Tuesday, 14 December 2021

William Beckford in Paris


 Beckford by John Hoppner, Salford Art Gallery        
Few Englishmen obtained greater celebrity in the late 18th and early 19th century than William Beckford, eccentric, hedonist and creator of the marvellous gothick folly of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire. 

In 1784 Beckford, then a young man of twenty-four, journeyed with his long suffering wife to Paris. In the course of his sejourn he wrote a series of letters addressed to his mistress Louisa, the wife of his cousin Peter.  The letters survive only in copies which Beckford transcribed in his own hand years later, in 1834.  In all probability they were never intended to be sent, but were written for publication; it is reported that the elderly Beckford was in the habit of reading extracts to favoured guests in his retreat at Lansdown Tower in Bath.  How far the letters are genuine reportage and how far fanciful reminiscences, is anyone's guess.  Either way, they are a fascinating read, though possibly more for the light they shed on Beckford's psyche than for their insights into pre-Revolutionary France.

A discussion of the letters, with substantial extracts, is included  in John Walter Oliver's biography, The Life of William Beckford, published in 1932.  [Available for loan on Internet Archive]

Winter in Paris

On 29th December 1783 Beckford and his wife  Lady Margaret left for Paris, where they were to spend the early months of 1784.

p.161-66:  In his first letter,  dated January 19th 1784,  Beckford confines himself mainly to complaints about the cold, though he finds that the house of  his hostess Mme de la Vallière offers "tolerable warmth both of temperature and conversation".  There is a good deal of name-dropping. The banker Laborde's new house, in the rue Artois, "remains as damp as a grotto", though he has "blazing fires and blazing company, Cordons bleus and Cordons rouge, - and all sorts of stars and gingambos". The palaces of the duchesse de Luyne and the duc de Brissac are also mercilessly glacial, whilst at the Hôtel de la Rochefoucauld "Freeziology in all shapes reigns paramount".  The abodes of rich Parisians are, it seems, imposing but comfortless, especially in winter.

  But who can describe the woes at this season in most of these high places - such fusty dining rooms with a cool looking, glazy stove in one corner, such lofty antichambers with no stove at all, and such huge, square, begilded and be-mirrored saloons, each with a single chimney piece and twenty human screens relieving each other in perpetual succession before it.

The streets, however, are still full of life;  indeed Paris is "Lucifer's own metropolis" teaming with every amusement, conceivable and inconceivable". 

A meeting with Hubert Robert

p166-67: A second letter, dated January 27th 1784, describes an encounter with the artist Hubert Robert.  Beckford perhaps dwells a little too much on Robert's legendary complaisance and good humour for his account to be entirely convincing. 

Hubert Robert by Peter Adolf Hall,  1775,
Nationalmuseum Stockholm

Nationalmuseum - Hubert Robert (zetcom.ch)
Beckford relates that he been gadding about Paris accompanied by two English ladies, Lady Clarges and her friend Molly Carter.  One of his favourite haunts was the Louvre where many artists lodged: 

Twas there, yesterday, we caught Robert (who is as industrious as a spider) spinning a most beautiful we, light aerial enfilades of palaces, bowery trees, fountains and waterfalls, gay as Watteau, but more classical.  

The works had been commissioned by the comte d'Artois: "and most heartily do I envy H.R. Highness their possession - the hues of these lengthened perspectives, these graceful avenues, are so delicate, so vapoury". (p.166-7).

Beckford is perhaps remembering the series of Italianate landscapes, now in the Metropolitan Museum,  which Robert created for the bathroom at Bagatelle.  Joseph Baillio thinks that these paintings were probably executed between 1770 and 1779, though two of the canvases are signed and dated 1784, which was when some damage from damp was repaired.  
See Baillio, "Hubert Robert's Decorations for the Château de Bagatelle", Metropolitan Museum Journal, vol. 27 (1992).

An encounter with a lioness

p.167-171: Robert agreed to accompany the party to the Jardin du Roi.  Beckford reports:  "I had not been in the garden half an hour before I met with an adventure - the great Lioness fell in love with me".  The ladies had been scooped up by a youthful Buffon, who took them round the repositories of stuffed birds, alligators and crocodiles. Beckford meanwhile wandered among the animals, noticing first a Wolf, then a Hyena, disconsolately pacing up and down in its cage.  Finally, he came upon the star attraction, the "famous Lioness - renowned for her extraordinary size and superior comliness".  He met  the gaze of the beast, talked in modulated tones, and apparently won her trust:  "All on a sudden she became as good humoured playsome as the most familiar of parlour spaniels". - so much so that the keeper invited him into the cage.  Beckford entered and even held the lioness's paw: "You know my predilection for animals and to think I possessed the power of conciliating one so formidable enchanted me beyond idea"...Naturally the exploit attracted a huge admiring audience.


