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Excessive behaviour and extraordinary collections: William Beckford and Alfred Morrison, two nineteenth-century millionaire collectors

Dakers, Caroline (2014) Excessive behaviour and extraordinary collections: William Beckford and Alfred Morrison, two nineteenth-century millionaire collectors. In: Gold in/and Art, 18 - 19 September 2014, Musée Paul-Dupuy, Toulouse, France.

Type of Research: Conference, Symposium or Workshop Item
Creators: Dakers, Caroline

"Almost every day now I see … objects of curiosity, and seeing them one always thinks them desirable; then one gives little commissions, and then one makes little purchases, and so piling up debts and deficits one marches towards an abyss as black as death!" (William Beckford)

This paper examines the 19th century appetite for collecting and commissioning luxurious objects and interiors manifest in the excessive behaviour of the reclusive, bisexual William Beckford (1760-1844) and the ‘Victorian Maecenas’ Alfred Morrison (1821-1897). It explores the links between the pursuit and ostentatious display of the most precious materials as the outward demonstration of wealth and power, and the desire of the newly rich for social status.

Both collectors were second-generation millionaires. William Beckford senior had made his fortune in the slave plantations of Jamaica and built the palatial Fonthill Splendens; James Morrison sold textiles (including cotton from the American slave states), stocks and shares and bought six country estates including part of Fonthill, Basildon Park and the Scottish island Islay.

Their sons were consequently linked through the relatively humble backgrounds of their fathers, and through inheriting large fortunes and land at Fonthill in Wiltshire. Beckford was a builder as well as a collector. He demolished most of Splendens and built the grand folly Fonthill Abbey (designed by James Wyatt). Forced to sell up and move to Bath when the price of sugar collapsed, he formed a new collection inside his house on Lansdown Crescent and built the extraordinary Lansdown Tower, both a gallery and his own mausoleum. Morrison concentrated on collecting and decorating: he inherited the surviving wing of Fonthill Splendens (the Abbey had collapsed in 1825) which he extended and commissioned Owen Jones to re-decorate; in London he commissioned Jones to create a palace of art inside one of the palatial houses on Carlton House Terrace.

Beckford and Morrison shared similar tastes, ambitions and anxieties. They were addicted to both quantity and quality, to glitter, to colour, and to the unique: tables of Florentine marble, Italian tortoiseshell, ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory; Egyptian porphyry; lacquer bureaucabinets and boulle furniture; Etruscan vases and classical statues; gold inlay; enamel; damascenework in silver and gold. Morrison’s commission from the craftsman Lucien Falize is one example: a fantastic object of gold, silver, enamels and gems, designed in the shape of a late Gothic church tower. It was regarded as a subject of marvel, ‘a work in which the opulence of the materials has been exceeded twenty times over by the work of the artist ...a masterpiece evoking the marvels of the Louvre Museum.’

Their ‘palaces of art’ were open to a few pre-selected visitors. Beckford was dogged by his scandalous life-style while Morrison’s boasting that his collection was ‘the finest in the world’ only distanced guests. Surrounded by objects only their money could buy, they could ignore those outside who questioned their claims to be gentlemen. They behaved like addicts, but, like all addicts, they were serially disappointed: all that glitters is not gold.

Official Website: http://www.gold-in-art.org/
Keywords/subjects not otherwise listed: Patronage, wealth, collecting,
Your affiliations with UAL: Colleges > Central Saint Martins
Date: 18 September 2014
Event Location: Musée Paul-Dupuy, Toulouse, France
Date Deposited: 22 May 2015 16:07
Last Modified: 22 May 2015 16:07
Item ID: 7943
URI: https://ualresearchonline.arts.ac.uk/id/eprint/7943

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