Arts: Outrageous Fortune ; Writer, Composer, Prolific Art-Collector and Paedophile - William Beckford Was Quite a Character. at an Exhibition of His Extraordinary Collection of Artefacts, John Walsh Marvels at the Most Talked about Man of His Time

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William Beckford occupies an odd niche in cultural history. Imagine the various preoccupations of Charles Foster Kane, Howard Hughes, Charles Saatchi, Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans in one human being, and you would only approach the manic, acquisitive, Homeric eccentricity of Britain's richest art collector c1800.

He was a lonely child who came into a vast fortune and spent years indulging his hedonistic whims. But he was also a man of genuine discernment, who put together the finest decorative-art collection of the early 19th century, who designed the finest Gothic- revival building in England, Fonthill Abbey, who brought the Gothic novel to a new pitch of scary Orientalism in Vathek, an Arabian Tale published in 1786, and who brought a new poise and style to English travel writing. He was also a skilled composer (aged five, he had received piano lessons from Mozart - "that moonstruck, wayward boy" - then aged eight); and an impresario of design with a fascination for gemstones and a virtual obsession with silver-gilt.

To say he caught the imagination of the Georgian fin de siecle needs qualifying. He was the most talked-about man of his time, but what they said about him was rarely complimentary. He acquired an early reputation as a feckless sybarite; then as a wicked paedophile; later as a misanthropic hermit; latterly, as a crabby old recluse. But when an announcement was made in August 1822, that Fonthill and all its contents were open for inspection with a view to sale, no fewer than 7,200 visitors came along (paying the equivalent of pounds 55 for the ticket and catalogue) to gawp at the furniture, the rugs and jugs and bowls and caskets, the crazed profusion of beautiful objects gathered from the courts of the mighty, all over the world.

Some of those contents can be seen at Dulwich Picture Gallery, where the exhibition, William Beckford 1760-1844: An Eye for the Magnificent, is running until 14 April. It's odd to find an exhibition devoted so much to living-room and dinner-table objets, but the curators have let the extravagance of the pieces tell their owner's story. You inspect at a succession of gorgeous ebony cabinets, armchairs carved with coats of arms, lustrous teapots. Strange things - a clock in the shape of an urn, the numbers running round the perimeter - give way to oriental designs, full of serious Islamic geometrics, and exotic harem impedimenta.

Look at this lovely hookah, in cream-coloured nephrite, its long slender neck set with opals and citrines and dangling with blue stones, its bulbous bowl pregnant with oriental naughtiness, its erect spout lined with silver- gilt. It's a fantasy fetish- object for the Arabist, the furtive harem-lurker, the languid English homosexual with a fortune to spend on self-indulgence. It's a perfect emblem of aristocratic corruption, somewhere between opulence and decadence.

Throughout the exhibition, you're aware of an atmosphere, not of amorality, but of obsession with created beauty. You walk among the vases and ladles and jugs and teapots, the Paul Storr basin - a gleaming cobalt porcelain plate transformed, by its droopy ring- handles, into a miniaturised Roman bath - and its commodes and ravishing cabinets in ebony with lacquer, gilt-bronze, marble and gemstones. You admire the 1600 rock-crystal cabinet, a tiny windowed mausoleum, a box meant for baby clothes made from silver thread and elaborate embroidery. You begin to think: who was this guy?

He was descended from British slave-owning plebeian stock and Scots aristocracy. The family fortune came from Jamaican sugar plantations, established by William's great-grandfather, who was governor of the island. Succeeding generations of vivid roughnecks and uncouth brawlers produced, in William, a spoilt, sensitive, rather feminine boy who was understandably keener on his mother's posh Hamilton forebears (she was granddaughter of the Earl of Abercorn). …