Beckford's story has problems of dating.  Buffon was in his seventies by 1784 so the "young comte de Buffon" is presumably the naturalist's son, Georges Louis Marie Leclerc de Buffon (1764-1793). More problematically, there were no animals at the Jardin des plantes before the transfer of the Versailles menagerie  in 1794. The "famous lioness" , Constantine, came to the park only in 1798.  She was brought, with her mate Marc, from Tunis by the keeper Félix Cassal, whose unusually close relationship with his charges was much marvelled at.  In 1800 great public interest was aroused when Constantine gave birth to three cubs (named Marengo, Fleurus and Jemmapes!).  Beckford  is almost certainly appropriating Cassal's intimacy with the lioness as his own.

See "Constantine et ses lionceaux"  on the Jardin des plantes website:

A Supernatural Experience 

p.172-181: There follows next an undated letter, in a folder entitled, "Mysterious Visit - the Grim Visaged Old Man etc." 

Beckford relates an episode which he claims had made him "so ill and feverish he could not write" and had rendered him sleepless.  This mysterious occurrence "had about it something superhuman - something that 'froze my young blood' and made me gasp and writhe as if under the actual and immediate pressure of some horrid occult influence"

The story centres on the architect Nicolas Ledoux, whom Beckford had met on a previous visit to Paris in 1781. Beckford was not impressed by the either the personal appearance or the work of Ledoux.  He describes him as a "singularly high-flown personage", full of "courtly blandishments" and sporting a "magnificent full powdered aile de Pigeon coiffure".  His prestigious new customs houses resembled "the entrances of a Necropolis".

Ledoux invited Beckford to his home to view his designs, among which is was a striking drawing for the ceiling of a "sumptuous apartment". Ledoux explained: 

 It belongs to a revered friend of mine, whose thoughts, words, and actions are not the common world - his habits, his appearance, his garb are peculiar - very peculiar - so much so indeed, that he never wishes to manifest himself - unless to persons born under peculiar influences.  

Beckford was duly awarded the privilege of a visit.  He travelled in a closed carriage to a hidden chateau about an hour's drive from Paris, the entrance of which was concealed amongst immense pyramidal woodpiles.

Etching showing early illustration to Vathek
 A. H. Torriere after Beckford. | Wellcome Collection

Ledoux and Beckford made their way through a series of rooms until they finally reach a magnificent salon, presided over by "a formal looking old man of small stature, but imposing presence", who was dressed in an antique silken suit.  Beckford was invited to study the works of art in the room.  His attention was drawn to a colossal bronze cistern on a green porphyry base, filled with clear water.

As I stood contemplating the last gleams of a ruddy sunset reflected on its placid surface - the old man, risen at length from his stately chair, approached - and no sooner had he drawn near, than the water becoming agitated rose up in waves.  Upon the gleaming surface of the undulating fluid - flitted by a succession of ghastly shadows, somewhat resembling, I thought, the human form in the last agonies of dissolution - but as these horrid appearances passed along with inconceivable swiftness, I distinguished little, quite sufficient,  however, to impart a thrill of terror to my whole frame it never experienced before.  

Despite his resolve to keep calm, Beckford could not  help exclaiming, "This is most frightfully extraordinary" -  a  response which clearly did not commend itself to his interlocutor.  A stony-faced Ledoux led him away up a staircase to  a tribune, overlooking a chapel.  Light streamed in and melancholy voices chanted.  Beckford broke into an ill-timed recitation of the Lord's Prayer. According to Ledoux, Beckford had now lost forever the chance to gain hidden knowledge:

"Had you undergone a slight ceremony we were on the point of proposing, you might have asked any question, however abstruse, with the certainly o fits being resolved. You would not only have heard - but seen things ineffable." 

Retracing their steps through the rooms past the woodpiles, the party returned to Paris.

