23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 46

William Beckford, 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent (Dulwich Picture Gallery, till 14 April)

Pursuit of excellence

Ruth Gtulding

In 1844 20,000 people lined the streets of Bath to watch the funeral cavalcade of William Beckford make its way to the Abbey cemetery, where the corpse of this peculiar 83-year-old man was entombed in a pink granite sarcophagus.

Beckford was universally famous as the builder of Bath's landmark Lansdown Tower and, before that, of the vertiginous, collapsed Fonthill Abbey; as a notorious bisexual who was fabulously wealthy; the author of the literary curiosity Varthek; and as a self-avowedly unhappy recluse. His life was devoted to the creation of memorials and the falsification of autobiography — untruths which have only recently been exposed.

Marked by the opening of this exhibition, the cult of Beckford is now resurgent. Many of his followers and biographers tend towards an irresistible identification with their subject — among them the late James Lees-Milne, whose declining years were passed in Bcckford's Grecian Library at 19 Lansdown Crescent, Bath, where he posed for photographs looking lugubrious. Tim Mowl, the most recent biographer (1998), is rather exceptional in identifying Beckford as a minor genius of Romanticism and precursor of Victorian taste, while finding close contemplation of his character 'at times unbearable'.

Two factors were crucial in the creation of the Beckfordian legend — the scandal of his affair with his kinsman, the schoolboy 'Kitty' Courtenay, which became public in 1784, and the death after childbirth two years later of his apparently broadminded and loving wife, Lady Margaret Gordon. Had this shield from the social opprobrium lived on to 'stand by him in adversity', the rest of Beckford's life might have been more ordinary. Instead, the 26-year-old pariah was driven into exile, restless Continental travel and ever stronger sensationseeking. followed by four decades spent immured, first at Fonthill Abbey and then domiciled behind thick draperies in Bath. In this self-imposed isolation and leisure he was thrown back on the talents for which he is now most famous — building, connoisseurship and collecting.

Beckford was single-minded in the pursuit of excellence: his taste in building and collecting was highly individual and very, very expensive. These extravagant props to his life, the leitmotiv of this exhibition, are of such sensational virtue and rarity that most are now in national museums, their value placing them far beyond the reach of any modern private collector. Only about a 150 pieces out of the thousands which Beckford owned have been assembled but, collectively, they illustrate his personal manifesto: 'Nothing second-rate enters here.' Superlative pieces were rendered yet more fabulous in the hands of Beckford's favourite jewellers and goldsmiths, working from drawings produced by the amanuensis and agent whom he found in Portugal, Gregorio Franchi. Translucent Oriental porcelain was chased with gold, 'Persian' vessels of rock crystal and jade were studded with more jewels, a jewelled hookah made for Tipu Sultan was embellished with mounts of silver-gilt. A few unique antiquarian pieces escaped improvement, such as the rare mediaeval enamelled French reliquary made in Limoges, now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

His self-conscious preference for the kind of princely toys made for the Kunstkammern of the Renaissance and Mannerist eras is represented by an engraved nautilus shell born up by a silver-gilt Triton, his Francophilia is manifested in Sevres porcelain and buhl-mounted furniture. These objects were deployed first in the great set-piece pseudo-mediaeval interiors created for him at Fonthill Abbey by James Wyatt, and then against the changing backdrops of the rooms in H.E. Goodrich's tower and in his townhouses in Bath: in both, a liveried dwarf played the role of hall porter.

Like his contemporaries and predecessors, Thomas Hope, Sir John Soane and Sir Robert Walpole, Beckford absorbed the scholarship of the Enlightenment: his interior worlds can be seen as a fantastic pro jection of the philosophy and literature of that age. It is this agenda which underpins the text of the lavish exhibition catalogue published by Yale, presenting Beckford as genius and arbiter of taste, treating his most Firbankian of his follies with a serious gloss. In 15 essays the cultural activities of this solitary, crashing, nouveau-riche snob, whose hobbies in old age were heraldry, flower-arranging and tracing his own putative royal lineage, are subject to meticulous scrutiny. The effect is simultaneously convincing and over-argued but, cumulatively and unintentionally, the whiff of pathos remains in the air.