalent of over 117 million pounds in today’s  money. At once the greatest race of the 18th century began, between an  imaginative young man with money to burn and a colossal fortune that dwarfed  even his breathtaking ability to spend it… at least for a time.

The music.

William Beckford was many things… visionary, aesthete, connoisseur, with a  plethora of talents, skills, abilities and perfect, unrivalled taste. Taste that he shows  in the music I have selected to accompany this article, the “Arcadian Pastoral”. Now  the fact that he was a composer of elegance and finesse is not the wonder.  Many cultivated gentlemen of this time of radiant enlightenment were that and produced  their share of limpid, even beguiling notes accordingly.

What makes Beckford’s composition still worth the listening is that he had both talent  and the instructor par excellence, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a felicitous pairing  for even this scion of unrivalled Croesus. The result, of course, isn’t Mozart. Nothing  but the inimitable original could be that… but the result is good, pleasing to the ear, a  work one calls nice, not bad, really not bad at all, (as you can see in any search engine).

That description would have infuriated Beckford… and spurred him to work harder and  harder still to prove just how good he really was. But here he missed the point of  his astonishing life, for he was not destined to be known as a master of music… or of  painting… or architecture… or literature… or of any other of his broad range of achievements  and always workmanlike results. No, indeed. His genius was himself, a phenomenon  at once unique, unparalleled, without peer or equal. This was William Thomas Beckford,  and great England had never beheld such a creation as this… and never would again  to the general impoverishment of the people and their ability to dream and imagine.

Born into the plutocracy.

To understand  Beckford, you must understand his world, for he was a fortunate son  not of the upper gentry and titled nobility. No, indeed. His ancestors were the merchant  adventurers who made England the very byword of wealth, the object of every nimble  fingered thief and confidence man, including any number of marauders, dictators and  self-proclaimed generals with expensive tastes, high aspirations and an army readily  available with dreams of avarice and untrammeled plunder.

Beckford was precisely the kind of fellow whose capacious pockets they meant to pick if  Rule Britannia’s oceanic resources should ever waver for even a moment. Such people  lived at a level of stupendous excess, mind-blowing extravagance, lavish immoderation…  the way in which we’d all like to live, not to mention that their unending wealth went  untaxed, social nirvana indeed.

How rich were they? Well, consider this comment from a visiting English aristocrat  when he first saw Thomas Jefferson’s always-in-process, never-quite-finished mansion Monticello.

“My horses live better than Mr. Jefferson,” he sniffed. And he was right , for England’s  countryside was littered with palaces not just grandiloquently named pretensions,  “Monticello”, indeed. There was nothing “little” about the world into which the Beckford  heir was born. It was as solid as the Bank of England — and slave labor — could  make it.

We don’t have to wonder what this world was like; the insightful pen of Jane Austen’s  genius makes it entirely apparent, particularly in her beloved favorite, “Mansfield Park”,  published in 1814. In it the source of Sir Thomas Bertram’s wealth is hinted at rather  than robustly disclosed.

“Estates”, it says. In the “West Indies”, it says, with the veil of obscurity thrown over  all the often troubling details, for even by Beckford’s early years slavery was already  a hot potato for England’s governing class, the less said the better, excused by the  glib response that, after all, all the great civilizations were based on slavery, particularly  those of Ancient Greece and Rome which constituted the models and basis for learning  of every young English gentleman.

Que voulez vous? What can one do about it?, and how is dear Lady Bertram and her  adorable pug?


If there were any justice in this world (there isn’t), the hero of this tale would be the  young heir’s piously unlamented father, William Beckford, Senior.  He was the very  essence of John Bull’s plutocracy, twice Lord Mayor of the City of London, a man of  turtle soup, the roast beef of Olde England, God Save the King, and the extensive  sugar plantations in Jamaica that coined money for a man who knew the value of  hard work and was of an entrepreneurial disposition… He did and he was.

One fact shines a bright light on his considerable popularity and political acumen.  It is reported that on one notable occasion six dukes, two marquises, twenty  three earls, four viscounts, and fourteen barons gathered to honor him, then fell to  demolishing a repast beyond Lucullan. It was gutling on a heroic scale, and upon its  belching conclusion the gentlemen of England uncinched their belts in honor of  Beckford, hip, hip, hurrah, God love ‘im!

