William in the words of others 2: after his death

[These two pages are growing slowly: see Page History below.]

After the extracts from the journal of Thomas Raikes (published in 1856), the following passages are arranged by the order of their publication date.

All the texts have been copied from secondary sources and each needs to be checked with the original manuscript or newspaper. There will probably be some typos alongside mistranscriptions.

William acquired a particularly bad reputation in the 20th century, mostly because of the judgments handed out in some British books about Beckford. John Oliver, Guy Chapman, Boyd Alexander, James Lees-Milne and Brian Fothergill seem to have known surprisingly little about William, yet each of them felt able to pronounce an absolute condemnation of his character.

For obituaries and death notices in newspapers and magazines, visit William’s obituaries with notices of other deaths.


1835  Thomas Raikes in his journal, Paris 28 May and 2 June [published 1856]:

  • On Monday, died, in the Place Vendome, the Earl of Devon, formerly Lord Courtenay, who for many years has resided abroad for reasons well known to the world. He has left no children,and his splendid fortune, with his title, go to a distant relation. The report is that he was killed by the ignorance of his French physician.
  • Earl Devon has made a singular will. He has left to his upper servant his house in the country, in the forest of Tenars, his plate, and in short all his property in France; and to his coachman, his carriages, horses, harness, and everything appertaining to his stables.

1836  Richard Polwhele, Reminiscences, in Prose and Verse:

  • I was very sensible of Mr. Champernowne’s kindness to me at a masquerade, where I was paying my respects to the present [Earl] Courtenay.  It was a splendid masquerade indeed ; and the whole scenery, from Powderham to Exeter, beyond description magnificent—illuminated as was the river Exe through its whole extent, from yachts and barges, and all the variety of fireworks. But to return to Champernowne. My neighbours, Messrs. (Prebendary) and (Archdeacon) Andrew, had agreed with me to go unmasked, as being more decorous in clergymen. With me, the unpleasant consequence was, that several of my subscribers to my “History of Devonshire,” taking advantage of my ” open countenance,” attacked me most unmercifully about my book; —which Champernowne perceiving, interposed in my favour, and stood by me till released by a Turkish Ambassador (Lord Courtenay), whose protection from such impertinence was not less powerful. Mr. Templar took me from Powderham to my own house at Kenton, in his carriage. I shall never forget the dawn of that day, the park, the plantations gradually opening upon us, the morning star fading in the east, the horizon one fine flush of crimson and of gold, the dewdrops on the trees and shrubs fresh and sparkling, and every breeze wafting ” life and fragrance,” and the lark mounting high. Such were more than enough to call forth strains, responsive to ” his trembling thrilling ecstacy.”

1837  William Carpenter, Peerage for the People:

  • He [2nd viscount] died in December 1788, and was succeeded by his only son, William, the late Peer, who for many years resided abroad, under very “peculiar circumstances.” In March, 1831, his claim to the earldom of Devon was established by the decision of the House of Lords, when his ten surviving sisters assumed the title and rank of Earl’s daughters. He died in Paris, in May, 1835, wifeless and childless, in the 67th year of his age. The whole of his personal property, amounting, it is said, to upwards of 120,000l. sterling, was bequeathed to his butler!

1839   James Renwick, Life of Robert Fulton:

  • [In New York in 1811] The heir of the title and the fortunes of the Courtenays became a refugee in our land, under circumstances of disgrace and humiliation, even more terrible than those which led to the assumption of the mournful motto of his race. [Ubi lapsus, quid feci?] Suspected and accused of an infamous crime, his birth and title, which have in many other instances served as passports even for vice and frivolity to American hospitality, did not avail him, and every door was closed against him except that of Fulton. The feelings of Fulton were probably those, which lead the benevolent to minister to the comforts, and to soothe the mental anguish of the last hours of the condemned criminal; but, in the instance we allude to, it required not only the existence of such feelings, but a high degree of courage, to exercise them, in the face of a popular impression, which, whether well or ill founded, was universally entertained. [See Benson John Lossing 1866 for a different story.]

