William Beckford was a social outcast. He married in 1783 when he was 23, but a homosexual scandal the following year put an end to his political ambitions and drove him temporarily abroad. He would have fared better in a more tolerant age.
A writer, linguist, musician, horticulturist, inspired art collector and bibliophile, he was an ardent animal-lover and opposed to blood sports in an age when animal rights were undreamed of. He was also a passionate builder and had the money - inherited from the sugar and slave trades - to indulge his passion. 'Some people drink to forget, ' he said. 'I do not drink, I build.'
Beckford's only surviving building, the Lansdown Tower in Bath, has been the subject of a recent heroic refurbishment carried out by the Bath Preservation Trust, with the Beckford Tower Trust and the Landmark Trust.
Three towers featured dramatically in Beckford's life. The first was the fictional tower built by the eponymous hero of his romantic extravaganza Vathek, an Oriental version of the Gothic novel, published in 1786. Beckford wrote Vathek (in French) when he was 21. The Caliph Vathek appears to have been based on his own overbearing and complex personality. One of Vathek's first deeds in the novel is to build an enormous tower:
'His pride arrived at its height, when having ascended, for the first time, the fifteen hundred stairs of his tower, Vathek cast his eyes below, and beheld men not larger than pismires; mountains than shells; and cities, than beehives.'
Beckford's first built tower was Fonthill Abbey, an ethereal Gothic structure designed by James Wyatt and built on the family estate in Wiltshire. The great central tower collapsed in 1825 because the contractor had cheated on the foundations.
Lansdown Tower in Bath was built when Beckford was in his mid 60s. Designed by a young Bath architect, Henry Goodridge, it was begun in the year that Fonthill collapsed and during its construction Beckford was still aiming for the skies. 'Higher', he thundered as the tower shot up in a matter of weeks. Goodridge obediently added a Classical lantern to the belvedere at the top of the square tower shaft, bringing the final height to 46.9m. The style is sombre and heavily Italianate - Beckford had by now lost interest in the Gothic of Fonthill - with a Grecian flourish added by the lantern, an adaptation of the Choragic monument of Lysicrates in Athens.
Beckford did not live in Lansdown Tower - his home was at Lansdown Crescent in the centre of Bath. The tower was situated two miles above the Crescent and he used it as a showcase for items from his outstanding collections of paintings and books. He would ride up the hill daily to admire his treasures and enjoy the view from the belvedere, not of his fellow citizens - Bath is concealed from the Tower behind a ridge of hills - but westwards towards the Welsh hills and Bristol Channel.
James Lees-Milne's 1976 monograph on William Beckford contains a vivid account on these excursions:
'Every morning of the year until a few weeks before his death, Beckford, after drinking a cup of chicken broth, would ride early to the tower. He was attended by a cavalcade, preceded by a grey-haired old steward on horseback, then two grooms with long hunting whips. Next rode Beckford with five or six dogs, and in the rear two more grooms with whips. The stamping and clattering of hooves was enough to rouse all the neighbours in the Crescent from their matutinal slumbers. But how much did Beckford care?
Not a jot. As soon as he reached the tower he would throw his horse's reins to a groom and rapidly climb to the Belvedere to admire the panorama.'
After Beckford's death, his daughter donated the Tower and adjacent land to the parish for use as a cemetery. The opulent scarlet drawing room on the entrance floor became a funerary chapel and a new opening was made to admit coffins. In 1931, a fire destroyed the chapel ceiling and the room was repaired as a double height space.
In 1960, the chapel was declared redundant and the parish sold the tower to Dr and Mrs L T Hilliard, who converted it into flats and were responsible for setting up the Beckford Tower Trust, dedicated to the preservation of the Tower 'for the public benefit'.
In 1993 the BTT merged with the Bath Preservation Trust which is now the sole Trustee. A few years ago, the tower was in such a ruinous state that it seemed impossible that anyone interested in Beckford would ever again savour the frisson of visiting the one building that retains so much of the man's compelling personality and history. It is thanks to the Bath Preservation Trust, and the subsequent involvement of the Landmark Trust which took a lease on the ground floor of the tower in 1998, that Lansdown Tower has not only been saved from ruin, but restored to a condition in which members of the public visit it, or even rent it for holidays.