Sadly, one senses the refined, sensitive heir didn’t much venerate his sire for all that  his monument graced the Guildhall. This is a not uncommon phenomenon. The first  generation begins the dirty business of grubbing for money. Money is the goal, the  aspiration, the very god for this generation. Such people are tenacious and keep every  penny ever earned. Such people say “Do you think money grows on trees?” and other  pointed aphorisms for the feckless and so they become notorious for getting their  money’s worth, and more.

The second, helped by the substantial parental leg-up of the first, ascends further  faster. They are determined to erase any trace of where their comfortable capital  derives. This would be Beckford Senior.

The third is thereby free to posture and preen as that most desirable of creatures, the  English gentleman, sustained by wealth that is called “old money” and used to gild  the already gilded lily. This most assuredly is William Thomas  Beckford, the very  acme of the genre, a many splendored thing, splendidly accoutered, perfectly turned  out, every solid gold crested button gleaming, a non-pareil of the first order… a man  who has everything but the knack for making money.

However, what did that matter when there was so very much of it as for Beckford  there surely was? And so he set about the unutterably fascinating, all consuming task  of living as a grand seigneur should live, summoning the purveyors of the best of  everything to provide for him, to serve him, to cater to and perfect him, thereby  enabling him to become the apogee of his wonderful, dazzling, awesome self.

And so he traveled to the best of places and met the best of people. People craved  the honor of his acquaintance especially if there was tangible benefit to be derived,  as there usually was. He was given a seat in Parliament, first at Wells (1784-1790),  then Hindon (1790-1795, then again from 1806-1820). Whether they got any  benefit from his election is doubtful, but they were no doubt proud and grateful  to add M.P. to his thinly lettered name and so enhance his worldly renown, the  most important thing in life, the only thing worth having, the thing beside which  all else paled, dull and profitless.

“Vathek”, “Beckford’s Folly”, renown written in perpetual ink and in transient stone.

Once he had this insight he began to live it. And so, just 26 years old he sat down and,  in French, wrote “”Vathek”, a Gothic novel. Like so many first books by young authors  this one was overwritten, too many words, too many characters, too many  misconceptions, and a plot line that went too many places all at once. Still, it offered  what only youth can offer… energy, unfettered imagination, boldness and a belief not  yet tarnished in love and miracles. Thus the reading public took this ungainly book to  its heart and has never forgotten it unlike so many better written books without a soul.  Thus Beckford gained his place in history… a place Fonthill Abbey secured forever.

Today Fonthill is just a place on a map, a handful of rocks in Wiltshire’s lovely  countryside. But in 1796 when construction began it was Beckford’s exuberant vision  of what living could be if only one was bold enough to dream. The result was Fonthill  Abbey, “Beckford’s Folly”, a place into which Beckford poured not just his money but his  yearning soul.

And because he was Beckford of England his pied a terre had to be the biggest, the  grandest, the most extravagantly appointed, the dernier cri in everything…  not  least a central tower that he insisted scrape the sky.

This first attempt to achieve this goal reached 300 feet and collapsed; the second also  reached 300 feet and collapsed. His third vainglorious attempt spewed its stones across  the countryside… This was the end of everything…the money, of course, had been frittered  away as heirs in the third generation will do.

He never did get his peerage and become Lord Beckford there was that unsavory  business with William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, just 10 years old when  Beckford met him and commenced the juiciest of scandals, so delightful for his many  envious detractors who saw the very hand of God in this comeuppance.    It all ate away at his patrimony… and his bright shining renown, now sadly tarnished.  And so it went until in 1844 he died in comparative obscurity… his fortune now just  80,000 pounds sterling; more than enough for most any man but not for this particular  man and the dreams which cost him so much.


Beckford’s silver service, opulent indeed as you may imagine, was bequeathed along  with so much else to his daughter Susan Euphemia (1786-1859). She married  Alexander Hamilton,10th Duke of Hamilton through whom these handsome pieces  in excellent condition have descended. They are now resident here in Cambridge,  a place of clever youth and young savants with esoteric interests. He would have  loved being here… as I do who will keep these plates in good order for the next  generation. And, yes, I shall most surely use them and invite my special friends  to do so, including the shade of William Thomas Beckford, kindred spirit.

About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is an avid collector, as well as author of 18 best selling business and marketing books, several ebooks and over one thousand online articles.


This author has published 72 articles so far. More info about the author is coming soon.

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