Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bath, Somerset

A tomb with a view

I make no apologies for returning once more to Bath, especially as on this visit I was drawn to an unusual building that I’d not seen before, high on the outskirts of the city on the way to Bath Racecourse. I knew it was there, I’d read about it and knew some of its history, but my reading hadn’t prepared me for the uncompromising sight that met my eyes.

When I say ‘uncompromising’ I mean that this tower is perhaps of all the buildings I’ve seen in England, most unambiguously, sternly classical. In a way it’s the exact opposite of what one would expect, for this tower was commissioned by the writer, collector, MP, and artistic patron William Beckford, the man who, obsessed with the Middle Ages, had built the most outrageously Gothic country house in the country, Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire.

Beckford, born fabulously wealthy from family sugar plantations in Jamaica, collected ravenously, picking up cheap Italian Renaissance paintings, Asian sculptures, drawings by Blake, and French furniture. He wrote travel books about Italy, Spain, and Portugal, published Vathek, a pioneering Gothic novel, and egged on his architect Wyatt and his builders to finish Fonthill with its enormous tower and vast halls, increasing the workers’ beer allowance and poaching builders from Windsor Castle in the process.

Fonthill was glorious, from its 10-metre-high front doors to the top of its 90-metre tower, but both Beckford’s fortunes and his architecture proved fragile. The tower at Fonthill collapsed. Twice. Beckford lost his sugar plantations in a legal action, and he was forced to leave, and then sell, Fonthill. He retired to Bath, where he had a town house connected by gardens to this tower. The tower, designed in 1825 for Beckford by the young architect H E Goodridge, was designed to house the owner’s books and such treasures as he was able to salvage from his earlier life.

The bottom section of the tower is perfectly plain, then there’s a very strong cornice supporting the belvedere, with its three tall rectangular openings on each side – from here there are glorious views over Bath and the surrounding countryside. Above this, the tower becomes octagonal, with a squat plain octagon supporting the final touch, a gilded lantern. That lantern relieves the severity of the main tower, and gleams in the sunshine, making one think as much of an ancient lighthouse as the Athenian monuments on which the building is partly modelled.

After Beckford died in 1844, his daughter sold the tower, but when she discovered that the new owner was going to turn it into a pub, she bought it back and gave the adjoining ground to the church for a cemetery. Beckford’s own tomb, in pink Aberdeen granite, is in the foreground of the picture. The great connoisseur’s final resting place is next to his final home and visitors come from miles around to enjoy the views from his tower and his tomb.

* * *

The Landmark Trust operates the lower part of the tower as a holiday cottage. The tower also contains a museum that is open regularly. Both of these links contain further information about the tower.


columnist said...

They don't make them like Beckford any more! I admire his tenacity after the earlier failures.

worm said...

terrific!If only our modern super-rich had half as much flair and ability to build quirky, lasting monuments!

Anonymous said...

After being bought back, the tower was used as a chapel and the grounds became a burial ground, containing some extraordinary Victorian monuments for the great and the good. Beckford's tomb was originally built in the tower grounds, but was moved to the Abbey Cemetery in Lyncombe Vale after his death because the tower grounds were not consecrated, and returned to the tower some years.

The Landmark Trust operates the lower parts of Beckford's Tower as a holiday cottage for four - http://bookings.landmarktrust.org.uk/BuildingDetails/Overview/138/Beckfords_Tower# The tower also contains a separate museum which is opened regularly - http://www.bath-preservation-trust.org.uk/?id=9 - but people who stay in the cottage get their own key for after-hours ascent of the belvedere (no public access to the lantern).

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks to you all for the comments.

Anon: Thank you especially for these reminders. I've added the links at the end of the main post.

Anonymous said...

'tis I, Anon, again - you are welcome, Philip; I have stayed there (with my small children) and would heartily recommend it :)

Thank *you* for such an engaging blog.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks again, Anon. Receiving comments, especially informative ones, is one of the pleasures of doing this blog. See my post about the kindness of strangers at http://englishbuildings.blogspot.com/2009/07/kindness-of-strangers.html.

Solicitors Bath said...

I like that it was turned into a grave yard. Something a little unique and not the obvious place to put one.

Anonymous said...

Two eccentrics who were once fabulously rich. Beckford had Fonthill and his faithful dwarf butler, Michael Jackson had Neverland & Bubbles. History repeats itself.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Indeed.