William Beckford of Fonthill, who was born in 1760 and died a hundred years ago today, is an arresting figure in the gallery of English men-of-letters. His fame rests in the first place on his literary gifts, which shine with an enduring lustre.
In the second place his fame is due to the fact that, in the strange circumstances of his life and in his artistic taste, he was a brilliant precursor of the Romantic Era. which may be said to have dawned about the time of his birth, and to have grown and flourished, both in England and the continent, throughout well-nigh the whole course of the 19th century, Beckford’s lifetime spans eighty years memorable in the history of art and literature, for it was a period in which there took place a fundamental revolution in taste, in style and in feeling.
The world into which he was born admired the architecture of Versailles and Queluz, the poetry of Racine and Pope, the music of Haydn, the painting of Tiepolo. The new age which followed it, and which Beckford himself entered well before his death, looked for inspiration in architecture not to Palladio or Lenôtre, but to the Gothic monuments of the Middle Ages. It abhorred Queluz; it doted on the Castle of the Penha.
Victor Hugo and Scott, Delacroix and Wagner, claimed the homage once granted to the classic immortals. It was to this new age, then, that William Beckford of Fonthill was a precursor or herald, and his life, probably to an extent of which he himself was entirely ignorant, gave impulse to the advent of that astonishing revolution whose triumph he survived to witness.
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