Contributors: Diego Saglia and Steve Wharton
Location: No. 20 Lansdown Crescent, Bath (UK)
Description: William Beckford (1760-1844), enfant terrible of Romantic-period Britain who lived into the Victorian age, left his mark in and on many of its literary and artistic manifestations. The son of a former Lord Mayor of London and one of the richest men in the kingdom, he was an aesthete interested in music, painting and objets d’art, a traveller, a novelist and the focus of a sexual scandal. In literature, he came to prominence as the author of the oriental gothic novella Vathek (1786), an extraordinarily imaginative work that opens with the description of Caliph Vathek’s fabulous palace of Alkoremi, an exotic fantasia on a par with the Prince Regent’s Pavilion at Brighton. A less conspicuous ‘oriental’ building project of Beckford’s was this small summer house or pavilion in the garden behind his Bath residence. Though diminutive, this building is full of surprises and tells the story of the diffusion of the Orient in the visual and spatial environment of the Romantic period, as well as in the context of an otherwise classically denotated city.
After selling his grandiose and unlucky venture Fonthill Abbey, near Salisbury in Wiltshire, built over the site of his father’s legendary Fonthill Splendens, Beckford moved to Bath, where he had bought No. 20 Lansdown Crescent, living there from 1822 until his death twenty-two years later. There, as at Fonthill, he employed a dwarf to open the main door for guests and visitors. He also funded the construction of a tower on top of nearby Lansdown Hill (designed and built by Henry Goodridge in 1825-6, it could be reached via Beckford’s own private bridle-path that started at the back of the house proper). Beckford also had a bridge built to link No. 20 with the adjacent No. 1 Lansdown Place West, which he bought as an extension. Nowadays, the two buildings have reverted to being separate houses; the bridge is still there, but without any connecting function. Less immediately apparent, and adjacent to the gate leading to the bridle-path, is the ‘Moorish’ summer house in the garden at the back of No. 20. Michael Forsyth describes this summer house as a ‘small domed Islamic pavilion, believed to have been built by Beckford’ (p. 172). John Sweetman, instead, ascribes it more decisively to Beckford and, chronologically, to the 1820s, defining it a peculiar example of an Eastern-style building from a man who ‘built comparatively little in oriental styles for one so devoted to his own image of the Orient’ (p. 84).
The building has something intensely typical of Beckford’s orientalism to it – its eclecticism, which recalls Vathek’s admixture of orientalist and gothic traits, the didactic and the erotic tale, the Arabian Nights and the moral-philosophical ‘Oriental tale’. As a result, although the oriental features of the summer house can be easily appreciated from this image, it is more difficult to establish their provenance. Aptly, Robert Hillenbrand has defined the ‘Moorish’ style of the pavilion a combination of Ottoman and Egyptian traits, visible in the dome and the detail over the door respectively (p. 220). However, ‘Moorish’ requires some commentary as an unstable term with a long cultural history (think of the definition of Shakespeare’s Othello as a Moor, frequently debated by critics). In the Romantic period, ‘Moor’ and ‘Moorish’ were employed in relation to the Muslim civilization of the South of Spain flourishing from the eighth to the late fifteenth century. These terms also related to the peoples and civilizations of North Africa, and the Maghreb in particular, and to Islamic populations more generally still. ‘Moorish’ is another instance of the tendency to generalizations in ideas of the East, and to imagine the Orient as a continuous arc from Andalucia to East Asia.
Beckford’s pavilion may be seen as a token of the increasing fascination with the Orient, a desire to build, inhabit and more broadly consume it between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period in which what Sweetman calls an architectural ‘Oriental Obsession’ gathered momentum. Its composite style is in line with the eclecticism that characterized Regency design, with its combinations of Eastern, Gothic, Palladian, Italianate and other decorative modes. Specifically, the mixture of Georgian neoclassical rationalism of No. 20 Lansdown Crescent with the Moorish pavilion in its back garden is typical of the eclectic taste and sense of the theatrical pervading Beckford’s literary and artistic pursuits, not least his rearrangement of precious artefacts into new objets d’art and objets de vertu.
The small building is also significant because it is the opposite of what we usually associate with the scale of Romantic-era orientalist architecture and decoration: Sezincote House in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, and the Pavilion in Brighton most notably (Robert Morrison, The Regency Revolution, pp. 201-2). Also, from a literary perspective, Beckford’s pavilion is hardly the Palace of Alkoremi described in the opening of Vathek, and it pales in comparison to accounts of Beckford’s redecorating of Fonthill into an oriental extravaganza for his coming-of-age celebrations in 1781, or the house party held there at Christmas in 1782, for which the artist Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg designed scenery and devised special lighting and other effects (Lonsdale).
It is precisely its humble qualities and concealed position in a corner of the garden that tell us an interesting story about the Romantic-period interest in the exotic. It is an important reminder that the orientalist fashion in architecture and interior decoration came in various shapes and sizes besides the eye-catching monumental buildings with which we are more familiar. Beckford’s summer house has a quality that could be defined as one of exquisite plainness: it is plain because of its small scale and limited decorations, like those of a workaday building; but it is also exquisite because of its harmonious combination of different Islamic styles. The summer house is a private building, tucked away in the garden of a wealthy and extremely reclusive individual; as such, it remains an instance of luxe orientalist consumption. And yet, it is somehow un-Beckfordian in its simplicity and unostentatiousness, and therefore seems to indicate the progressive trickling-down effect that characterises the production and consumption of exotic artefacts of all kinds in the Romantic decades.
Its exquisite plainness, its hovering between refinement and privilege, on one side, and certain everyday qualities, on the other, make it a fascinating token of a Romantic material orientalism that oscillated between exclusive and more ordinary forms of consumption. As with orientalist artefacts generally, from poems and music to food and interior decoration, it is similar to a heraldic device, an object that signifies the relation between the West and the East and, specifically, an accomplished Western appropriation of Eastern cultures. It is also a token of the kind of homely exoticism and tamed orientalism that began to circulate between the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and which Romantic-period culture bequeathed to later generations.
Creator: Henry Edmund Goodridge
Subject: William Beckford
Media rights: Dr Steve Wharton
Object type: building
Format: brick, plaster, lead
Blackmore, Sidney, “The Bath Years, 1822-44”, in Derek E. Ostergard, ed., William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), pp. 263-77.
Forsyth, Michael, Bath: Pevsner Architectural Guides (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003).
Hillenbrand, Robert, “Occidental Oriental: Islamic Influences in the Art of Britain and America”, Oriental Art 35.4 (Winter 1989-90), pp. 218-25.
Morley, John, Regency Design 1790-1840: Gardens, Buildings, Interiors, Furniture (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1993).
Morrison, Robert, The Regency Revolution: Jane Austen, Napoleon, Lord Byron, and the Making of the Modern World (London: Atlantic Books, 2019).
Ostergard, Derek E., ed., William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001).
Sweetman, John E., The Oriental Obsession: Islamic Inspiration in British and American Art and Architecture, 1500-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).