Born to great wealth and endowed with precocious talent, William Beckford (1760-1844) was a complex and fascinating character around whom legends grew, even in his own lifetime.
Using his immense wealth, built from the profits of the transatlantic slave trade, Beckford created Fonthill Abbey, a huge Gothic Revival 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 better known as 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 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 Neoclassical 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 his the Tower and Gardens were sold to a Bath publican. Beckford’s collection and all his remaining wealth was inherited by his daughter, the Duchess of Hamilton, and either sold or taken by her to Scotland. She was horrified to discover that her father’s retreat was being used as a beer garden and promptly bought it back, gifting the empty Tower building and surrounding garden to the Parish of Walcot in Bath. The Tower became a funerary chapel and the Tower garden became a cemetery. The Tower building was sold in 1971 to the late Leslie and Elizabeth Hilliard, who in 1977 established the Beckford Tower Trust whose object is 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 managed by the Bath Preservation Trust.