Who Let The Bloodhounds Out? William Beckford Apparently

Bridport-based artist Jules Cross has very kindly donated his latest creation, a striking and atmospheric oil painting of Fonthill Abbey by moonlight, to Gold Hill Museum. This follows his generous gift of valuable first edition guides to Fonthill Abbey published by Shaftesbury printer John Rutter and his competitor John Britton. Their rivalry features in our free Fonthill Fever Exhibition, curated by Beckford Society Secretary Sidney Blackmore, and retained for a second and final season to coincide with the bicentenary of the second sale in September 1823.

Though Jules has lived in Bridport since 2005, exhibiting a series of paintings of Bridport shops and shoppers, he acquired a special interest in William Beckford while resident in Hindon. His 2023 work is entitled An Intruder at Fonthill – Evading Mr Beckford’s Bloodhounds. It was inspired by a story told by the renowned Victorian painter William Powell Frith (1819-1909) in his Autobiography and Reminiscences published in 1887. Frith was famous for panoramic scenes such as The Derby Day and The Railway Station (Paddington), and for portraits of fictional characters from literature. He is unlikely to have ever seen Fonthill Abbey as the structure collapsed in 1825, when he can have been no more than six years old. The story may therefore be fiction too.

A curious visitor finds the gate in the formidable wall encircling the Fonthill estate unattended. He wanders inside and encounters a man he takes to be a gardener, who provides a detailed tour of the gardens. An invitation is then extended to view the interior of the house and its art treasures. When the visitor worries that the owner might object, his host replies: I don’t think Mr Beckford will mind what I do. You see, I have known him all my life, and he lets me do pretty well what I like here.

The internal tour is followed by a magnificent dinner, served on massive plate – the wines of the rarest vintage. Rarer still was Mr Beckford’s conversation, for the host had revealed his identity. The guest dozes off in an easy chair, to be woken by a footman who says: Mr Beckford ordered me to present his compliments to you, sir, and I am to say that as you found your way into Fonthill Abbey without any assistance, you may find your way out again as best you can: and he hopes you will take care to avoid the bloodhounds that are let loose in the gardens every night.

Jules’s painting captures the surreal nature of this story, with a fugitive making off from the tree where he has spent an uncomfortable night, in the lower right corner. We are grateful too for Jules’s donation of prints of contemporary landscape engravings. It is planned to hang his picture in Room 8 when the promised new display cases have been delivered and assembled.

Fonthill Old Abbey with modern house
Remnant of Fonthill Old Abbey with modern house

Old Fonthill Abbey Grounds are open for charity 10.00-5.00 on Sunday 14 May 2023, entry at SP3 6SP on the Hindon Newtown lane.