Beckford. I. William, an English politician, born in the West Indies in 1090, died at Font-hill, Wiltshire, June 21, 1770. He became a member of parliament in 1740 for Shaftesbury, and afterward for the city of London, and was the friend and supporter of Wilkes. Successively alderman, sheriff, and twice lord mayor of London, he acquired celebrity in 1770 by volunteering manly remarks to George III. while presenting an address of the city of London remonstrating against parliament, against the king's former unfavorable reply to the popular grievances, and demanding the removal of the cabinet. The speech concluded thus: "Permit me, sire, to observe that whoever has already dared, or shall hereafter endeavor, by false insinuations and suggestions, to alienate your majesty's affections from your loyal subjects in general, and from the city of London in particular, is an enemy to your majesty's person and family, a violator of the public peace, and a betrayer of our happy constitution, as it was established at the glorious revolution." The excitement produced by his boldness preyed upon his mind to such an extent that he died soon afterward. His statue was placed in Guildhall, and his speech to the king engraved on the pedestal.
As he was a man of limited culture, it was believed that John Home Tooke, who claimed the authorship of the speech, had either prepared it before or revised it after its delivery. II. William, an English romancer, son of the preceding, born in 1700, died May 2, 1844. He inherited a vast fortune, estimated as yielding over £100,000 annually, and he claimed lineal descent from the royal dynasties of Scotland and from other illustrious ancestors. The great earl of Chatham, his father's friend, was his sponsor and the promoter of his education. The precocity of his mind was revealed in 1780 by the publication of a satirical work against artists ("Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters"). He was in Paris in 1778, where he became acquainted with Voltaire, and travelled extensively till 1783, when he married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the earl of Aboyne, who bore him two daughters, the eldest of whom married Col. (afterward Lieut. Gen.) James Orde, and the younger became duchess of Hamilton. He was a member of parliament at different periods, and acquired literary celebrity by his romance of "Vathek, an Arabian Tale," written in French. An English version was published by an anonymous author without his consent in 1780, previous to the issue in 1787 at Lausanne of his original edition in French (l'Histoire du calife Vathek), which was so perfect in style and idiom that many regarded it as the work of a Frenchman. North in his "Memoir of Beck-ford" says that "Vathek" is "the finest of oriental romances, as 'Lalla Rookh' is the finest of oriental poems;" and Lord Byron said that "as an eastern tale even 'Rasselas' must bow before it.
His happy valley will not bear a comparison with the hall of Eblis." He displayed his fastidious taste for magnificent buildings in the erection of Fonthill abbey, with a lofty tower, which afterward fell owing to its hasty construction. After having sold Fonthill in 1822, in consequence of the diminished income from his Jamaica estates, he built another remarkable mansion on Lansdown Hill, near Bath; and previously while in Portugal he had a fairy palace constructed at Cintra, which was his residence for several years, and which is commemorated by Lord Byron in the first canto of "Childe Harold." His life was spent in arduous studies, and his exclusive habits and oriental surroundings added the prestige of mystery to the extraordinary impression produced by his palaces and towers, his gems of art and furniture; and his fanciful, extravagant, morbid, and eccentric disposition tallied well with the characteristics of his celebrated romance. Many works were published on Fonthill, and on its artistic and literary treasures, at one time including Gibbon's library, which he had purchased at Lausanne. Among his works is "Italy, with Sketches of Spain and Portugal," published in 1834, though printed in the early part of his life, from his letters written during a residence in those countries.
This work has been characterized as a prose poem, and abounds in picturesque and enthusiastic descriptions of scenery and life. In 1835 appeared his "Recollections of an Excursion to the Monasteries of Alcobaca and Batalha." This was his last publication. His "Memoirs" were published in London, 1859 (2 vols.).