1849  Elizabeth Ham in her autobiography, edited by Eric Gillett and published in 1945 as Elizabeth Ham by Herself 1783-1820. She did not keep a journal and was relying on her memories when she wrote this text between 1849 and 1852. Elizabeth Ham mostly lived at Weymouth so may have been familiar with the appearance of William and his sisters from their visits to that town. The description is included in her account of a visit with two friends to the Park and grounds at Powderham some time around 1800.

  • He was the last of that branch of the family, and, I think, of ten children, all the rest girls. From the fair and delicate appearance of His Lordship, and from the circumstances of his being always seen with his sisters, and never with any gentlemen, I wove my own romance about him, and set him down to be really a daughter too. He or she lived mostly, and died, abroad. The sisters were all very beautiful, but two of them at different times were burnt to death by their clothes igniting. There was a story current that each had been foretold of her fate by the celebrated Portsmouth Fortune-teller.

1857   Me Limet, lawyer for Mme Batty [see ‘Marie Courtenay’]:

  • Sa vie était mystérieuse; il sortait seul ou avec les deux filles de son intendant Woods. On l’avait surnommé l’ours de Draveil.

[His life was a mystery; he went out on his own or with the two daughters of his steward, Woods. People called him the bear of Draveil.]

1859   Cyrus Redding, Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill

  • Returning [from Plymouth] by way of Exeter, a visit was paid to the family of his relative, Lord Courtenay, at Powderham Castle, near that city. His family consisted of a son and twelve daughters. His lordship died in 1788. He had built a lofty tower in his park, which commanded one of the finest and most extensive views in the kingdom, with which young Beckford was quite enchanted.

1866   author of Don Leon (published as ‘a poem by the late Lord Byron’ but of uncertain authorship):

  • Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap! / What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap? / Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there: / Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare? / What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand, / Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band / Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt / (If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
  • Too proud to tilt upon plebeian ground, / Of Norman blood a minion Beckford found;

1866   Benson John Lossing, The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea:

  • Courtenay was a great “lion” in New York, for he was a handsome bachelor, with title, fortune, and reputation—a combination of excellences calculated to captivate the heart-desires of the opposite sex. [See James Renwick 1839 for a different story.]

1887  Edward Walford, Chapters from Family Chests:

  • Towards the end of the reign of George IV., however, a claim to the ancient earldom was preferred by William, Lord Courtenay, of Powderham Castle, as a descendant of Hugh de Courtenay, second of the old earls of Devon; and, after a long investigation before a Committee of Privileges, it was resolved by the House of Lords in March, 1831, that the claim had been clearly established. The new earl, however, who had long resided in Paris, where he led a self-indulgent and eccentric life, never came to England to take his seat in the House of Peers, the doors of which he had sought, at such cost of money and labour, to have opened in his favour. [As viscount Courtenay, William already had a seat in the House of Lords which he first took in March 1790.]

1910   Lewis Melville, The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill

  • Beckford paid a visit to his relative, Lord Courtenay, at Powderham Castle, near Exeter; and then went to stay with Charles Hamilton, Member of Parliament for Truro, who lived at Pain’s Hill, near Weybridge.
  • The years 1783 to 1786 make little call upon Beckford’s biographer. The honey-moon had been spent in travelling, and when it was over, the bride and bride-groom, still ardent lovers, stayed for a while at Cologny, near Geneva.

1915   Alice Crary Sutcliffe, Robert Fulton

  • If you had been working very hard, and suddenly received an order from an influential man to do a responsible piece of work for him, you would be very happy over it. Such a pleasure came to Robert Fulton in 1791, when Lord Courtenay, the Earl of Devon, invited the young artist to visit his famous country estate, Powderham Castle, during the vacation month of June, to paint his lordship’s portrait. | The castle in Devonshire, which is one of England’s most beautiful counties, was about two hundred miles from London. There the Earl lived in princely grandeur, and admitted to his court only persons of equal rank; all others were entertained by his steward, a gentleman of birth and education. | This visit proved a turning-point in Fulton’s life. With high hope he made the journey by stage-coach, reveling in the springtime glory of the wooded country-side. The study of the art treasures in the castle, and his appreciation of them, led to a later tour of other famous country-estates in England, and he became familiar with the great masterpieces of painting which hung in the spacious private galleries of the nobility, for Lord Courtenay, pleased with Fulton’s fulfilment of the intrusted commission, introduced him to all his friends. […]
  • Among them were two men of rank and high intelligence, the Duke of Bridgewater and Earl Stanhope, whose influence at this time seems partly responsible for a sudden change in Fulton’s line of thought.

