Corps de l’article

Early in December 1781 the young English aesthete William Beckford issued a private invitation to an unusual Christmas party at Fonthill Splendens, his grand Palladian country house in Wiltshire. Having recently inherited a West-Indian fortune, William was planning a special celebration of his coming of age. In typically arch style he urged his besotted thirty-four-year-old mistress, Louisa – wife of his cousin Peter Beckford – to:

Leave no scheme untried no art unpractised to gain permission for coming to Fonthill, where every preparation is going forwards that our much admired and admiring Loutherbourg (for he doats upon us both) in all the wildness of his fervid imagination can suggest or contrive – to give our favourite apartments the strangeness and novelty of a fairy world. This very morning he sets forth with his attendant genii, and swears…that in less than three weeks…[to] present a mysterious something that the eye has not seen or heart of man conceived (his own hallowed words) purposely for our own special delight and recreation.

qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 99

I want to explore the origins, character and consequences of the “mysterious something” that Philippe de Loutherbourg and William Beckford contrived for a three day Christmas party of 1781, arguing that it constituted a novel experiment in “virtual reality” two centuries before the computer-digitised technologies of Silicon Valley reified that term. Defined as a technologically-simulated event or entity that is “real in effect but not in fact,” virtual reality is today produced mainly by building artificial environments using computer-digitised images and other sensory stimuli such as “haptics” (Heim, Metaphysics 108-9). At the heart of the medium lies the concept of “immersion”: to plunge viewers into a visual and sensory space that integrates them in a perceptual and emotional relationship with the surrounding images. The idea is to create an illusion of being inside a total alternative world, unified in both time and space.[1]

Most modern theorists see “virtual reality” as the core element of a new digital culture predicted to revolutionize twenty-first century life and thought, and having especially profound implications for art, philosophy and popular culture. Enthusiasts argue that, like the highest forms of art, virtual reality harbours a capacity and aspiration to “transform or redeem our awareness of reality” (Heim, Metaphysics 124). It transports us to alternative worlds, not simply to escape, but to be changed by new utopian possibilities (Grau 3-17). More specifically, virtual reality offers a compelling modern version of the aesthetic of the sublime because it impels us to try to transcend the limitations of the senses. In line with the aesthetic theories of Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant, we feel a chill of pleasurable terror and awe when confronted with its infinity of data, incomprehensible complexity, and limitless power (Heim, Virtual Realism 153-61).[2] On immersion, some viewers experience a sudden involuntary overwhelming of the senses that obliterates any sense of distinction between image and reality, others may achieve the aesthete’s more “playful and conscious submission to appearances,” enabling them to explore new freedoms of time and space, new identities and interpersonal intimacies, new shapes and patterns (Grau, Virtual Art 16-17; Heim, Metaphysics 85-87). Some analysts have also noted how closely the manifestos of virtual reality enthusiasts echo the mystic visions of Gnostic and Hermetic philosophers (Coxe 7-16). Across the centuries crackles the same hunger to spiritualise matter, to build alternative worlds, expand the sensoria, transcend the body, and merge with the divine.[3] The very term la réalitée naturelle turns out to have been coined, not by some Silicon Valley cyber-technologist, but by the mystical French playwright Antonin Artaud, who defined it in 1938 as a “mysterious identity of essence between alchemy and theatre” aimed at achieving ”passionate and decisive transmutations of matter by mind” (qtd. in Davis 190). It is as if the adjective “virtual” still carries powerful traces of its originating noun virtue, denoting a moral property derived from God.

Although virtual reality is said to have achieved peak expression in modern VTML digital technologies, it has long historical antecedents. Closed-off spaces in which images and rituals were deployed to induce ecstatic spiritual states can be traced back to the Eastern and Western mystery cults of Isis, Bacchus and Eleusis. Pompeii’s famous Villa de Misteri is only one of a series of illusion-generating temples scattered throughout the Classical world. Similarly, trompe de l’oeil illusions later became a standard feature of Renaissance and Baroque garden grottoes, chapels and ceiling frescoes. The invention of camera obscura cabinets and magic lanterns in the seventeenth century introduced further and radical ways of enhancing naturalistic visual experience.[4] By the eighteenth century optical experimenters were using the term “virtual” to describe refracted or reflected images that flitted before the eye (Woolley 60). However, most modern commentators see the advent of Joseph Barker’s circular-view panorama of 1789 and Gaspard Etienne Robertson’s magic-lantern spectral shows of 1794 as the key forerunners of today’s cinema and virtual reality technologies (Grau 5-6).

