Born to great wealth and endowed with precocious talent, William Beckford (1760-1844) was a character around whom legends grew, even in his own lifetime.
Beckford’s name will always be linked to Fonthill Abbey, the great neo-Gothic house designed by James Wyatt, and built on Beckford’s Wiltshire estate. Less well known is Lansdown Tower, or ‘Beckford’s Tower’ as it is more affectionately known today.
After selling Fonthill Abbey in 1822 Beckford moved to Bath, where he continued to indulge his taste for building, landscape gardening, collecting and creating magical interiors. For the last 22 years of his life he pursued these interests with his usual passion and impetuousness, assisted by the young Bath architect Henry Edmund Goodridge. Beckford purchased the land behind his home in Lansdown Crescent to create a mile-long ride through a series of gardens and landscaped features to the summit of Lansdown Hill, where he built a 120-foot high neo-classical tower, crowned with an octagonal lantern decorated with gilt gold columns.
The two main rooms at the base of the Tower, the Scarlet and Crimson Drawing Rooms, had rich carpets, luxurious curtains, and coffered ceilings panelled in oak and enriched with scarlet, crimson, purple and gold. The spiral staircase with its 154 steps leading up to the Belvedere was carpeted and at the centre of the stairwell stood a colossal vase of polished granite.
When Beckford died in 1844 the Tower and Gardens were sold to a Bath publican. Beckford’s daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, was horrified to discover that her father’s retreat was being used as a beer garden and promptly bought it back, passing it to the Rector of the Parish of Walcot in Bath. The Tower became a funerary chapel and the Tower garden became a cemetery. The Tower was sold in 1971 to the late Leslie and Elizabeth Hilliard, who in 1977 established the Beckford Tower Trust whose object was to maintain for public benefit the buildings, features and objects of historical and architectural interest relating to the life of William Beckford. Since 1993 the Tower has been owned by the Bath Preservation Trust.