1932   John W. Oliver, The Life of William Beckford:

  • a singularly beautiful child, as the portrait of him painted by Romney for Beckford about 1781-3 shows.3 [Oliver’s footnote:] 3 Memoir of J. R. Cozens by Mr. C. F. Bell in the Catalogue of Drawings by John Robert Cozens, Burlington Club, 1922-3 (p. 10).
  • In apportioning blame it is only fair to Beckford to remember that the life of Courtenay (afterwards Earl of Devon) ended, years after he and Beckford had drifted apart, in shame and moral catastrophe.

1937   Guy Chapman, Beckford:

  • To a romantic, such as our traveller [Beckford at Powderham in the summer of 1779], the boy with his long curls, his languid eyes, his pretty straight features, seemed the very incarnation of Hylas, that squire of Hercules whom the nymphs stole. The creature, moreover, displayed certain gifts of taste and traits agreeable to his guest
  • The ‘flowers and foolery’, ‘the sistering at Powderham’, had done their mischief. William Courtenay, third viscount, had earned for himself in good earnest the epithets which had been bestowed on his [Beckford’s] one-time friend. His reputation was so evil that when he started to build a house in the neighbourhood of Torquay, the inhabitants chased his masons out of the parish.

1954   Boyd Alexander, The Journal of William Beckford in Portugal and Spain:

  • he [Beckford] was ridiculously partial to an effeminate youth, William Courtenay

1961   Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley and his Circle:

  • He was apparently not active in either political or religious affairs, but he had extensive estates in Ireland and seems to have been particularly harsh in their administration, and he had a reputation for dissolute living, both characteristics calculated to excite Shelley’s wrath. [for Shelley’s letter of 1811, see William in the words of others 1]
  • [from TC Banks’s 1831 Letter to Lord Brougham] we gather that Courtenay’s reputation was somewhat unsavory.

1962   Boyd Alexander, England’s Wealthiest Son:

  • The boy was to be the cause of his social ruin.
  • He [Beckford] developed heady passions for pretty youths, some of whom, like Courtenay, turned out to be worthless.
  • William was eleven, a girlish boy of intelligence and sensibility, the youngest of thirteen children (all the rest were girls), the darling of the nursery.
  • Was it that Beckford turned round and blamed Courtenay for his own fate and his own weakness? All that we subsequently know of Courtenay, and the portrait of him by Romney in 1791 [sic], support Beckford’s judgement. In the parallel case of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, we know that it was the latter who was the corrupter and who exploited his older friend’s weakness.
  • Fled to France to escape arrest as homosexual, 1811. Died unmarried in Paris in obscurity. Instrument of B’s ruin, 1784.

1962  Harold Nicholson, reviewing Boyd Alexander’s England’s Wealthiest Son in The Observer:

  • Little Lord Courtenay also had in the end to fly the country and ended his days in debasement in Paris.
  • His [Beckford’s] was certainly a repulsive character […]
  • One would have felt deep compassion for Beckford, were it not that he was so boastful, so heartless and so mean. All we feel is regret that the Courtenay scandal should have received so much publicity. I am sorry for Lord Courtenay.

1962  Anthony Powell, reviewing Boyd Alexander’s England’s Wealthiest Son in The Daily Telegraph:

  • Courtenay himself was a far from blameless figure. He died abroad in 1835, having fled to escape arrest for a homosexual offence. The confirmation of the title [earl of Devon] to him had  been a somewhat extraordinary one (Mr. Alexander might have spared a page to this), as, briefly, he had inherited through his grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, all of whom were unconscious of their right to this dignity. The parallel of Beckford as Wilde to Courtenay’s Lord Alfred Douglas and Loughborough’s Lord Queensberry comes readily to mind.
  • In pictures and architecture Beckford’s taste was always lively. He was passionately fond of music. All the same, there was something lacking. Is is that Beckford, judged by his own high standards, was not really intelligent? Is it that in some way, although he possessed charm, he did not have an interesting mind?

