30 June 2011

Tasmanian Gothic Stuff no. 4: Gothick Frivolity and a Tasmanian Farmer

By the early eighteenth century romantics were becoming bored by the Rule of Taste, the Palladian style introduced by Inigo Jones which dominated English architecture. Its formal proportions and strict lines left little room for expression of emotions, and the more poetically inclined began to explore other styles, among them the exuberant Decorated Gothic of the thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries. The two most notorious enthusiasts, wealthy literary gentlemen and art collectors born a generation apart, were Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and William Beckford (1760-1844).

Walpole is usually credited as the inventor of Gothic literature, publishing The Castle of Otranto in 1764, but William Beckford sought to rival him with Vathek (published 1786). Both built themselves magnificently imaginative “Gothic” mansions which they stuffed with priceless works of art. Otherwise, the two could not have been more different.
Walpole was sociable and gregarious, filling his house, Strawberry Hill, with huge dinner parties and grand occasions. He was so keen to show off his possessions that he sold tickets for the public to visit.

Beckford was quite the opposite - private and reclusive, he surrounded his entire 200 hectare estate with a huge wall several kilometres long, ostensibly to keep out poachers, and kept to himself. With architect James Wyatt he set to work constructing a monstrous folly - Fonthill Abbey. The entrance doors alone were ten metres tall; the frontage – and the main passage through the building – were a hundred metres long; and the central hall was surmounted by a massive 90 metre tall octagonal tower. With the exception of Beckford's few closest friends, visitors were strictly excluded.

Naturally rumours soon spread about what was going on behind that wall, and some of them were very salacious indeed. In fact, Beckford spent most of his time planning extensions and adornments to his residence, worrying about his annual £30,000 heating and running costs and rebuilding the tower, which had a distressing tendency to collapse. By the1820s he was no longer the richest man in England – his house was ruining him. He sold Fonthill Abbey to an eccentric arms dealer for £300,000 and retired to Bath. In 1825 the tower finally collapsed completely in most spectacular fashion, taking most of the west wing of the house with it. The ruins were sold off and subsequently most of the building was demolished.

To satisfy the huge interest Fonthill Abbey aroused, drawings, sketches and paintings – including a series of watercolours by J.W.M. Turner, were commissioned and circulated, and a range of engravings and guidebooks were published. Although it survived only thirty years, it quickly became the most notorious house in England.

View of the west and north fronts, Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill - Andover, Tasmania

In December 1830 an ex-Navy purser, Francis Tabart (1792 - 1856) and his family arrived in Van Diemen's Land. Tabart took up land near Andover, in the Tasmanian Midlands and built a log house as temporary residence while he built a substantial stone dwelling, completed by 1843, for his wife and six children. He named his property Fonthill. Although we can't prove a connection with Beckford's Folly, a comparison of these images suggests somebody who saw the pictures and wanted his own Gothick mansion – but somebody more pragmatic and without the budget.

gallery at Fonthill Abbey

dining room at Fonthill, Andover
side entrance at Fonthill, Andover
Fonthill house at Andover is still standing. So is the log cabin, now tastefully renovated as very superior backpacker accommodation. You can spend your holidays there, if you like. Or the rest of your life – at present the entire property is for sale.
Oh yes - Walpole's Strawberry Hill is now a museum.

Robertson, E. Graham, Early Buildings of Southern Tasmania, Middle Park, Georgian House Pty Ltd, 1970.
Davis, Terence, The Gothick Taste, Newton Abbot, David and Charles Ltd, 1974.
http://www.hvtesla.com/fonthill/ More info about the original Fonthill and Beckford