William Beckford's Treasure Chest

Coffer-shaped display cabinet, William Beckford and Henry Edmund Goodridge, 1831-41

Coffer-shaped display cabinet, William Beckford and Henry Edmund Goodridge, 1831-4. Museum no. W.3-2006

This coffer-shaped cabinet is one of two known survivors of an original set of four, made for William Beckford (1760-1844) at Lansdown Tower, Bath, to show off some of his most luxurious small works of art.

The son of an immensely rich and highly cultivated sugar-planter, a pupil of Mozart and Sir William Chambers, and author of the celebrated Gothic novel Vathek , Beckford was also one of the most important collectors and patrons of his generation. His most famous creation, the extravagant mock-Gothic Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, was built from the late 1790s on the site of his father's mansion Fonthill Splendens, but had to be sold, with its contents, in 1823 to pay off his accumulated debts.

Beckford afterwards moved to 20 Lansdown Crescent in Bath. About a mile uphill from the house he built Lansdown Tower in neo-Renaissance style to house his re-growing art collection. The four cabinets were placed on stands in the Scarlet Drawing Room, as shown in one of a series of interior views of the Tower drawn after Beckford's death in 1844. From these - and from the cabinet itself - it is clear that Beckford's taste had become much subtler since the brilliance of his Fonthill period: he now favoured a warm red and ginger palette, and chose relatively sober oak cabinets to serve as a foil to the works of art inside. The cabinets nevertheless embody several specific references in their design - their form derived from a Roman sarcophagus, the top evoking an Italian Renaissance door, and the arched ends 'quoting' directly from Bramante's church S. Maria della Grazie in Milan.

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