1963  Mark Girouard, Country Life weekly magazine 4, 11 & 18 July: Powderham Castle, Devon (these comments are included in the third part, published on 18 July).

  • It must have seemed an excellent idea to the 3rd Viscount, who was young, sociable, musical and rich, to build a music-room on a grand scale, which could be used for concerts, plays and dances.
  • The 3rd Viscount is chiefly remembered today because of his connection as a boy with William Beckford – a connection that culminated in the scandal of 1784, which forced Beckford temporarily out of England and made him a social outcast for the rest of his life. What exactly happened at Powderham in October of that year will perhaps never be known for certain; recent biographies of Beckford tend to the theory that what was no more than a dangerous sentimental friendship was magnified into a scandal by William Courtenay’s brother-in-law, the capable but sinister Lord Loughborough, who seems to have been obsessed with a pathological hatred of Beckford.  However, there is no doubt that the 3rd Viscount went to the bad in a big way later on in his life: he left England for ever in 1810, lived for a time in a house outside New York, but finally settled in a house on the Place Vendôme in Paris, where he died in 1835. During his 25 years abroad Powderham stood abandoned and desolate, and a considerable proportion of its contents were sold up. But this melancholy conclusion should not be allowed to obscure the credit side of the 3rd Viscount’s Powderham record. The music-room, the Marsh and Tatham furniture, and the Cosways survive as impressive evidence of his taste: he and his sisters had considerable artistic talent too, as a number of flower paintings still at Powderham and the decorative wall paintings in the music-room, all painted by them, bear witness.

1970   H. Montgomery Hyde, The Other Love:

  • He was a singularly beautiful boy, judging by the portrait which Romney painted of him in his early teens at the instance of his friend William Beckford.
  • Lord Courtenay, who on his father’s death had inherited Powderham, where he lived a curious bachelor life with one of his unmarried sisters, became an inveterate homosexual and, as the years went on, less and less discreet in his behaviour.

1975  Lady Paulina Pepys, Powderham Castle:

  • The 3rd Viscount was one of the most interesting members of the Courtenay family. Unfortunately, however, his life was to be rather tragic. When still a boy he became involved in a scandal with the notorious William Beckford, and this probably overshadowed the rest of his life. As a rich and talented young man he entertained on a lavish scale, but Powderham acquired a bad reputation locally. Later on he left England for good and lived first in New York and then in Paris, where he died unmarried in 1835. Four years before his death, however, the 3rd Viscount successfully reclaimed the Earldom of Devon, which had been in abeyance since 1556.

1976   James Lees-Milne, William Beckford:

  • Indeed Courtenay’s character and conduct deteriorated with age.

1977   James Lees-Milne, The Powderham Castle Affair:

  • Indeed Kitty Courtenay never came to much good. […] Yet Kitty Courtenay was not irredeemably contemptible. After all, at the time of the Powderham scandal he was only just sixteen. If he behaved in a cowardly fashion he was submitted to formidable pressures. He was genuinely musical and artistic. […] His own drawings were above the average in competence and charm.

1979   Brian Fothergill, Beckford of Fonthill:

  • His [Beckford’s] adoration, which was certainly deep though also very self-indulgent, is difficult to explain in view of the strange lack of personality shown by the object of his affection, both then and later. His [William’s] character was shallow and he seemed to have few positive qualities; he was to develop into a singularly worthless individual.
  • [in the spring of 1784] Beckford, as Courtenay’s future history was to show, was pinning his hopes on a false conception of the boy’s character. How ever much he might respond momentarily to the older man’s ridicule of his effeminate tendencies or obsession with the trivialities of fashion, his character remained irredeemably weak and shallow. To what extent Beckford himself was himself responsible for this lack of development to blame in the boy whom he had so caressed and flattered a few years earlier is a matter of opinion;
  • [Beckford in the winter of 1784/85] now, at long last, he saw Courtenay as he really was, no longer the seductive ephebe of his imagination but a pathetic, weak, crushed and spiritless youth lacking in both loyalty and strength of character. […] Courtenay’s subsequent career was to end in tragedy and disgrace. He succeeded his father as third viscount in 1788, but once his own master his character, never very strong, gave way completely and his ill-concealed homosexual activities soon made him notorious.

