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William Beckford collection

Call Number: GEN MSS 102

Scope and Contents

The William Beckford Collection consists of letters, manuscripts, documents, and printed material relating to the life and career of William Beckford (1760-1844) and the Beckford family. Beckford is best known as the author of the Oriental fantasy Vathek, a collector of fine books and art, and the builder of impressive homes at Fonthill-Gifford and Bath. The material in the collection spans the years 1737 to 1967, with the bulk of the material contemporary with Beckford's life.

The collection is divided into four series: I. Correspondence, II. Writings, III. Family Papers, and IV. Other Papers.

Series I, Correspondence , consists of correspondence written during Beckford's life and is divided into three subseries: Letters from William Beckford, Letters to William Beckford, and Third Party Correspondence. Letters from Beckford to family, friends, and acquaintances reveal much about his personal life and career. Many letters written from various European cities describe Beckford's travels and meetings with famous people.

Equally significant is the collection of letters from Beckford to his friend the Reverend Samuel Henley, the translator of Vathek into English. A number of letters between 1782 and 1784 discuss the writing and publication of Vathek and the succeeding "Episodes of Vathek." On November 18, 1783 he informs Henley concerning Vathek, "You have the only copy which exists of the only production of mine which I am not ashamed of & with which I am not disgusted. Thank God Vathek has produced no misunderstanding." He adds an note concerning his Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents: "I may still dwell upon the recollection with pleasure; but how can I endure my book of Dreams when I reflect what disagreeable waking thoughts it has occasioned us...?"

Other letters to Henley implore him to take charge of the education of William Courtenay, the young boy whose association with Beckford caused an intense scandal in 1784. A letter of October 13, 1784, just after his visit to Courtenay at his home, Powderham Castle, alludes to this affair: "You must know we have been in Devonshire & passed a month at Powderham Castle, where I lived in one perpetual worry to use a nursery expression which I have caught at the above mentioned place." He later writes of this affair to Henley, "It is impossible for me to enter into details upon the subject you mention. Let it suffice for me to assure you--that the reports you hear are the grossest calumnies & that a certain young person I once thought my friend--has proved himself the meanest traytor [sic]--& the blackest enemy. . . ."

Series I also contains three bound volumes of copies of letters from Beckford to George Clarke, his principal book agent. These letters, written between 1830 and 1834, reveal Beckford's knowledge of authors, artists, and books and indicate both his own collecting interests and collecting trends of the early nineteenth century. His letters often become venomous in describing unscrupulous booksellers and collectors, especially those who have wronged him. Although his letters to Clarke primarily concern his book collecting, Beckford occasionally refers to Mozart and other acquaintances and to his own writing. At the end of the final volume of the Clarke correspondence is an incomplete attempt at a topical index.

Letters to H. E. Goodrich, the primary architect of Beckford's Lansdown Tower in Bath, concern the construction of this home and Beckford's tomb and reveal Beckford's knowledge of and attention to architectural details and decor.

A volume of letters to William Smith, Jr, printseller in London, discusses items Beckford had purchased or wished to purchase and discloses much about his interest and tastes in art, mentioning purchases of works by Titian, Van Dyck, Rubens, etc.

A rather lengthy letter to Sir William Hamilton reveals Beckford's quest or a peerage (December 15, 1800).

Letters to unidentified correspondents and copies of Beckford's letters collected by James T. Babb have been placed at the end of this subseries.

The Correspondence series also contains letters from a number of Beckford's contemporaries, many of whom offer revealing glimpses of Beckford or Fonthill. Letters from Thomas Adams to John Britton (September to November, 1823) speak of the sale of Fonthill Abbey and its effects. An undated letter from H. Austed to Britton says of Beckford, "It must seem very curious to some people to be one day told that a man is totally ruined & in a week in the same paper that he is about to level a great hill or if that is not practicable to raise a Saxon tower to reach the clouds in order to obtain a view of his former residence. . . ." There is also a rather vitriolic exchange of letters between Britton, the author of Graphical and Literary Illustrations of Fonthill Abbey, and his illustrator George Cattermole concerning Cattermole's sketches for this work.

Series II, Writings , consists of writings by Beckford and Elizabeth Hervey, his half-sister. Included are a copy of a portion of Beckford's diary, two short poems by Beckford, and two copies of Hervey's novel Julia.

Series III, Personal Papers , consists of statements of indenture for several members of the Beckford family, a copy of Beckford's will, and items relating to the building of Fonthill Abbey.

Series IV, Other Papers , consists of various types of material on a number of subjects relating to Beckford, arranged alphabetically by subject. Included are genealogical and biographical information on Beckford and his family; articles on Beckford, his homes, and his writings; prints and photographs of Beckford, his father, Fonthill Abbey, and Lansdown Tower; and correspondence among Beckford collectors and booksellers. The file on Fonthill Abbey is especially rich, with many late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century articles, contemporary descriptions, and sketches. The file on Vathek contains articles and notes on the publishing history of Beckford's most significant work. The Rowland Burdon-Miller correspondence file has a number of letters from noted book collector and author John Carter. Filed at the end of the series is a 16mm motion picture film on Beckford, accompanied by a reel-to-reel audio tape soundtrack and documentation. The film features scenes associated with William Beckford in Bath, England. The film was planned and produced by Andrew Barnett and Alan Scott, students at the Kingswood School in Bath, during the 1966 Bath Festival which was devoted to Beckford.


  • 1735 - 1967


Physical Description

Other Storage Formats: Oversize

Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Box 14: Restricted fragile material (motion picture film and sound recording). Reference copies may be requested. Consult Access Services for further information.

Conditions Governing Use

The William Beckford Collection is the physical property of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the appropriate curator.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The collection was formed primarily from gifts by three noted Beckford collectors: James T. Babb, Rowland Burden-Muller, and Ray Livingston Murphy, with additional purchases.


6.46 Linear Feet (14 boxes)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The William Beckford Collection consists of correspondence, a few manuscripts, personal papers of Beckford family members, a 16mm motion picture film on Beckford with accompanying reel-to-reel soundtrack, and other papers relating to Beckford research and collections.

Guide to the William Beckford Collection
by William K. Finley
September 1991
Description rules
Beinecke Manuscript Unit Archival Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Repository

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Access Information

The Beinecke Library is open to all Yale University students and faculty, and visiting researchers whose work requires use of its special collections. You will need to bring appropriate photo ID the first time you register. Beinecke is a non-circulating, closed stack library. Paging is done by library staff during business hours. You can request collection material online at least two business days in advance of your visit, using the request links in Archives at Yale. For more information, please see Planning Your Research Visit and consult the Reading Room Policies prior to visiting the library.