William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent (review)
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Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 93-97



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Exhibition Review

William Beckford 1760-1844:
An Eye for the Magnificent


William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture, New York City (18 October 2001-6 January 2002); Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (6 February-14 April 2002). Catalogue: Derek E. Ostergard, ed., William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent(New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press for the Bard Graduate Center, 2001). Pp. 448, color and black-and-white illus. $75.00 cloth.

It is possible to read the life of William Beckford as an exhibition, a theatrical display to which the public was not always invited. With the narcissistic self-absorption of the true collector, he both required and rejected public attention. Whether undertaking the Grand Tour with a retinue of conspicuous splendor, providing a dramatic illuminated entertainment for Lord Nelson, or immured within Fonthill Abbey—excluded from society, building furiously when the funds were available, secluded with his ceaselessly expanding hoard of books and treasures—Beckford's extravagant activities always presuppose an audience. Fonthill Abbey, like his other houses, was a stage for displaying his extraordinary collections. These were an essentially private passion, but they were shown to selected visitors, although even invited guests could be frustrated by Beckford's coy protection of his possessions. As Beckford wrote gleefully to his companion the Chevalier Franchi of the visit of Samuel Rogers in October 1817, "I have not shewn him the great plate or the inside of the ebony cabinet or a thousand other things."

Treasures viewed, not by poets and connoisseurs, but by the unseeing public gaze, were treasures polluted, and when Beckford in 1822 staged his most spectacular performance of all, the auction view for the proposed sale of the Abbey's contents, the crush and the almost fairground atmosphere, as well as the incomprehension of the unsophisticated, compromised the Abbey beyond redemption. "I am rid of the Holy Sepulchre, which no longer interested me since its profanation," he wrote when announcing to Franchi the pre-auction sale of the Abbey and its contents to John Farquhar, an entrepreneur and miser for whom the Abbey was to provide its own theatrical display three years later, when the great tower collapsed.

Beckford's collections are summarily documented in their various sale catalogues. An impressive number of his treasures have been traced, and of these a fine and varied selection were shown at the exhibition William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, which was held at the Bard Graduate Center in New York and then at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. The show, which was jointly curated by Philip Hewat-Jaboor and Bet McLeod, eclipsed previous Beckford exhibitions. This was partly because it concentrated on the eminently displayable works of fine and applied art that Beckford accumulated, dazzling the visitor, as visitors to Fonthill and Lansdown had been dazzled, by a sparkling display of china and hard stones mounted with silver and silver gilt, medieval and later Limoges enamels, gilt wood and ebony and lacquer, marble-topped furniture inlaid with pietre dure and semiprecious stones, paintings, metalwork, and ivory. [End Page 93]

Beckford's taste was sophisticated, romantic, and continually evolving. Authenticity and scholarly significance mattered little to him; quality, finish, and association were all. David Watkin, in his exhibition catalogue essay, helpfully places Beckford in the context of those other great Regency collectors, Sir John Soane and Thomas Hope—like Beckford, outsiders, Francophiles, and obsessively acquisitive. Beckford took an essentially French delight in hard-stone vases with silver and silver-gilt mounts, oriental and Sèvres porcelain, Japanese lacquer, Dutch and other cabinet paintings, Old Master and contemporary paintings—and, everywhere, books. As McLeod explains in her excellent essay surveying Beckford's collecting, he preferred objects typically found in Kunstkammern, but he had a highly trained eye that was expressed not merely by a progressive, developing taste, but also by an active involvement in the design process of many of the...


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