This paper offers an alternative and earlier foundation myth, arguing that the London-based painter, scenographer and spectacle entertainer Philippe de Loutherbourg and his patron William Beckford undertook at least as original and important a series of experiments with virtual reality when creating in 1781-2 “a mysterious something that the eye has not seen nor the heart of man conceived” (qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 99).


Long before he hired Philippe de Loutherbourg, William Beckford dreamt of staging an intimate private party using illusionary special effects. His pictorial imagination and passion for theatrical spectacle often led him to imagine or contrive fantastic virtual spaces.[5] He speculated to his Russian-born art tutor, Alexander Cozens, in winter 1779 how they might metamorphose Fonthill’s large central hall – already decorated by William’s late father with Egyptian furnishings – into a mysterious “Hall of the Pyramid…glowing with yellow light – mid Vases formed in another Hemisphere – and Cabalistic Mirrors wherein Futurity is unveiled” (Beckford to Cozens, 24 December 1779, qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 60). Writing from Rome a year later, he imagined constructing a type of son et lumière environment at Fonthill similar to the legendary artificial world of the Emperor Ki of China: “I should like of all things to immure myself…with those I love; forget the divisions of time, have a moon at command and a theatrical sun to rise and set” (Beckford, Travel Diaries i: 188) Lamps could be clustered “so as to diffuse a mild equal light” and the room sealed so no other mortals could enter. Unearthly music would be issued from subterranean chapels and lofty domes. “The windows I would bathe in yellow silk, to admit the glow of perpetual summer (i: 188-89).[6]

During autumn 1781 William also began to prescribe a more secret agenda for the party. A letter of early December urged Louisa to “stay a week, then we must lie in wait for souls together” (William Beckford to Louisa Beckford, nd. qtd in Chapman, Beckford 101). Her reply expanded on the predatory hint: “William – my lovely infernal! How gloriously you write of iniquities…like another Lucifer you would tempt Angels to forsake their coelestial abode, and sink with you in the black infernal gulph” (Chapman, Beckford 101). Such overheated exchanges came naturally to a young fantasist and an older woman half-demented by tuberculosis, yet both correspondents did have a genuine fascination with the occult.[7] A Joshua Reynolds portrait of Louisa commissioned by William around this time shows her dressed as the pagan Goddess Hebe surrounded by the accoutrements of sorcery (Mowl, William Beckford 87-8).

William had been introduced to Eastern magical “systems” by Cozens (Chapman, Beckford 87),[8] and he subsequently steeped himself in D’Herbelot’s Bibliotheque Orientale and de Gebelin’s Monde Primitif (Oppe 32-3; Beckford to Mrs Harcourt, 15 August 1781, qtd. in Melville 116). He’d probably also begun to collect some of the shelves of Western alchemy and popular magic that featured in his mature library.[9] An obsession with fallen angels inspired him to draft stories of Oriental underworlds, play fantasy games imagining the rock grottoes of Fonthill to be the Islamic Hell of Eblis, and make pilgrimages to sites from Milton’s Paradise Lost (Mowl, William Beckford 95-97; Fothergill 56-58).

His letters of the time also disclose a more practical interest in erotic enchantment. Not content with bewitching Louisa to the point where her frantic love-letters hinted at a willingness to poison her husband and pimp her children (Fothergill 105), he’d added a deeper layer of complication to his amours in 1799 by falling in love with Viscount William Courtenay, the eleven-year-old son of the Earl of Devon. This infatuation for “Kitty” – as he nicknamed Courtenay – though initially sentimental, took a definite sexual turn in early December 1781, only a few weeks before the Christmas party (Mowl, William Beckford 109).[10] “Kitty” was then thirteen, Beckford twenty-one. Desperate to preserve her own relationship with Beckford, Louisa offered herself as a mask for this forbidden love. Hints of prospective “iniquities” in letters of Autumn of 1781 signalled their intention of turning the Christmas event into a ménage a trois.


