The ambition to build high, evident in London today, goes back generations, perhaps even to the Tower of Babel. Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire was a neo-Gothic extravaganza which attracted notoriety and public curiosity in its time. It was built by William Beckford (1760-1844), reputed to be the richest man in Britain, and designed by James Wyatt. The building housed Beckford’s extensive art collection and library and was decorated with heraldic shields to mark Beckford’s supposed descent from Edward III. Beckford lost his money in 1822 and the house and contents sold.
Fonthill was most famous for its tower, purported to be the tallest tower in Wiltshire and built to vie with the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. It fell down numerous times, the final time in 1825, when it demolished part of the remaining building. Afterwards, the remains of the house were slowly removed, leaving only fragments.
Amongst the Library’s rare books is John Britton’s Graphical and literary illustrations of Fonthill Abbey, Wiltshire: with heraldical and genealogical notices of the Beckford family (London: Printed for the author, 1823). As well as containing descriptions of the building and grounds (including an account of the visit to the house by Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton in 1800), the book has several engravings of views of the abbey. The book was bought by the Library in 1960 through the H.M. Fletcher bequest. Henry Martineau Fletcher (1870-1953) had been AA President from 1918-19, and the bequest was for the purchase of special books.
The building was painted by several artists, most notably by J.M.W. Turner, whose paintings of the house are currently on display at Salisbury Museum in ‘Turner and Wessex: architecture and ambition’, see http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/