1991 Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales | Live Auction 4692 Important English Furniture | Lot 222

  • William 3rd Viscount Courtenay and later 9th Earl of Devon (1768-1835), who shared his close friend William Beckford Junior’s antiquarian, musical and theatrical interests, and celebrated his coming-of-age in 1791 with a magnificent masquerade ball. A few years later (1794-96) he employed Beckford’s architect at Fonthill, James Wyatt (d. 1813) to create a grand neo-classical Music Room at Powderham Castle, to also serve as a ballroom and theatre.
  • Lord Courtenay would certainly be highly aware of contemporary Parisian style as he was in Paris on several occasions with Beckford, who rented the Hotel d’Orsay in rue de Varenne from the Comte d’Orsay in 1788 and who was in Paris frequently, both during and after the Revolution.

1992  Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House:

  • When this self-styled Caliph [William Beckford] was 19, he fell in love with the Hon. William Courtenay, later 3rd Viscount and 9th Earl of Devon, then ten years old and regarded as one of the most beautiful boys in England, borne out by paintings of him. […] the country squire [Beckford] and his ‘Kitty’, as the beautiful Courtenay was effeminately dubbed.

1992  Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover | A Romance:

  • The love of his life was eleven when they met, and William [William Beckford] had been courting and fondling for four years before they were found one morning in the boy’s bed. When Viscount Courtenay barred William from his house and threatened to bring suit if he ever dared approach his son again, William crossed the Channel and headed south.

1997   Janet Cusack, The Rise of Yachting in England and South Devon Revisited, 1640-1827:

  • The death of the second Viscount Courtenay in 1788 and the majority of the third viscount in 1789 seems to have unleashed a spectacular period of conspicuous consumption at Powderham, one aspect of which was a series of sailing races at Starcross. In 1799 Lord Courtenay presented prizes for a sailing race on the Exe, and similar annual contests followed until 1802. These events clearly provided their sponsor with the opportunity for personal display. […] [for a contemporary report of such a contest, see William in the words of others 1: 1800]

1998   Timothy Mowl, William Beckford | Composing for Mozart:

  • [by the spring of 1784] Courtenay had become a neurotic adolescent

2009   James S. Donnelly, Jr., Captain Rock:

  • Courtenay himself was the antithesis of a “good landlord.”
  • Because of his openly gay lifestyle, Lord Courtenay (called “Kitty” by his relatives and friends) was the target of such hostility and prejudice from heterosexuals that he was compelled to live abroad for most of his adult life – a life spent in grand extravagance of many kinds. […] Upon his death in 1835 the English tenants of the ninth Earl of Devon (as he had become) reportedly welcomed his return in a stately funeral to the family seat at Powderham Castle in Devonshire. His Irish tenants would never have been so hospitable.
  • the profligate Lord Courtenay […] an extravagant, “playboy” proprietor who never showed his face in Ireland

2009  James Miller, introduction to the Powderham Castle lots in the catalogue for Sotheby’s 2009 auction from Two Noble Collections.

  • William, 3rd Viscount Courtenay, who as a youth had been altogether too much admired by William Beckford, came into his inheritance in 1788. During the next fifteen years he transformed the castle, aided by the architect, James Wyatt, the sculptor Richard Westmacott, and the furniture makers, Elward, Marsh and Tatham.
  • Courtenay’s elegant taste can be gauged from the items that survive from this period, many of which are offered in this sale. It is evident from the description of other rooms that he had a very clear sense of how a room should look. In the best bedroom for instance, the furniture was all painted in white and gold, whereas in his own bedroom, brown and gold was the order of the day.
  • Courtenay’s character which was largly to spend and not to count the cost.
  • In 1809 further attempts were taken to curb Courtenay when Expenditure & the keeping up of the present establishments of the Rt. Hon. Lord Visc. Courtenay at Powderham Castle and London were drawn up. In all, that year had cost him a staggering £30,311 with £5,000 paid for upholstery in London and Exeter for his yacht. The denouement came the following year when Lord Courtenay left England forever to escape mounting creditors. He first took up residence outside New York but after the defeat of Napoleon found Paris more amenable, living not uncomfortably until his death in 1835 inthe Place Vendome.

