The Beckford Project

William Beckford and his library

William Beckford, the English novelist, collector, and crank, was born in 1760, heir to a prodigious West Indian sugar fortune -- more than a million pounds and an income of 100,000 a year. His father (Alderman and Mayor of London) died when Beckford was nine; after a long minority he became (reputedly) the richest commoner in England. His education was private; his mother, who doted on him, loathed the custom of sending young boys away to public schools and universities. Beckford's biographers maintain that this arrangement "could hardly be expected to prevent the spoiled heir to enormous wealth from growing up wilful, extravagant, and capricious" (DNB). He did.

Much of his extravagance took a literary -- or quasiliterary -- form. An avid reader always, Beckford was especially attracted to the exotic and the mysterious. Allowed to develop his own course of studies, he involved himself at an early age in the pursuit of eastern and antique lore. The overwhelming intensity of his involvement alarmed his guardians, who at one point in his youth convinced him to burn his eastern books and notes -- but he soon returned to this study. He became a gifted fabulist, though evidently much of his genius was expended (throughout his life) in creating fables he could act out himself. Indeed, his best-known work, the pseudo-oriental romance Vathek, seems almost to be a novelistic fugue upon his own dreams, temptations, and heroic sins -- that is, he was given to a kind of protoByronic, highly melodramatic deviltry. There were exotic, partly serious and partly farcical rituals of celebration when he turned 21; his penchant for fooling about with the forbidden resulted in disaster when his elaborately staged "sacrifice" of the young son of his cousin and lover Louisa collapsed into a public homosexual scandal that sent him fleeing to Europe.

On his return, Beckford settled into a gradual course of eccentricity, building a vast Neogothic Abbey, writing and rewriting parts of Vathek and other books, and becoming a virtuoso collector of books. At Fonthill Abbey, he assembled a truly amazing library, the best part of which he took with him to Bath when he was compelled to sell the Abbey in 1823. Around forty years after his death in 1844, his books, kept separately in the Hamilton Palace Library, were sold by Sotheby. The auction lasted for forty days spread out in three parts over several months, the nearly 11,000 titles bringing in sales receipts of 74,000.

For more than six years I have been working with the catalogues from this sale, as well as those from four sales Beckford held during his lifetime (1804, 1808, 1817, and the Fonthill sale of 1823) -- a total of nearly 16,000 books. This library was one of the most important collections of the late 18th and early 19th century, yet neither Beckford scholars nor historians of the book have directed scholarly attention toward it. Perhaps the sheer bulk of the catalogues has been too intimidating: the first four catalogues were reproduced in facsimile in 1972 by Mansell in the "Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons" series: pages of small print and scrawled annotations. The four 1883 Sotheby catalogues, 806 more pages of small printed and annotations, can be found in the microfilm series of Sotheby sale catalogues.

In the early catalogues, Beckford appears to have been concerned with raising funds for building and for purchasing new books, at least partly by dispersing duplicates. This conjecture is borne out by the number of titles that show up here and again in later sales. Generally, these catalogues provide virtually no bibliographical description, though some details are mentioned (particularly concerning the plates).

The Fonthill Sale of 1823 was far more impressive; the books (sold with many lots of furniture, paintings, china, and objets de virtu were listed by their location in the library and gallery shelves. Here the catalogues register a little more information, including the the size of the books, the date and place of publication, the price obtained, the name of the purchaser, and sometimes a very brief bibliographical note.

The Hamilton Palace sale catalogues are much richer in bibliographical information; they list in some detail the state of the plates in illustrated books, the binding, the provenance, and frequent comments on the bibliographical significance and rarity of choice items. And they indicate which books contain Beckford's famous annotations.

Building a Database for Research

All the separate pieces of information about the books listed in these catalogues are stored in the Beckford Project database (at least, they're getting there as data entry continues. In designing the Beckford Project database, I decided that it would be best to include everything (if possible). In addition to the information gleaned from the catalogues, the Beckford Library Catalogue will also feature the current locations of the books (whenever possible), transcriptions of select annotations, and select illustrations. Although the project is still some distance from completion, I anticipate that it will probably appear in book form together with a searchable database on CD-ROM.

Now I can imagine somebody asking, "Isn't this a lot of work to do? What will it produce, more than a glorified checklist?" Okay. Those are reasonable questions. As I see it, the Beckford Library Catalogue will support three specific areas of scholarship. First, it should be a useful reference tool for bibliographers, curators of rare-book collections, and people in the rare-book trade. Second, it should prove to be useful in the history of the book (reading and collecting). Third, it will clearly be useful to Beckford scholars.

