William Thomas Beckford (1 October 1760 – 2 May 1844) was an English novelist, a profligate and consummately knowledgeable art collector and patron of works of decorative art, a critic, travel writer and sometime politician, reputed at one stage in his life to be the richest commoner in England. His parents were William Beckford and Maria Hamilton, daughter of the Hon. George Hamilton. He was Member of Parliament for Wells from 1784 to 1790, for Hindon from 1790 to 1795 and 1806 to 1820.
He is remembered as the author of the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), the builder of the remarkable lost Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower ("Beckford's Tower"), Bath, and especially for his art collection.
Beckford was born on 29 September 1760 in the family's London home at 22 Soho Square. At the age of ten, he inherited a fortune from his father William Beckford, who had been twice a Lord Mayor of London, consisting of £1 million in cash (£125 million as of 2015), an estate at Fonthill in Wiltshire (including the Palladian mansion Fonthill Splendens), and several sugar plantations in Jamaica, worked by enslaved Africans. This fortune allowed him to indulge his interest in art and architecture, as well as writing. He was briefly trained in music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but his drawing master, Alexander Cozens, was a greater influence, and Beckford continued to correspond with him for some years until they fell out.
On 5 May 1783 Beckford married Lady Margaret Gordon, a daughter of the fourth Earl of Aboyne. However, he was bisexual and after 1784 chose self-exile from British society when his letters to William Courtenay, later 9th Earl of Devon, were intercepted by the boy's uncle, who advertised the affair in the newspapers. Courtenay was just ten years old on first meeting Beckford, who was eight years older.
For many years Beckford was believed to have conducted a simultaneous affair with his cousin Peter's wife Louisa Pitt (c.1755–1791). Beckford was discovered (according to a house guest at the time) to be "whipping Courtenay in some posture or another" after finding a letter penned by Courtenay to another lover. Although Beckford was never punished for child molestation, fornication, or attempted buggery, he subsequently chose self-exile to the continent in the company of his long-suffering wife (who died in childbirth aged 24).
Having studied under Sir William Chambers and Cozens, Beckford journeyed in Italy in 1782 and promptly wrote a book about his travels: Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783). Shortly after this came his best-known work, the Gothic novel Vathek (1786), written originally in French; he boasted that it took a single sitting of three days and two nights, though there is reason to believe that this was a flight of his imagination. According to Srinivas Aravamudan Vathek is an impressive work, full of fantastic and magnificent conceptions, rising occasionally to sublimity.
His other principal writings were Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters (1780), a satirical work; and Letters from Italy with Sketches of Spain and Portugal (1834), full of brilliant descriptions of scenes and manners. In 1793 he visited Portugal, where he settled for a while.