Philippe de Loutherbourg was a logical choice for anyone wanting to create necromantic and erotic special effects. Still dashing at forty, this Alsatian-born artist had been driven by sexual scandal to flee Paris in 1771,[11] but not before he’d been elected to the Paris Academy and feted by Denis Diderot as a “genius” with the uncanny ability to transport spectators deep inside his painted landscapes (Fried 118-20, 228). In London, he’d become chief set-designer for David Garrick’s Drury Lane Theatre and a prolific exhibitor of landscapes and marine paintings. A decade on, he’d been elected to the English Royal Academy and was widely reputed to be the greatest spectacle maestro of the age, having revolutionized Britain’s sterile staging practices by introducing a French-style repertoire of naturalistic scenery and special effects. He achieved subtle tonalities of colour through use of lantern-projected glass slides and illuminated side-slips, eerie spectral transformations through oscillating light between front and back-painted transparencies, realistic moving backgrounds through clockwork machinery, and a new illusion of perspective depth through an innovative arrangement of wings and flats.[12]

As an avid theatre-goer with acting and directing pretensions (Rosenfeld 55-57), Beckford had to have seen some of Loutherbourg’s celebrated 1770s Eastern scene designs for Drury Lane pantomimes like TheSemiramis and The Fair Circassian. Spectators marvelled that Philippe’s exquisite Egyptian temples would materialize suddenly in the middle of lush Oriental gardens, only to burst into flames and dissolve into coils of sulphurous smoke.[13]The Fair Circassion was actually performing in the months leading up to the Christmas party, and it might have been after this theatre performance on 8 December 1781 that William recorded his seduction of Kitty Courtenay.[14]

William and Philippe had several affinities. Both were freemasons initiated in the more occult Continental strains of the movement.[15] Philippe’s library carried an even larger representation of alchemical, Hermetic, Cabbalistic and Gnostic works. Reared in Strasbourg, a hub of religious pietism and magical learning, he later also immersed himself in the mystical demi-mondes of both Paris and London.[16] William Blake, a fellow traveller, was in 1784 to lampoon the faddish Swedenborgian bohemianism of Philippe and his painter friends, Maria and Richard Cosway (Erdman 84-104): they were said to practice angel magic, free love and a bizarre form of testicular meditation for prolonging intercourse. Perhaps it was in one of these outré theosophical circles that he first met William and Louisa (Goodwin 131-36). No wonder William nicknamed him “the mystagogue” and, needless to say, such transgressive credentials only enhanced his suitability to orchestrate the Christmas party (Schuchard, “The Secret Masonic History” 40-50; “Why Mrs. Blake Cried” 45-93).

Philippe’s launching early in 1781 of the Eidophusikon, a sensational commercial spectacle, was another magnet for William. Described by the Public Advertiser as “various imitations of Natural Phenomena, represented by moving pictures,” it was the fruit, Philippe claimed, of twenty years of experiment (Altick, Shows 119, 121).[17] Inside his Leicester Square house he’d built an opulent miniature theatre-cum-art salon. Here, for a fee of five shillings, around 130 fashionable spectators sat in comfort to watch a series of moving scenes projected within a giant peephole aperture, eight feet by six feet. The darkened auditorium combined with skilful use of concealed and concentrated light sources, coloured silk filters, clockwork automata, winding backscreens and illuminated transparencies created a uniquely illusionist environment.[18] Audiences watched five landscapes in action. Dawn crept over the Thames at Greenwich; the noonday sun scorched the port of Tangier; a crimson sunset flushed over the Bay of Naples; a tropical moon rose over the wine-dark waters of the Mediterranean; and a torrential storm wrecked a ship somewhere off the Atlantic coast. Between scenes, painted transparencies served as curtain drops, and Mr and Mrs Michael Arne entertained the audience with violin music and song.

Rumours that Philippe had been able to achieve “a sort of magical effect in art” drew William excitedly to the performance (Redding, Memoirs ii: 42). Along with others, he was “captivated,” particularly, we may guess, by the scarlet sunset: for red was “my beloved tint,” sunset “my favourite hour” (Beckford, Dreams 186). Later, he visited Philippe’s workshop for a private viewing of the artist’s magical “wonders,” “experiments” and “deceptions” (Redding, Memoirs ii: 38).[19] Deeply impressed, William asked Philippe to produce the special-effects for his intended party, stressing, however, that the spectacle must be superior to anything he’d yet attempted. Brilliant as the Eidophusikon was, there were important ways in which it “did not answer” (Redding, Memoirs ii: 42).