Indeed, after working through thousands of records, I can report that the Beckford Project will provide material to support a number of research projects in specific areas. During his European exile, Beckford wrote on the culture, architecture, and history of Portugal; during the rest of his life at Fonthill and Bath, he purchased every new book (and many old ones) about travel in Italy, Spain, France, and especially Portugal -- and he wrote copious marginal annotations in them. A scholar of Anglo-Lusitanian relations could produce a checklist of his collection, and Beckford's annotations offer an untapped source for original research.

Another field for research may be found in Beckford's collection of emblem books, for a great collection of early books with prints inevitably contains a collection of emblems. Taking a preliminary survey using my memory (poor thing) and emblem catalogues from Glasgow's Stirling Maxwell collection, from Princeton, and indexes by Landwehr and Praz, I identified 355 emblem titles and a supplementary list of 195 [including emblematic ceremony titles (state entries, pompes funêbres, fêtes, state entries, and other symbolically enacted rituals and celebrations that may belong with the emblem books. Several dozen titles also might include emblematic material, and numerous others are tangentially related (numismatic texts, alphabets, hieroglyphic or symbolically illustrated bibles, hagiographies, and devotional texts). Beckford bought most of the "standard" emblem books, including eleven separate editions of Alciati. His collection of English emblem books was rather small -- Whitney's Choice of Emblems (1586), the Parthenia Sacra (1633), Heywood's Hierarchie of the Blessed Angels (1635), Cary's The mirrour which flatters not (1639), Jenner's Ages of sin (c.1656), and emblematic ceremonies such as Francis Sansford's History of the Coronation of James II and Queen Mary (1687). Beckford's library contained many important copies of emblem books, including the Imprese of Pittoni and Dolce from the library of the Doge Foscarini, the dedication copy (to Louis XIII) of Machault's Eloge et Discours sur la triomphante Reception du Roy en sa ville de Paris (1629), a copy of Reusner's Emblemata (1591) with a drawing by Henry Fuseli on the flyleaf, a presentation copy of Rubens' Electa et Poemata (1680) with plates by Gallé and a ms. inscription to emblematist Otto van Veen; King Gustavus III of Sweden's copy of the Pompa funebris of Charles XI and Ulrica Eleanora (1741); and from the library of Louis XIV, copies of Les Plaisirs de l'Isle Enchantée (1673-4), l'Entrée triomphant de Louis XIV et Marie Thèrese (1662), and Felibien's Relation de la Feste de Versailles, Divertissements de Versailles, and Tapisseries du Roy, and finally, Louis XVI's copy of Sacre et Couronnement (1775). Also sold were folios of prints by emblematic artists: 633 engravings in 2 volumes by Romeyn de Hooghe, more than 1200 woodcuts by Stimmer, and 575 engravings in 3 volumes by the Wierixes. This should be enough to indicate that Beckford's emblem collection was very, very impressive -- some 20th-century libraries have published catalogues of collections half the size.

Mario Praz, who launched the study of emblem literature with his Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery, used the Hamilton Palace sale catalogue as a reference for his checklist of emblematic books, though in a rather haphazard fashion -- he notes Beckford's ownership of about 100 emblem books, overlooks another 69 Beckford owned, and dismisses a couple of dozen others as insufficiently emblematic. 20 other titles Beckford owned and which are today included in the lists of emblem books are missing from Praz's checklist -- and 13 editions of works not included at all in Praz. Thus, although emblem scholars might be aware of Beckford's collection, they cannot get a clear picture of its importance by consulting Praz's cursory references.

Other research opportunities provided by checklists of Beckford's specializations as a collector include the history of architecture (he had an enormous collection of architectural books), the occult (he was an avid collector of rare texts on witchcraft, magic, demonology, and other "forbidden" lore), religious controversy, contemporary novel-writing, orientalia, the history of art, and fine bindings. Students of the history of the book may be interested in Beckford's aggressive buying patterns in collecting first impressions, variant stages, and special issues of plates -- Yale has a copybook of Beckford letters in which he alternately cajoles and scolds his bookseller about the condition of the plates in recent and upcoming purchases.


If you should know of the location of any books formerly in the collection of William Beckford, please contact me by clicking on the email address below. Any contributions of information and all library locations will be gratefully acknowledged and included in the final version of the catalogue. Thanks.

Kevin J. H. Berland
Department of English & Comparative Literature
Penn State - Shenango
147 Shenango Avenue
Sharon PA 16146-1597 USA
(724) 983-2940 [voice]
(724) 983-2820 [fax]

Visit the C18-L website

C18-L is the international, interdisciplinary 18th-century studies discussion group on the Internet.

Visit Kevin Berland's nice blue home page

Send email to Kevin Berland

This page was last updated November 3, 1998.

Visitors to this page since November 3, 1998: