Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Gifford, Wiltshire, England, UK

Demolished 1845

The Disappointed Tourist: Fonthill Abbey, Ellen Harvey, 2021. Oil and acrylic on Gessoboard, 18 x 24″ (46 x 61 cm). Photograph: Etienne Frossard.

Fonthill Abbey, also known as Beckford’s Folly, was a Gothic Revival house built between 1796 and 1813 at the direction of noted eccentric William Thomas Beckford, who had inherited a fortune from his father’s Jamaican estates where thousands of enslaved people produced sugar for sale. Beckford starting the project after moving back to England following his wife’s death; he had originally been forced to leave England as the result of a scandal resulting from his relationship with William Courtenay. The building was intermittently supervised by architect James Wyatt but his frequent absences, Beckford’s insistence on speed and height and dubious building methods led to frequent collapses. Beckford lived alone in his abbey and used only one of its bedrooms; his kitchens were required to prepare food for 12 every day, despite the fact that he always dined alone. The one exception to this rule was when he invited Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton for Christmas in 1800. Beckford lived in the Abbey until 1822 when he lost two of his plantations in a lawsuit and was forced to sell it to arms dealer John Farquhar. The rest of the Abbey was demolished in 1845, leaving behind only a small remnant. A new Fonthill Abbey was built near the site by the 2nd Marquess of Westminster in the middle of the 19th century but demolished in 1955. This painting is based on J. M. W. Turner’s watercolor from 1799.

Fonthill Abbey should be seen as a lost exercise in the architectural expression of a Romantic self, in company with Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, Sir John Soane’s house in London, and Walter Scott’s Abbotsford. Nicola W.