From William’s preoccupations at the time we may guess what he’d found disappointing about the show. For a start, it didn’t use the human voice to ravish the senses. Beckford believed music to be the most potent agency of the sublime, especially because he was then in a state of exceptional musical arousal. Infatuated with the voice of Europe’s greatest counter-tenor, Gasparo Pacchierotti, he’d befriended the tall, charismatic castrato in 1780 and followed him on his tour around Italy. William told Lady Catherine Hamilton that

[Pacchierotti’s] music raises before me a host of phantoms which I pursue with eagerness. My blood thrills in my veins, its whole current is changed and agitated. I can no longer command myself, and while the frenzy lasts would willingly be devoted to destruction.”

qtd. in Fothergill 89-90

He hired Pacchierotti and two other notable Italian castrati, Venanzio Rauzzini and Giusto Tenducci, to perform at the decorous official birthday celebrations organized by his mother in August 1781, and their voices had sent him into a “delirium” – his stock term for erotic ecstasy. Not surprisingly, he now insisted to Philippe that they be included in the Christmas party spectacle.[20]

As with music, so with the other senses. Long intoxicated by Eastern stories like the Arabian Nights, William chafed at the austerity of Philippe’s moving landscapes because they appealed only to the eye. By way of gesturing towards a richer aesthetic, he probably showed Philippe his Eastern story of 1777-8, The Vision, which was steeped in Oriental sensuality and underpinned by Edmund Burke’s theories of the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime.

The Vision’s autobiographical protagonist, having lost himself in an Alpine wilderness, experiences the usual feelings of “awe” and “astonishment” when faced with towering peaks, murderous woods, and ghastly spectres. Later, he undergoes a lengthy mystical initiation at the hands of a Brahmin seer and Indian princess, and thrills to intermingled sensations of pleasure and pain. The agony of hot flames and icy torrents is succeeded by “a feeling of refreshment both Spiritual and Corporeal…so sublime, so superior to mortality in general” that he is led to “exult in the memory of…sufferings”. Feelings of erotic transport and voluptuous langour follow when he smells the “rich spicy perfume” of exotic flowers, tastes ripe fruits and sparkling beverages, hears the “wildly warbling” sounds of angelic voices, and sees the glitter of polished steel mirrors and luminous orbs. Such is his sensual intoxication throughout, “that I could scarcely distinguish the shadow from the reality” (Beckford, Vision 3-88).

An instinctive Romantic, Beckford’s imagination veered automatically towards emotional excess and magical fancy. Long before Wordsworth, he’d evolved a “fairy way of writing” and “a visionary way of gazing.” Years later he recalled himself as “a strange exotic animal…abandoned to all the wildness of my imagination, and setting no bounds to my caprices…I seemed like the antique Mercury, perpetually on tiptoe as if on the point of darting into the air” (Chapman, Beckford 109). He revelled in the apparitional, the unearthly, the “necromantic”[21] and he yearned to be able to evoke “the internal visionary light which illuminates dreams.” He wanted a spectacle that could catch a moment of “subtle magic” as it rose “like an exhalation” and then fix it “before it dissolved” – that would somehow transport viewers beyond the stolid reality of the material world into “a portal of some other region and experience” (Beckford, Travel Diaries i: 66-67; Fothergill 61).


The guest list for the Christmas party was small: designed to provide a surface respectability while allowing scope for sexual licence. “Our society,” Beckford recalled, “was extremely lovely to look upon – for not only Louisa in her gracefulness, but her f(riend)…Sophia [Musters]…perhaps the most beautiful woman in England – threw over it a fascinating charm” (qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 105-6).[22] Louisa, having managed to shake off her jealous husband, was escorted by her libertine brother George Pitt, himself entangled in a torrid affair with married Sophia Musters. It was rumoured that the latter two hoped pregnancy would follow the weekend. Cover for the presence of young “Kitty” Courtenay came from Beckford’s two male cousins of a similar age, Alex and Archibald Hamilton. Lord Dunmore’s two young daughters probably served the same function. The two Hamilton boys were themselves chaperoned by their oily and hard-up Harrow tutor, Reverend Samuel Henley, an Oriental scholar keen to ingratiate himself with William. “Kitty’s” own chaperone, Cozens, was of course already privy to William’s pederastic affair.

