DiCamillo Companion

Fonthill Splendens (Fonthill Gifford) (Old Fonthill House)

  • Earlier Houses: Alderman Beckford built Splendens (the second house) on the site of Fonthill House (the first house), a Tudor house that burned down in 1755.

    Built / Designed For: Alderman William Beckford

    House & Family History: Fonthill Splendens, built by Alderman Beckford, was one of the largest Palladian houses in England. The alderman purchased the estate of 3,000 acres on the Wiltshire-Dorset border, then called Fonthill House, in 1745 from Francis Cottington, a Roman Catholic Jacobite. The alderman had an enormous income (derived from plantations in Jamaica worked by approximately 3,000 slaves), greater than that of most British dukes, and set about improving the park and adding land to the estate. In 1755 the original Fonthill House burned down. The new house, to be called Fonthill Splendens, was designed by a City builder name Hoare (little seems to be known about this architect-builder) and was sited to the south of the remains of the old Fonthill House. Splendens was enclosed within an 8,000-acre estate shielded by seven miles of walls. William Beckford, the alderman's son, employed James Wyatt as an adviser in creating the seven-mile long, twelve-foot-high wall, which took three years to build. In 1786 William Beckford commissioned John Soane to convert a corridor on the second floor of his father's house into a picture gallery. Christopher Woodward states that "The Splendens gallery would have been one of the earliest picture galleries in an English country house to be illuminated by top lighting" (it preceded the famous top-lit picture gallery at Attingham Park by about 20 years). William Beckford moved into his incomplete Fonthill Abbey in 1807 and then demolished Splendens (circa 1760 Rococo ironwork removed from Splendens was reinstalled on the great staircase at Dodington Park, Gloucestershire). A watercolor and pencil sketch of Splendens by unknown British artist, circa 1800-10, is today in the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut.

    Collections: Alderman Beckford built one of the greatest art collections in Britain. Among his most notable purchases were eight canvases of Hogarth's "A Rake's Progress" and six of the artist's "A Harlot's Progress"; these were hung in the older house that burned in 1755. The "Rake" was rescued, but the "Harlot" was left to the fire. William Beckford (the alderman's son) sold the paintings, along with much else, in 1802 at Christie's as being "unsuitable for a Gothic Abbey" (Mrs. Soane, wife of John Soane, paid £570 for the "Rake.") The Soanes also purchased Canaletto's 1736 View of Venice for £150.10s at the Beckford sale of 1807. "Lady in a Red Corset and Satin Dress" by Jean-Honore Fragonard was one of the artist's last works and, atypically for Fragonard, is not flamboyant and sensuous, but reflects a new direction in his stylistic development: the style of 17th century Dutch genre paintings. The Fragonard was recorded at Fonthill Splendens in 1801, where it hung in the upstairs gallery and was also at Fonthill Abbey, where it was in the dining room. This painting followed Beckford to Lansdown Crescent, Bath, and thence passed to the Hamiltons, where it was sold from Hamilton Palace in the sale of 1882. In 1794 Beckford purchased, for £950, at auction the library of Edward Gibbon (1737-94), famous for his magisterial work "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

  • Garden & Outbuildings: The alderman built follies and temples on his estate, including a Chinese pagoda. He dammed the local stream to create a serpentine river near the house, and built a five-arched stone bridge with balustrade to cross the new river. The Lanes, father and son, of Tisbury constructed no less than four grottoes for the alderman. Timothy Mowl, in his book "William Beckford: Composing for Mozart," believes that John Vardy probably constructed one of the most evocative gardens buildings of the 18th century at Splendens: a boathouse/temple with a cold bath and nymph's grotto. There was also a hermitage with a fireplace for Gothic picnics and an altar in the center with the reclining figure of a river god holding a scepter. The new house was enclosed within an 8,000-acre estate shielded by seven miles of walls. William Beckford, the alderman's son, employed James Wyatt as an adviser in creating the seven-mile long, twelve-foot-high wall; it ultimately took three years to build.

  • Architect: Richard Woods

    Date: Circa 1760s
    Designed: Advised the Alderman on landscaping. Probably responsible for flooding the Serpentine river and bridge.
    (Attribution of this work is uncertain)
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    Architect: Joseph Lane

    Designed: 4 grottoes for Alderman Beckford

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    Architect: John Vardy Sr.

    Designed: Boathouse/Temple with cold bath and nymph's grotto
    (Attribution of this work is uncertain)
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    Architect: John Soane

    Date: 1786-87
    Designed: Double-domed, Ionic-pilastered Picture Gallery on attic floor; designs for chimneypieces in Tapestry Room and Parlour.

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    Architect: James Wyatt

    Date: Uncertain
    Designed: Ceilings of House and Fishing Lodge for Alderman Beckford

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    Architect: ? Hoare

    Date: Circa 1757-70
    Designed: May have designed House and probably acted as builder for Alderman William Beckford
    (Attribution of this work is uncertain)
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  • Vitruvius Britannicus: IV, 1767, pls. 82-87.

    Country Life: John Harris in Nov 24, 1966 issue.

  • Title: Sir John Soane's Museum London
    Author: Knox, Tim
    Year Published: 2009
    Reference: pg. 27
    Publisher: London: Merrell Publishers Limited
    ISBN: 9781858944753
    Book Type: Hardback

    Title: William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent
    Author: Ostergard, Derek E. (Editor)
    Year Published: 2001
    Reference: pgs. 326-327
    Publisher: New Haven: Yale University Press
    ISBN: 0300090684
    Book Type: Hardback

    Title: Country Houses in Great Britain
    Author: NA
    Year Published: 1979
    Publisher: New Haven: Yale Center for British Art
    ISBN: 0930606191
    Book Type: Softback

    Title: William Beckford: Composing for Mozart
    Author: Mowl, Timothy
    Year Published: 1998
    Publisher: London: John Murray
    ISBN: 0719558298
    Book Type: Hardback

    Title: Biographical Dictionary of British Architects, 1600-1840, A - SOFTBACK
    Author: Colvin, Howard
    Year Published: 1995
    Publisher: New Haven: Yale University Press
    ISBN: 0300072074
    Book Type: Softback

    Title: Apollo (magazine)
    Author: NA
    Year Published: NA
    Reference: Feb 1998, pgs 31-40
    Publisher: London: Apollo Magazine Ltd.
    ISBN: NA
    Book Type: Magazine

  • House Listed: Demolished

    Park Listed: Grade II*

  • Past Seat / Home of: SEATED AT FIRST HOUSE: Sir John Mervyn, 16th century. Francis Cottington, 1st Baron Cottington, 17th century. John Bradshaw, 17th century. Francis Cottington, until 1745. Alderman William Beckford, 1745-55. SEATED AT SECOND HOUSE: Alderman William Beckford, 1757-70; William Beckford, 1770-1807.

    Current Ownership Type: Demolished

    Primary Current Ownership Use: Demolished

  • House Open to Public: No

    Website: https://fonthill.co.uk

    Historic Houses Member: No