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.
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.]
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.]
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.]
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?
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.
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.
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