Philippe’s cinematic spell had apparently been felt even before William and his young lover left London for Wiltshire. Though it was a mid-winter evening, as William, Kitty and Cozens crossed the Thames bound for Salisbury an unseasonable sunset lit up the river and sky. To William, it was a portent: those “soft tints that coloured the Thames” seemed a cosmic blessing of the forthcoming party (Fothergill, Beckford 112). Given that a red “Aurora” sunrise playing on the waters of the Thames at Greenwich was the opening scene of Philippe’s Eidophusikon, William was probably also experiencing the first recorded instance of nature imitating the movies. He was to harp on this enchanted prelude in at least three later letters (Mowl, William Beckford 110; Chapman, Beckford 118).

The mystagogue’s uncanny ability to mimic the forces of nature was again in evidence when the three reached Fonthill in what had now blown into a winter storm. Six months later Beckford reminded Cozens: “That night in particular haunts my imagination, when we arrived from Salisbury and seemed transported to a warm, illuminated palace raised by spells in some lonely wilderness” (Beckford to Cozens, 2 June 1782, qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 101). Philippe had provided the guests with the first requisite of any virtual reality illusion, a hermetically-sealed world that excluded all outside influences

Immured we were au pied de la lettre for three days following – doors and windows so strictly closed that neither common daylight nor commonplace visitors could get in or even peep in – care worn visages were ordered to keep aloof – no fallen mouths or furroughed foreheads were permitted to meet our eye.

qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 104

There are no detailed descriptions of Philippe’s Christmas spectacle, but we know that the impresario had two superb pre-existing Eastern-style sets to work with – rooms which, in William’s words, made “the great mansion at Fonthill admirably calculated for mysteries” (Chapman, Beckford 105). On passing through the front door, visitors found themselves in the Egyptian Hall, a vast, dimly-lit central space covered by vaulted ceilings that soared for two storeys, supported by heavy stone buttresses (Mowl, William Beckford 50-51). Lit only by “expiring lamps,” the Hall had always made William, “fancy myself in the Catacombs of Egypt and expect to stumble on a mummy” (Watkin 37-38). It was a perfect mise en scene for Philippe’s talents: half a dozen years earlier he’d prepared a famed “Temple of Isis and view of the Egyptian Catacombs” for Alexander Day’s Drury Lane tragedy Sethona, which included accurate re-creations of shrines, statues, mummies and hieroglyphic tablets (Joppien 77-83) Once Egyptian props were added to the Hall’s pre-existing vases and “cabalistic mirrors,” Philippe’s back-lit transparencies and painted glass magic-lantern slides transmuted the space into the eerie subterranean palace of Eblis (Hewat-Jabor 56; Chapman, Beckford 60).

Throughout the arched halls and vast apart(ment)s…prevailed a soft and pure radiance – distilled with much skill under the direction of Loutherbourg…. The solid Egyptian Hall looked as if hewn out of a living rock. The line of apartments being infinite were all vaulted – a gloomy staircase, which appeared, and which was in fact of enormous height, led to suites of stately apartments gleaming with marble and pavements –. Above these princely rooms a broad flight of richly carpeted stairs led to another world of decorated chambers and a gallery…still above there was a further labyrinth of chambers filled with curious works of arts and precious cabinets.

qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 105

Among the nine downstairs apartments radiating off from the Egyptian Hall was another Oriental fantasy space known as the Turkish Room. According to the antiquary John Britton its golden and blue flowered ceiling, multiple full-length mirrors, orange velvet curtains and thick Persian carpets brought to mind “those magical recesses of enchanted palaces in the Arabian Nights entertainment” (Mowl, William Beckford 50-51). Here was the perfect mise en scene for a Seraglio or Turkish love palace such as Philippe had used in his latest Drury Lane play, The Fair Circassian (Joppien 74-76). Low divans, hidden lights, scents and songs completed the enchantment. William reminded Louisa how the three of them had reclined “like voluptuous Orientals on silken beds in the glow of the transparent curtains. Don’t you remember …the soft perfume of roses that seemed to float in the air and the affecting sound of music in the hall? (Chapman, Beckford 133).

