William Beckford lived from childhood in social surroundings linked with distant countries. He was the son of a lord mayor of London whose family had interests in Jamaica as sugar planters and had been involved in the government of the island. His mother belonged to the aristocratic family of the Hamiltons. Anthony Hamilton, the late-seventeenth-century author of the Mémoires du comte de Gramont (in French), was a relative on his mother's side, whom Beckford said he hoped to meet in the afterlife. The Beckford family seat of Fonthill in Wiltshire contained numerous works of art and rooms decorated in the Oriental style, as well as a library including the Arabian Nights. In his family surroundings the usual classical imaginative world of the period was strongly mixed with exotic influences.
Beckford's father died when the boy was ten; he was educated at home by his mother (known as “the Begum, ” an Oriental title), guardians, and tutors, who offered the precocious child a cosmopolitan education including classical, modern, and Oriental languages. He is said to have received lessons in piano at the age of five from the nine-year-old Mozart. He took lessons in architecture from William Chambers, and his drawing master was Alexander Cozens, nicknamed “the Persian, ” who had been brought up at the Russian court, where his father was the czar's shipbuilder, and who developed his interests in Oriental cultures. Cozens had created a method of drawing called “blotting” in which the draughtsman allowed blots of paint to drop at random on the paper, forming unpredictable shapes that he then interpreted into landscapes: form preceded meaning, a mode of sensibility that corresponded to Beckford's atmospheric perception.
In 1777 Beckford traveled to Switzerland where he met Voltaire, became a member of the Jacques Necker circle—Necker's daughter was the future Ma-