His extraordinary collection of works of art is well known for having included dozens of examples of Chinese porcelain and hardstone vessels, most of which were garnished with silver and silver-gilt mounts for him by various London goldsmiths. In the manner of a Renaissance ‘gentleman of vertu,’ Beckford delighted in creating appropriate settings for his treasures which, by their size and richness, would have put any 16th and 17th century cabinet of curiosity to shame.
One of the gems of in Beckford’s possession was a late 17th century amber casket which had been made for either the Princess of Bavaria or the Queen of Bohemia. We are told that other prized mounted organic objects in his collection included ‘ostrich eggs, boxwood carvings, coral, pearls, and gourds.’1 The latter seem to be particularly appropriate inasmuch as the bulk of the Beckford family fortune derived from their West Indies estates, where gourds, including bottle gourds, grew in abundance.
That other William Beckford (of Somerly, d. 1790), who was the illegitimate son of our William Beckford’s fraternal uncle, Richard, supervised his own sugar plantations until 1777 when he fell into debt and lost both his fortune and his Jamaican estates. It was he who had introduced the artist George Robertson to the island, who produced what have been described as ‘the most aesthetically ambitious views of Jamaica’ in the 18th century. Eventually a prisoner for debt in London’s notorious Fleet Prison, Beckford (of Somerly) published in 1790 a two volume account of Jamaica. The author’s often lyrical narrative of the lush island he had been forced to leave suggests that his financial downfall and return to England was a blow from which he never recovered. He wrote:
‘Here is seen a blue and circular bason, the profundity of which cannot be measured by the plummet and the line, and over which the branching trees spread forth their verdant canopies, and inclose its waters with an artificial night; there, a grove of coco or chocolate-nut trees protrude their bulbous and purple pods from the rinds of the stems and branches: and there too the calabash-tree displays its fantastic boughs, and puts forth in the same mode of vegetation, its large and green productions; and from which the negroes make their dishes and their spoons, and other utensils of domestic necessary convenience.’2
The ‘Inventory and Valuation of all the Household Furniture, Gold and Silver Plate [&c.]’ belonging to William Beckford of Somerly’s cousin, William Beckford of Fonthill following his death in 1844 included the following:
‘An Engraved Gourd mounted with Turquoise’ (‘In Drawers. Mr. Beckford’s Bed Room’)
‘A Gourd engraved [,] with cornelian top and enamel mounted’ (‘In Small Library’)3
1. Bet McLeod, ‘A Celebrated Collector,’ Derek E. Ostergard, editor, William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001, ch. IX, p. 158
2. A Descriptive Account of the Island of Jamaica, London, vol. I, pp. 236 and 237
3. ‘Plate and Paintings,’ Inventory of Property of William Thomas Beckford (Bodleian Library, Oxford, TD 73/100/80/1)
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