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The dream house that became a gothic horror

Will Wiles

William Beckford ended up inhabiting his own imagination. He didn’t like it

‘A fatal abode,’ Beckford’s Fonthill, designed by James Wyatt.
‘A fatal abode,’ Beckford’s Fonthill, designed by James Wyatt. Credit: RIBA Collections

In 1825 William Beckford was called to the deathbed of the man who had built his extravagant and unique country house at Fonthill in Wiltshire. ‘House’ is too domestic a word, though. What Beckford had summoned into existence was Fonthill Abbey. This vast heap of wild gothic imagery had been designed by James Wyatt from 1796 onwards and had as its centrepiece an immense and unprecedented tower, 276 feet tall. 

It was the tower that weighed on the conscience of the dying contractor. He told Beckford that he had never laid down the foundations specified by Wyatt. The whole thing might collapse at any moment. 

Beckford might have been more upset had he not sold Fonthill three years earlier. He passed on the warning to the new owner, John Farquhar, who thought he was exaggerating. The tower collapsed before the year was out. No one was hurt. Even Farquhar was less upset than might have been expected. ‘On being informed of what had happened,’ James Lees-Milne writes in his 1976 study of Beckford, ‘he said he was glad, for now the house would not be too large for him to live in.’ 

In his magisterial architectural ­history Life in the English Country House – first published in 1978 and recently reissued by the Folio Society – Mark Girouard writes of the curious effect the growing importance of libraries and picture galleries had on the design of grand houses in the mid-18th century. As the aristocracy went on their Grand Tours they were eager to show off the fruits of their connoisseurship. The library swelled from a small private study into a large living room and entertaining room. The books and works of art gathered by the aristocrats were exerting their influence on the whole form of what they built, destroying the prevailing classical balance and encouraging new forms.

This coincided with the rise of the gothic as a legitimate alternative to Palladio, and pointed ultimately to Fonthill Abbey, part a container for art, part an artwork itself, the product of a chaotic impulse to pursue an idea. Beckford was not an aristocrat, but he was a man of considerable consequence. His father had made a vast fortune on the back of slave labour in Jamaican plantations, the income from which continued to gush into William’s hands. If he had more settled habits he might have lived a life of untold comfort. 

But he was restless and troubled. In 1782 Beckford wrote Vathek, a gothic fantasy which more devoted readers of this column might remember was the subject of one of my Architectural Association book clubs several years ago. It concerns a depraved 8th century caliph crazed by power and the pursuit of knowledge who, among other excesses, builds an immense tower. It was a great success. After years of travel, Beckford found a more concrete output for his creativity than writing. ‘Some people drink to forget their unhappiness,’ he said. ‘I do not drink, I build.’

But as idea turned to reality, he soured on Fonthill Abbey. It was cavernous, in­hospitable, impossible to heat or staff and horribly expensive. ‘Oh what a fatal abode!’ he complained, according to Lees-Milne. ‘Here it smokes, there the wind blows in (and so would the rain if it were raining); every tower is a conveyor of rheumatism.’ 

After the Abbey’s disposal and collapse, Beckford’s only regret was that he had not seen the tower fall. It was, perhaps, one of the clearest examples of a literary impulse applied to architecture, and Beckford a unique example of an author who was briefly confronted with the unique fate of having to inhabit his own imagination. A rather gothic fate, as it happens. Fortunately for him, the story had an end, and a spectacular one. 

My previous column talked about the possibility of rewilding patches of underemployed urban greenery, which might save cash-strapped councils some money while bolstering biodiversity. I’ve since discovered that there is a charity which promotes exactly this: Plantlife, which can be found at