by Timothy Mowl. John Murray, 1998. 324pp. £22
Eric Gill, Philip Johnson, Berthold Lubetkin and James Stirling have lasting memorials to their originality and talent which will eventually outshine interest in their social and sexual behaviour, writes Colin Baillieu. William Beckford, on the other hand, will only ever be famous for architectural failure and sexual deviance. The world, being what it is, will most likely remember Beckford longer.
The trouble with Beckford is that he was a repellent fake. Insofar as you can write a likeable and real book about such a character, Timothy Mowl has succeeded. His previous book was a life of Horace Walpole, an altogether more attractive and substantial character. Both Beckford and Walpole were homosexual, both were the sons of rich and famous fathers; Walpole's was of course the more famous, but Beckford's was one of the richest men in England. The greatest difference was that Walpole tried always to tell the truth, while Beckford distorted it to serve his own myths. Actually, he lied and lied and lied, as Mowl so convincingly proves.
Industrialisation at home, a growing empire abroad, and a profitable trade in slaves, sugar, tobacco and cotton in-between made Georgian England not only wealthy and self-confident but, on the one hand, vulgar and callous, and on the other, refined and compassionate. Beckford, a child of the boom years, seems to have had all these qualities. It was a time when rich young men were indulged and excused the most outrageous behaviour. Charles James Fox, an mp at 18, gambled and drank but was greatly loved and left a potent political legacy. Richard Payne Knight loved to shock and quarrel, but designed the seminal Downton Castle at the age of 22 and subsequently helped to launch the British Museum. Beckford had a passion for young boys, mismanaged or totally ignored his sugar and his slaves, and built Fonthill Abbey which fell down. William Pitt, Beckford's boyhood friend, followed in his father's footsteps and became Prime Minister at the age of 24. It was an intriguing time.
The only criticism of Mowl is that he could have stayed more securely in that time. It is symptomatic of his detached viewpoint that he talks about Beckford as a paedophile - a word that was not in use until 1906 - instead of as a pederast, and describes him as a psychopath, a term which was not used until some time after Beckford's death.
Colin Baillieu is a historian