Shop till you drop
William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent Edited by Derek E Ostergard. Yale University Press, 2002. 448pp. £50.
The exhibition it accompanies is at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London SE21 until 14 April Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Sir John Soane, is a fit setting for an exhibition on William Beckford, the legendary 'Caliph of Fonthill', millionaire and polymath. In 1786 Beckford commissioned the 23-yearold Soane to design a picture gallery for his family seat, Fonthill Splendens in Wiltshire;
it was never built but drawings show similarities to Soane's Dulwich masterpiece.
The exhibition concentrates on Beckford's fine arts collection. It fills the narrow west wing, arranged in a series of small rooms painted crimson and purple - colours favoured by Beckford for draperies at Fonthill.
George Romney's full-length portrait of Beckford ensures a sensational start, and narrative panels in each room take visitors through Beckford's life - the travels, his Gothic novel Vatheck, written in French when he was 22, and the homosexual scandal which drove him into exile, putting an end to ambitions of a glittering political career.
Beckford had knowledge, taste and money - in auction houses he was known as 'Mr Pay-Well'. Beauty, skilful workmanship and illustrious provenance (particularly when Royal) were what mattered to him. He set no great store on antiquity per se and regularly commissioned new pieces from celebrated craftsmen of the time, or had antiques remounted to designs by himself and his gifted companion and agent Gregorio Franchi.
Connoisseurs will welcome the chance to see so much Beckfordiana grouped together, instead of scattered throughout museums and National Trust properties. Those new to Beckford will be carried along by the strong accompanying narrative and items of more general interest: charming water-colours by Beckford's drawing master John Robert Cozens, sketches of Fonthill by the young Turner, and rarities such as the occasional exquisitely carved spoon in hardstone or agate (witness to Beckford's insistence on perfection).
Lack of space, and difficulty in securing loans, may be responsible for a failure to convey the importance of Beckford's painting collection. The National Gallery has 28 major works once owned by Beckford; the artists include Raphael, Titian, and Perugino.
The catalogue is a magnificent book prefaced by 16 specially commissioned essays on Beckford and his collection. Timothy Mowl's biographical summary gives the flavour of the man in his opening paragraph:
'It is unlikely that as a result of 'modulating' his voice 'in the most opposite tones' Beckford endeared himself to a lioness in a Paris zoo to such an extent that the keeper invited him into the cage to play with her claws.'
True or false, Beckford lived unscathed in Paris during the bloodiest years of the French Revolution and departed on the warmest of terms with the ruling Jacobins, laden with treasures of guillotined aristocrats.
David Watkin illuminates the period by drawing intriguing comparisons between Beckford and his contemporaries, Soane and the furniture designer Thomas Hope: three complex, gifted individuals caught in the grip of collecting mania. But Soane and Hope, like Horace Walpole (loathed by Beckford), opened their houses to the public; Beckford was a recluse, and the public had no chance to gape at Fonthill Abbey until it was put up for sale in 1823, two years before it collapsed.
Bet McLeod on Beckford as a collector quotes generously from his letters: 'I see from the buying mania which dominates you that we are well on the way to ruin, ' Beckford writes to Franchi. 'Oh my God, so many things! I trust to the Saint that they are not junk and unworthy of this sanctuary and refuge of good taste.' On the other hand, William Hauptman could have made more use of Beckford's writings in describing his visits to Switzerland when he was at his most impressionable - the prototypical Romantic hero intoxicated by Alpine sublimity.
Sidney Blackmore provides an excellent chapter on Beckford's various London houses, of which only 100 Harley Street is still standing. He ends with a reminder that the faithful Franchi is buried in St John's Wood but refrains from mentioning Beckford's neglect of his friend when he was dying.
Both the exhibition and the catalogue provide an illuminating encounter with an ever intriguing man, and it seems churlish to end on a negative note. But given the cost of the book, the careless proof reading is disappointing, and the consignment of the index to a website unpardonable. An ominous portent.