Color caption: William Beckford, by George Romney (1734-1802), Courtesy National Trust Photographic Library/Upton House
B&W photo caption: Pair of French carved fruitwood candlesticks and a toilet box, workshop of Nicholas-François Foulon (1628-1698), Nancy, last quarter 17th century. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, 63. 42.5, .6, .7
William Beckford, aesthete, millionaire, and eccentric, is remembered as one of the most colorful figures in the history of collecting. Born in 1760 to vast wealth, Beckford demonstrated from an early age that he was unlikely to follow in the footsteps of his father, the bluff Alderman Beckford, whose wealth was founded on extensive plantations in Jamaica. Beckford the son used that wealth to amass one of the most extraordinary collections ever formed which, although dismantled in the nineteenth century, is particularly well-documented. These silver candlesticks well represent the main facets of his life and collecting, in particular his love of curiosities and antiquarian cabinet pieces in precious metal.
Much of Beckford's wealth was poured into his ill-fated monumental pile, Fonthill Abbey, but he also lavished vast sums on antiques and at the same time commissioned new objects, like these silver candlesticks, that were totally unlike current fashion. Although Horace Walpole had also enjoyed a taste for the antiquarian and had revived earlier styles at Strawberry Hill, Beckford can be seen as the first to foster a widespread antiquarian style, and these candlesticks represent the earliest examples of the medieval--or what was thought to be medieval-- revival style. In actual fact these candlesticks, which Beckford referred to as his "Holbein" candlesticks, are copies of French seventeenth century examples.
In addition to their importance as early examples of antiquarian taste, these candlesticks also represent Beckford's characteristic love of heraldry. The bases and sockets are decorated with scrolling foliage enclosing herons, a heraldic motif of the Beckford family that can be seen on a number of his commissions, including the engraved crest under the bases of these candlesticks. Beckford was obsessed with his own genealogy and referred to himself once as "a man who, by infinitely rare co-incidence, is without exception descended from all the barons - yes, all - who signed the Magna Carta". He spent much of his life attempting to prove his descent from all the sons of Edward IV.
Much of the silver Beckford commissioned before 1800 was in the neoclassical taste, the prevailing style of the day, and bought from prominent London silversmiths like John Scofield or from the Paris master Henri Auguste. By 1800, with the romantic facade of Fonthill rising, it is clear that his tastes in silver had turned to the exotic and historicist, and he began to develop his own personal interpretations of antique styles. While the precise story of the conception of these candlesticks is not known, the accounts of Vulliamy and Son, Beckford's supplier, describe them as follows: "...the whole Gilt and finished in so perfect a manner as exactly to resemble a pair of highly-finished Gold Chased Candlesticks" (Public Record Office, London, C.104/57).
Identical candlesticks are known in carved boxwood, and form part of a group of wood toilet articles clearly copied from contemporary French silver which have been attributed to the woodworking shops of Nancy. It has always been assumed that these treen examples provided the model for the present silver candlesticks, but Vulliamy's description suggests that silver-gilt originals from the reign of Louis XIV may have existed in London in 1800 and provided the specific model for the present examples. Whether or not Beckford knew they were copied from seventeenth century prototypes, he preferred to say that "they were executed after an original design by Holbein", to whom he also attributed a South German cabinet of about 1550 in his collection.
Vulliamy and Son were originally watch and clock makers, but by 1800 their business had expanded, largely due to the patronage of the Prince of Wales, into a leading supplier of objects of art in London. As Riger Smith has pointed out, the company was able to take advantage of the hostilities with France during the period to supplant the traditional role of the marchands-merciers of Paris as suppliers of luxury goods to the English aristocracy ("Vulliamy and the Kinnaird Candelabra," Apollo, January, 1997, p. 30). Vulliamy's use of Paul Storr's workshop as the maker of these candlesticks is not surprising, as Storr was, by 1800, emerging as the manufacturer of the highest quality silver in London. A few years later Storr entered into a partnership with the royal goldsmiths, Rundell and Bridge, becoming their primary supplier of silver and silver-gilt.
At Christmas in 1800, Beckford entertained Admiral Nelson and Sir William and Lady Hamilton at Fonthill. Only the great St. Michael's Gallery had been completed but the dramatic effect must have been breathtaking: "illuminated with a grand display of wax lights, on candlesticks and candelabras of massive silver-gilt exhibiting a scene at once strikingly splendid and awfully magnificent" (The Gentleman's Magazine, LXXI, 1801, p. 298).
Work continued at Fonthill for the next twenty years, but by 1822 Beckford was forced to sell Fonthill to John Farquhar, a Scottish millionaire. A sale was prepared of the contents by Christie's, but at the last minute it was cancelled and most of the contents of the Abbey sold to Farquhar. It appears that although these candlesticks appear in the Christie's catalogue of the aborted sale, that were not included in the property sold to Farquhar but were kept by Beckford and taken to the house he purchased in Bath, high atop a hill overlooking the city in Lansdowne Crescent. Here he soon began his building and collecting anew, and within a few years had not only combined the house next door with his own, but also constructed a tower on the top of Lansdowne Hill where he kept many of his most precious objects. It was said that it was from the top of the tower that Beckford on a winter's morning saw the great spired top of Fonthill Abbey collapse far away in Wiltshire, for Wyatt, the architect, had used substandard mortar.
After his death in 1844, Beckford's collections passed to his daughter Euphemia, who had married the Duke of Hamilton. Much of the Hamilton/Beckford collections were sold by Christie's in 1882, but further silver, including these candlesticks, were sold by Christie's for the 13th Duke of Hamilton in 1919.