view of the south front, Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire
Architect: James Wyatt (c. 1800)
Book: John Rutter, Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey, (1823)
Source: RIBA British Architectural Library
Fonthill Abbey was one of the most remarkable houses ever built in Britain. A romantic folly, it was designed for the eccentric collector William Beckford (1759-1844). With money largely acquired from West Indian sugar plantations Beckford was fabulously wealthy. Although his family origins were distinctly middle class, he was keen to claim an honourable lineage stretching far back into the Middle Ages. Beckford therefore invented a large and noble family tree and decided to use the Gothic Revival style when rebuilding his house.
The most fashionable architect of the day, James Wyatt (1746-1813), was commissioned by Beckford to design his new house. Wyatt looted medieval England for ideas and the scale of his building was immense. The house gained celebrity status: this engraving was from a book on Fonthill and its collections (1823). Here, the drama of Wyatt’s design is brilliantly revealed. Modest doors and windows are juxtaposed with soaring traceried windows, assorted turrets and pinnacles. These jumbled parts together made up a cross plan, with the phenomenal 225 foot tower at its heart, based on Ely Cathedral’s octagon. John Martin’s use of an ominous sky makes Fonthill look even more extraordinary, depicting a ‘house of horrors’ perhaps?
The cost of building Fonthill Abbey was enormous and in 1823, Beckford was forced to sell the abbey and most of its contents. This sale saved Beckford from suffering the consequences of Wyatt’s notoriously slack supervision of his buildings. The tower, built with completely inadequate foundations, collapsed in 1825. The ruins were cleared away 20 years later: so that nothing now remains of Beckford’s fantasy.