Restoration fell into two phases. The first covered the restoration of the fabric of the Grade I-listed tower. This work, carried out by architect Caroe and Partners, was funded by a Heritage Lottery grant, matched by money raised through a public appeal, numerous donations, and the resources of the Bath Preservation Trust and BTT.
The worst damage was to the actual tower shaft. A steel beam inserted in 1931 beneath the floor of the belvedere was rusting and had damaged surrounding stone work, and one of the window grilles was about to collapse onto the roof below. The lantern had to be dismantled and reconstructed. It had developed a 15cm tilt, the eight cast iron columns had corroded and the supporting timber members were rotting. These were salvaged where possible and strengthened with new Douglas fir elements. During repairs carried out in the foundry, traces of gilding were discovered on the cast iron columns, cupola and decorative friezes concealed under five layers of paint. The gilding has been restored using 23.5-carat gold leaf, applied by 'the last gold beaters in the country'.
The impressive 154-step internal stairwell has been refitted with a new carpet, damask window curtains and a circular brass hand rail. The walls are painted a warm intestinal pink.
On open days, the public can visit the Beckford Tower Trust museum housed in refurbished rooms on the first floor, and richly stocked with Beckfordiana.
Architect Hawkes Edwards & Cave was appointed by Landmark to undertake the restoration of the ground floor and convert it into rentable accommodation. 'When we took it on it was very bleak, ' said William Hawkes. 'All sense of architectural coherence had been lost.' Although Landmark has saved countless historic buildings, it does not normally attempt to restore interiors to their original state: typical Landmark interiors are comfortable and sensitively restored but it was felt that this approach would fail to convey to visitors a true experience of living in Beckford's 'treasure chest'.
Landmark therefore decided to reinstate the rooms as nearly as possible to their condition in 1844, the year of Beckford's death.
Some of Goodridge's drawings and plans survived and the artist Willes Maddox had made lithographs of the rooms in Beckford's lifetime, as well as painting a watercolour of the scarlet drawing room.
These became primary works of reference for the refurbishment.
Visitors enter through a massive oak doorway; internal doors are made of Douglas fir; all the doors have arched tops as in Beckford's day. Only one of the original doors survives and this leads into the bathroom. Finishes in the arch-vaulted entrance lobby, largely undamaged by the fire of 1933, are believed to be largely original and the lobby window retains its plate glass and cast iron grille. (Beckford pioneered the use of plate glass. ) Landmark visitors proceed into a limestone-floored vestibule with a row of pilasters to the right, flanking the wall of the newly resplendent scarlet drawing room.
The vestibule also serves as the kitchen to the flat, with appliances slotted unobtrusively between the pilasters: a discreet but necessary descent from the sublime.
There was no precise evidence for the detailing of the drawing room. New windows had been opened up to the south when it was a chapel and these have been blocked up, restoring emphasis to the original narrow arched windows. The new ceiling could not be reinserted at its original height because the floor joists to the museum above were deeper than Goodridge's originals; the new floor partly cuts the tops of the arched window surrounds. There was also uncertainty over the form of the ceiling. Maddox Willes' watercolour showed a handsome, painted timber ceiling with recessed panelling between the beams, and a similarly splendid effect has been achieved in scarlet and gold painted softwood.
Wall hangings were carefully researched and a cotton moire with a watermarked sheen recreates the effect of the original moreen. A specially commissioned carpet imitates that of Beckford's time.
Similar care was taken over the refurbishment of the bedrooms and bathrooms, with much attention given to the repair of joinery detailing, ironmongery and the choice of an appropriate fireplace for the south bedroom. An oil-fired heating system was installed for the comfort of visitors and to protect the Tower from condensation.
The Landmark Trust describes the project as one of its 'more flamboyant projects' and nominated it as the Trust's Millennium project. Visitors now have the privilege of sleeping in rooms overlooking the cemetery where Beckford is buried in a pink granite sarcophagus which he designed himself.
Sadly, the grave of his adored spaniel dog Tiny, seen in engravings beside the tomb of his master, has disappeared.