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William Thomas Beckford

1760 - 1844

This person is the subject of ongoing research. We have started by researching their relationship to the enslavement of people.

Biographical notes

Novelist, art collector, travel writer and politician.

Summary of activity

William Beckford came from a family which had made their fortunes from plantations in Jamaica and elsewhere, all of them worked by enslaved people. His great-grandfather, Peter Beckford (1673–1735), travelled out to Jamaica in 1661, where he bought the first plantation. His father, Alderman William Beckford married Maria Hamilton, a member of the family of the Dukes of Hamilton, and widow of Francis Marsh, a Jamaican planter.

Aged 10, Beckford inherited his fortune from his father, including the extensive sugar plantations in Jamaica. He was described by Lord Byron as ‘England’s wealthiest son’ (Lord Byron, ‘There thou too, Vathek! England’s wealthiest son, Once form’d thy paradise…‘ Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, xxii, 1812). In 1777 he went to live in Geneva with his uncle Colonel Hamilton, a former soldier of the East India Company army. In 1783 he married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784–90, and for Hindon (a seat inherited from his father) from 1790-4 and 1806-20. Beckford, who was against the abolition of the slave trade, commented on the issue in 1796.

He was an absentee owner but used the wealth generated by his estates to amass a large collection of art and books. Beckford spent much money building Fonthill Abbey, designed by James Wyatt, and completed in 1807, whose tower famously collapsed in 1825. His extravagances and financial mismanagement contributed to a depletion in his fortune.

In 1822 Beckford sold both Fonthill and some of his collection to John Farquar, who auctioned them in 1823 at ’The Fonthill Sale'. The remainder of his collection was inherited by the Dukes of Hamilton and sold at the Hamilton Palace sale of 1882. The Gallery bought directly from Beckford, notably in 1839, Raphael, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (NG168), and in 1844, Bellini, The Doge Leonardo Loredan (NG189). In 1882 Velázquez, Philip IV of Spain in Brown and Silver (NG1129) was bought from the Hamilton Sale. The following paintings were also at one time in Beckford’s collection: Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, Saint Jerome in a Landscape (NG1120) (bought from the Hamilton Sale); Jacopo di Cione, The Crucifixion (NG1468); Gerrit Dou, A Poulterer’s Shop (NG825); Gaspard Dughet, Landscape with Elijah and the Angel (NG1159); After Adam Elsheimer, Tobias and the Archangel Raphael returning with the Fish (NG1424); Garofalo, The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth, Zacharias, John the Baptist (and Francis?) (NG170); Bartholomeus van der Helst, Portrait of a Girl in Pale Blue with an Ostrich Feather Fan (NG1248); Nicolas Lancret, The Four Ages of Man: Childhood, Adolescence, Youth and Old Age (NG101–104); Filippino Lippi, The Adoration of the Kings (NG1124) (bought from the Hamilton Sale); Frans van Mieris the Elder, A Woman in a Red Jacket feeding a Parrot (NG840); Nicolas de Neufchâtel, Susanna Stefan, Wife of Wolfgang Furter (NG184); Associate of Pietro Perugino, The Virgin and Child with Saint John (NG181); Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger, A Man kneels before a Woman in the Courtyard of a Renaissance Palace (NG141); Emanuel de Witte, The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, during a Sermon (NG1053).

Slavery connections

Inherited his fortune from his father, Alderman William Beckford, which included sugar plantations in Jamaica.

Abolition connections

No known connections with abolition.

National Gallery painting connections

Former owner: NG purchased from Beckford in 1839, 1840 and 1844: NG168–70, NG181 and NG189, respectively.

Former owner: Beckford once owned NG101–104, NG141, NG184, NG641, NG726, NG783, NG825, NG840, NG1053, NG1120, NG1124, NG1129, NG1159, NG1248, NG1424, NG1468, NG2205.


A. McConnell, 'Beckford, William Thomas', in C. Matthew et al. (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford 1992-,
Checked and foundItem on publisher's website

L. Namier, 'BECKFORD, William (1760-1844), of Fonthill, Wilts.', in History of Parliament Trust (ed.), The History of Parliament: British Political, Social & Local History, London 1964-, 1754-1790,
Checked and foundItem on publisher's website

M. H. Port and R. G. Thorne, 'BECKFORD, William (1760-1844), of Fonthill, nr. Hindon, Wilts.', in History of Parliament Trust (ed.), The History of Parliament: British Political, Social & Local History, London 1964-, 1790-1820,
Checked and foundItem on publisher's website

D. Rodgers, 'Beckford, William', in J. Turner et al. (eds), Grove Art Online, Oxford 1998-,
Checked and foundItem on publisher's website

UCL Department of History, 'William Thomas Beckford', in UCL Department of History (ed.), Legacies of British Slave-ownership, London 2020,
Checked and foundItem on publisher's website