2009  Sotheby’s catalogue Two Noble Collections | Powderham Castle & Seaton Delaval Hall.

  • Known affectionately as ‘Kitty’ he was, for a time, the focus of the attentions of the great collector William Beckford (1760-1844).
  • Notoriously extravagant, in 1811 Lord Courtenay was forced to leave Powderham Castle for America in order to escape his creditors. He remained there until 1825-1826 when he purchased the Chateau Dreveil in Paris where he continued to reside in great style until his death. In 1831, twelve days before he died, the House of Lords revived in his favour the Earldom of Devon, which had until that time, been dominant [sic] for nearly three centuries.

2014 Morphy Auctions, Firearms | Fall 2014 | Lot 1409

  • Fabulous pair of 1775 dated T. English bronze cannon of Viscount “Kitty” Courtenay of Powderham Castle.
  • The cannon are mounted on old oak naval carriages with brass fittings. These cannon and carriages were found in upstate New York and no doubt were brought to America where the flamboyant Kitty Courtenay fled after his scandalous relationship with the novelist, politician, art collector and profligate William Beckford. Beckford inherited a one million pound fortune which would be like a billionaire today. He indulged himself living a life few could dream of even being taught music by no other than Mozart himself and studying art under Alexander Cozens. Beckford, though married, had numerous affairs with boys and women including William Courtenay, which started when Beckford was 18 and Courtenay was only 11; when this affair was discovered and published in London newspapers, Beckford chose self exile from polite British society and continued on with his illicit affairs. Third Viscount William “Kitty” Courtenay of Powderham was one of 14 children and the only boy, also being born into great wealth and power. Courtenay’s infamous affair forced him to live abroad. He lived in the United States on property he owned on the Hudson River in New York and later in Paris, dying there in 1831 as The Earl of Devon. There is still an identical pair of cannons found at Powderham Castle

Image

‘This grand salon was the centerpiece of the magnificent château that Marin de la Haye built at Draveil, about twelve miles south of Paris. De la Haye purchased the property in 1720, only two years after he had obtained the lucrative office of royal tax collector. Provided with sufficient means to establish himself in society, De la Haye transformed the simple house he found at Draveil into a large château with spacious and varied gardens. At the axial center of the house was the grand salon, which he used as the state room for formal receptions. Decorated to demonstrate his wealth and status with immense mirrors, carved and gilded paneling, and sculpted reliefs, the salon opened through three round-headed doors onto a balcony that overlooked the celebrated park. When De la Haye died without direct heirs, Draveil passed to various private owners, the last of whom sold the woodwork of the grand salon to the Parisian art dealer from whom the Museum purchased it in 1928.’ Katherine B. Hiesinger, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 138.

http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/42061.html


Page history

  • First published online 26 March 2019
  • Added 1 May 2020: 1836, Richard Polwhele Reminiscences
  • Added 24 May 2022: 1859, Cyrus Redding Memoirs of William Beckford of Fonthill; 1910, Lewis Melville The Life and Letters of William Beckford of Fonthill; 1915, Alice Crary Sutcliffe Robert Fulton
  • Added 30 June 2022: 1849, Elizabeth Ham by Herself.
  • Added 3 July 2022: 1975, lady Paulina Pepys, Powderham Castle.
  • Added 6 July 2022: 1963, Mark Girouard, Powderham Castle, Devon.
  • Added 21 July 2022: 2009, James Miller; Sotheby’s catalogue.
  • Added 31 July 2022: 1991, Christie’s Auctions & Private Sales;  2014, Morphy Auctions.

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