house hunters

The Duke of Wellington’s prospects seemed pretty flat. The greatest war hero in English history, the Wonder of Waterloo could not dind a ducal home and the money was there from the Parliament. Lots of it, to create “a lasting Memorial” of the nation’s “Gratitude and Munificence.” The woes of Wellington and all he wanted was a little place in the country that afforded good hunting. Yet, it took eight years and a procession of twenty-five possible palaces before Wellington made his mind up. ….

Architect  Benjamin Dean Wyatt announced there was an estate in Gloucestershire called Miserden that might do. Miserdon did not do. “I have no great inclination to purchase it,” wrote the Duke to Wyatt on February 25, 1817; no hunting and too close to a fashionable spa. After a dry spell, Wyatt felt he had struck lucky in July; Stratfield Saye owned by Lord Rivers in Hampshire. Wyatt called it the handsomest estate offered to date, with the possibility that the property could serve as the basis to provide a future parliamentary seat for the Duke’s schoolboy son, Lord Douro. But, the hic, was the premises were not in top condition, and would be subjected to tear-down status.

—An engraving from John Rutter’s “Delineations of Fonthill and its Abbey” (1823) …With an income of £70,000 a year Beckford travelled extensively, finally returning to England in 1796 aged 37. He then decided to partially demolish his father’s house, the very lavish and relatively new, Fonthill Splendens, and build a new and even grander property for himself. He also had the entire estate encircled by a high wall, estimated to have been some 7 miles length in total. Built ostensibly to keep out poachers and huntsman, it in fact provided the privacy that Beckford seemed to crave.
Once Fonthill Abbey was habitable, the remaining contents of Fonthill Splendens were sold off and it was then, much to a lot of peoples anger, demolished. His newly built ‘Abbey’, about half a mile from Fonthill Splendens, was built and constantly added to over a 30 year period, and was probably one of the first buildings to be built in the style of what has come to be called Gothic Revival. Other buildings that later took their style from Fonthill included St Pancras Station and the National History Museum.—Read More:

In February the search almost came to an abrupt end again. An attempt had already been made in Paris to set fire to the house in which Wellington was giving a ball. Now, in 1818, a shot was fired at him on his way home. Wyatt trusted that in the future every precaution would be adopted to “guard a life, upon which the Tranquility of Europe depends” , not to mention the purchase of  Stratfield Saye.

In point of fact, Wellington’s trustees seemed to be hedging on the purchase, considering the price a dear one. Nevertheless Stratfield became his, for 263,000 in June, 1819, and Wellington began posing questions such as whether his French beds, all seven plus feet of them, could fit into the alcoves. It seemed his eight year search was over, or so it seemed. It is surprising, to say the least, to find the Duke of Wellington just two years later inspecting that notorious Gothic extravagance, Fonthill Abbey, as a prospective buyer, surrounded by a horde of admiring tourists who had been admitted by its prospective owner, William Beckford, previous to its forthcoming sale .

—On the other hand, minor figures in her life such as the Duke of Wellington, with whom she had a brief liaison before his marriage, or Frederick Lamb, take on major roles in the Memoirs as a result of sufficiently irritating her when she was demanding payment. Never once, however, does Harriette Wilson mock the sexual prowess of her lovers. Wellington is sent up for being a class-A bore, Lamb is mocked for his stinginess. The poor hygiene of various of her lovers is bemoaned, and invariably Wilson criticised their callous behaviour towards her.—Read More: image:

The mystery is not insoluble. Stratfield Saye, as it stood, was no palace. And in view of its high price, stand it must. The further cost of demolition and rebuilding might well prove prohibitive. Wyatt’s personal tastes were Catholic enough to appreciate both strict classical styles and the pure romance of Gothic revival, stopped short of the seventeenth-century charm of Stratfield Saye. The Duke’s young friend Lord Francis Leveson-Gower had written off Stratfield Saye in 1818 as “a miserable imitation of a French Chateau,” standing in a swamp, and he secretly regretted that the neighboring Bramshill, high up and Jacobean, had not been bought instead.


(see link at end) …By 1820 spiralling costs had met up with a slump in Beckford’s Jamaican revenues. Disputes over the ownership of his estates, the falling price of sugar, and uncertainty over the future of slavery had reduced income to a trickle. In the midst of austerity, Beckford began to tire of his draughty, damp Abbey. Sixty fires had to be kept continually burning winter and summer just to keep the house dry, let alone warm. In the spring of 1822, to everyone’s astonishment, he put practically everything up for sale, with viewing to start in July.

Fonthill Fever struck. Each day up to 70 carriages brought the rich, the famous or the merely curious to the door. The Duke of Wellington reported that he had seen nothing in all Europe to compare with the Abbey. By the end of the viewing, 72,000 people had toured the house, buying catalogues at a guinea each. Beckford stoked the hype, assisting with the writing of two (rival) guidebooks, and enlisted the help of friends to place articles in the press. On the day before the auction got underway, Beckford an

ced that he had cancelled it. He had sold the house and most of the contents privately, to John Farquhar, a Scottish merchant looking to buy into English landed society. By early 1823, Beckford was £300,000 richer, able to pay off his debts and buy both a house in Bath and land nearby on Lansdown Hill where he planned to build a tower as his new retreat, amass a second art collection and renew his writing.

Later that year, in a 37-day sale, Farquhar disposed of most of the contents of Fonthill. Beckford was among the discerning buyers in a somewhat depressed market. Then, just before Christmas 1825, the inevitable happened. The central tower collapsed, for the third time, taking a third of the Abbey with it. Farquhar sold the estate early in 1826 and died a few months later. Read More:

…Though so many people came to see Fonthill in 1822-23, there had been few visitors before. For all its chimerical beauty, Fonthill Abbey was a lonely place. A social outcast since a scandal in 1784 over alleged homosexual acts (a capital offence at the time), Beckford steered a lonely path through fashionable society. Those who did enjoy visits to Fonthill were social outcasts themselves, most famous among them Admiral Nelson, Hero of the Nile, and Emma Hamilton, who stayed here for Christmas 1800 and, frowned upon anyway, were widely criticised for doing so.

The collapse of Fonthill Abbey only added to its mythical status. Beckford had originally commissioned Wyatt to build a Gothick ruin, but he changed his mind and, demolishing the handsome Palladian-style house, Fonthill Splendens, his father had built, plumped instead for the most romantic and reckless house of its or almost any other day.Read More:

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