When he was eighteen and in Switzerland, where he was sent with his tutor, the Rev. John Lettice, Beckford wrote to his friend and former drawing master, Alexander Cozens, about his dream of a gothic tower: ‘the time will arrive when we may abstract ourselves at least one hundred days from the world, and in retirement give way to our romantic inclinations… There we will execute those plans you have imagined, and realise in some measure the dreams of our fancy…we shall ascend a lofty hill, which till lately was a mountain in my eyes. There I hope to erect a Tower dedicated to meditation’.
The dream survived his return to Wiltshire during the 1790s after a long period when he lived in exile in Portugal. In January 1790, he wrote to Lady Craven how ‘I am growing rich, and mean to build Towers, and sing hymns to the powers of Heaven on their summits, accompanied by almost as many sacbuts and psalteries as twanged round Nebuchadnezzar’s image’. In 1791, he first wrote to James Wyatt to recruit him to design his plans. While in Portugal, he ordered the construction of a large wall round part of his estate, which he described as the Enchanted Gardens and Monastic Demesne, so that work could begin without prying eyes.
By February 1797, he was hard at work in realising his dream, writing to Sir William Hamilton how ‘I am staying my stomach with a little pleasure-building in the shape of an abbey, which is already half-finished. It contains apartments in the most gorgeous Gothic style with windows of painted glass, a chapel for blessed St. Anthony (66 ft diameter and 72 ft high), a gallery 185 ft in length, and a tower 145 ft high’. His ambitions grew and each year his architect, James Wyatt, exhibited a more ambitious design in the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. But the first version of the tower was built in wood and a material called compo-cement and blew down in May 1800. Beckford was furious, but Wyatt started again. His father’s old house down in the valley was half demolished and the Abbey rose in compensation. ‘Some people drink to forget their unhappiness; I do not drink, I build’.
While it lasted, it was extraordinarily impressive, a ‘fairy palace’, described by Benjamin West as ‘raised more by magick…than by the labour of the human hand’. Constable wrote, ‘The entrance and when within is truly beautifull. Imagine the inside of the Cathedral at Salisbury, or indeed any beautifull Gothick building, magnificently fitted up with crimson and gold’. But in 1822, Beckford sold it (at quite a handsome profit and with a considerable sense of relief) and in 1825, the Tower collapsed.