Diary of Events
A major Temporary Exhibition, “Fonthill Fever”, marks the bicentenary of William Beckford’s sale of the Fonthill Abbey estate in 1822, and the subsequent auction of the house contents in 1823 by its new owner. We are grateful to curator Sidney Blackmore, Secretary of the Beckford Society, and to the Bath Preservation Trust, for the loan of contemporary books, artefacts, and Michael Bishop’s magnificent scale model of the Abbey. Dr Amy Frost, Curator of Beckford’s Tower and Museum, gave an outstanding 2022 Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture and returns by popular demand in January 2024.
William Beckford was an absentee slave owner who squandered a fortune, mostly accrued from forced labour on the family’s Jamaican sugar plantations, building a Gothic fantasy in Wiltshire and filling it with expensive objets d’art. By 1821 he was unable to pay the interest on debts calculated to be £145,000 – about £15 million at today’s values. Had he not been MP for the pocket borough of Hindon, probably he would have been languishing in a Dickensian debtors’ prison. Reluctantly, Beckford put the sale of Fonthill in the hands of auctioneer James Christie and decamped to Bath, where he began yet more grandiose building. Beckford had surrounded his estate with a forbidding stone wall so few outsiders had seen even the exterior of the Abbey, let alone the art treasures it was said to contain. News of the impending sale sparked enormous interest among the monied classes (who previously had shunned the bisexual Beckford) and provided work for printer/publishers like John Rutter of Shaftesbury and opportunities for entrepreneurs to market Fonthill souvenirs. The full story of both sales (and an almighty crash in 1825) is superbly told in this not-to-be-missed FREE exhibition.
Childhood is the theme for displays in the Large Exhibition Room. Here there is space to do justice to the marvellous Dolls’ Houses hand-crafted by the late Tryphena Orchard. There are four miniature room settings in individual boxes, ranging from a Roman interior to a lavishly furnished Victorian drawing room occupied by authentically costumed residents. Tryphena also generously gave the Museum three much larger model buildings: two semi-detached houses in 1920’s Art Deco style with roof terraces, planters and garden furniture, and a two-storey Tudor Tea Rooms. All three buildings are connected by an imaginative backstory which enabled Tryphena to decorate and furnish the interiors in superbly convincing detail, the tiny accessories including crockery, cakes, cooking facilities, and even a pet cat.
Tisbury History Society also provides an interesting programme of lectures in the Hinton Hall, Tisbury at 7.30p.m. on the second Tuesday of the month. Gillingham Local History Society meets on the third Tuesday of the month in the Methodist Church Hall, High Street, Gillingham (times vary).
Engraving of Fonthill Abbey from Delineations of Fonthill published in 1823 by Shaftesbury printer John Rutter. Lancaster Tower to the left is all that remains of Beckford’s creation.
Miniature Tea Rooms and Cake Shop created by Tryphena Orchard