Once again Beckford's testimony should probably not be taken at face value.  Ledoux was almost certainly a Freemason, but evidence for his involvement in secret societies or the occult rests solely on this account.  Ledoux's 1990 biographer Anthony Vidler, offers a long exegesis of the complex occult symbolism suggested by Beckford, but fails to pinpoint convincingly the location of events;  the chateaux of Bénouville, Mauperthuis and  Bourneville, all designed by Ledoux before 1785, are suggested, but none is a perfect match.  Helen Rosenau, in a 1983 article, was sceptical. It seemed to her more likely that Beckford,  stimulated by his visit to Ledoux studio ("one of the strangest mock-palaces you ever saw") conjured up the whole episode; the only journey the two men had shared was a voyage of exploration through Ledoux's models and drawings.

See the discussion by Martha Longford (1991 McGill University thesis, p.73-77) 

At the Salon of Madame Necker 

p.185-191: Beckford had become acquainted, probably during one of his earlier visits, with Jacques and Madame Necker and their daughter Louise, the future Madame de Staël, who was eighteen at this time. He had favoured the young woman a copy of his Dreams, Waking Thoughts, and Incidents, which resulted in an invitation to a dinner. Among the guests of honour were the dancer and composer Gardel, who a few years later was to become ballet master at the Opéra Français, and the musician Niccola Piccini, the most popular Italian composer of his day.  Also present were Marmontel, Raynal, Buffon and  the astronomer Joseph-Jérôme de Lalande. Beckford, however, was not impressed by the company.  He resented having his dancing and harpsicord playing criticised, and gives a spiteful account of Madmoiselle's rendition of one of Piccini's arias. Worse was to come:

[Piccini's] most animated pupil had scarcely quavered the last roulade, when the great doors of the grand saloon flying open discovered a synod of sallow literati in full court dress, and a row of long waisted pink and yellow dowagers, all seated on fauteuils composed of the stiffest tapestry, all taking deliberate pinches of snuff at frequent invervals, and all determined to cross examine poor unfortunate me as if I had been actually expected to take degrees in their supremely dull coterie (p.188)

Orchestrated by the assembled savants, conversation proved dull: "Zoology, Geology and Meteorology formed the chief topics discussed, but tautology prevailed over all...."  

Beckford gives an amusing picture of the great Necker himself , whom he found "the least husky and wearisome" of the gathering.  Contrary to rumours that he had been depressed by his recent fall from grace, Beckford found him surrounded by flatterers and "complacently self-satisfied".  Beckford  was impressed by Necker's intellect. "As to his exterior, it reminds me of the maître d'hôtel in the ballet de Mirza - nothing but a napkin under the arm wanting to perfect the resemblance.  When he has just receive a well turned compliment his mouth becomes as round as the letter O..."(p.189)  

Beckford finally contrived to cut short the visit by upsetting a goblet of water into the lap of Necker's "pedantic, domineering consort". He was not too distressed to be escorted out of the house and was not invited back. 

Intimations of Revolution 

p.191-93: In his final epistle, Beckford notes that, although it was now Lententide , the Devil was still in the ascendant in the "Cafés, Boudoirs and Dining Rooms of Paris"; the Archbishop's pious placards had been targeted with rotten eggs and the social whirl was "more festive, more glittering, and more abominably depraved than ever".

In these swansong years of Enlightenment rationalism, "nothing so vulgar as religion is ever alluded to at those selected great dinners and 'petits soupers' where the new light of doubly refined philosophy is shedding its beams in profusion."  In Beckford's metaphor, this society has hatched swarms of unseen noxious insects which acquire fresh vigour every day:  "Some lull all terror of the future asleep by their soft drowsy hummings, others are sharpening their stings, and even threatening to use them."

There is more than a note of hindsight in Beckford's prophecies of doom, but his vision of a rotten and  hypocritical élite is worth the quote:

Every thing at Paris one sees, ones hears, one feels, from the painted face to the cork protuberance is sheer art.  Rousseau's prose poems in praise of nature have been sung in vain.  Nature is forgotten or unknown.  I am sick to death of the "pedantic gabble" in such vogue here at the present moment in the highest circles about political wants and political miseries, admiration for rebellious America and contempt for Cathedrals and palaces, Versailles and Rheims certainly not excepted.  The turgid display of sentiment, not one of those titled prater and prateresses actually feel, is to be perfectly nauseous.  The reality of their liberal wishes and good will to the people at large is so problematical that I am more than persuaded this pretended milk of human kindness would turn to the deadliest poison at the first evident appearance of a patriotic thunder storm. 

That such a tempest is brewing requires no inspiration to foretell. ....

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