In short, Philippe had created a virtual world which appealed to all five of the senses:

Through all these suites – through all these galleries – did we wander and wander – too often hand in hand – strains of music swelling forth at intervals – sometimes the organ – sometimes concerted pieces – in which P[acchierotti], T[enducci] and R[auzzini] – for a wonder of wonders – most amicably joined – sometimes a chaunt was heard – issuing, no-one could divine from whence – innocent affecting sounds. I seem even at this long distance to be warmed by the genial artificial light that Loutherbourg had created throughout the whole of what appeared a necromantic region, or rather, one of those fairy realms where K[ing]s’ daughters were held in thrall by a powerful Magician – one of those temples deep below the earth set apart for tremendous mysteries…at every stage of this enchanted palace tables were swung out covered with delicious consummations and tempting dishes, masked by the fragrance of a bright mass of flowers, the heliotrope, the basil and the rose – even the splendour of the gilded roof was often masked by the vapour of wood aloes ascending in wreaths from cassolettes placed low on the floor in salvers and jars of Japan. The glowing haze, the mystic look, the endless intricacy of the vaulted labyrinth produced an effect so bewildering that it became impossible for anyone to define exactly where at the moment he was wandering…It was the realization of a romance in all its fervours, in all its extravagance. The delirium in which our young fervid bosoms were cast by such a combination of seductive influences may be conceived but too easily.

qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 105-6

The great French scholar, André Parreaux, claimed that the party became a wild sexual orgy (212); Beckford’s latest biographer suggests in a more English manner that it provided plenty of opportunities for “country-house philandering” (Mowl, William Beckford 110). Either way, it seems to have resembled those Restoration masques where conventional rules, identities and behaviours were thrown off and transgressions licensed.[23] William’s letters to Louisa, written from Continental exile the following year, palpitated with sexual nostalgia. Begging for news of Kitty, he asked: “does she love to talk of the hour when, seizing her delicate hand, I led her, bounding like a kid to my chamber? Will she be faithful, will I ever again be happy? Can her cursed relations separate us forever? Is she not mine? Did she not swear she belonged to me…” (Mowl, William Beckford 111).

Louisa obligingly replayed their three nights of delirium, dwelling steamily on their orgiastic “iniquities” and “sacrifices,” on “young victims panting on the altar,” and on spectre raisings and demonic rituals (Parreaux 382; Mowl, William Beckford 111). Exaggerated or otherwise, it’s probable at least that the guests enacted some form of magic ritual[24] – a blend, perhaps, of Egyptian mystery rite and Masonic initiation. William’s personal fascination with magic was more aesthetic than supernatural, yet even he wondered around this time “whether it was too fantastic to imagine one could secure empire, if not over the material world, certainly over those who people it” (qtd. in Chapman, Beckford 98). Such speculation might be tested, for example, through erotic parlour games using the commonplace technique of “skyring,” whereby a child would mediate the spirits by hallucinating images in the waters of a crystal bowl (McCalman, Last Alchemist 52-53).


Whatever the reality, there’s no doubt that the party became a sacred event in William Beckford’s memory, not least because it seemed a moment of enchanted hedonism before the Courtenay scandal brought Continental exile and half a century of bitter isolation. Yet the Christmas party also lived in William’s mind because it triggered his greatest aesthetic achievement. Ever after, he acknowledged that Philippe’s necromantic spectacle inspired him to scribble the outlines of his Oriental novel, Vathek, over a few days and nights, stopping neither to sleep nor eat.[25]

It is not my purpose here to analyse Vathek at any length: it is enough to say that the imprint of the party appears throughout. At some levels, it can be regarded as a literary re-enactment of the Fonthill saturnalia, with Beckford playing Vathek, Louisa the black-magical priestess Carathis, and Courtenay the effeminate boy Gulchenroz. Philippe’s presence is signalled in references to “the magic of optics” and mysterious “sciences that did not exist” (Beckford, Vathek 2). The Egyptian and Turkish rooms are reincarnated as Vathek’s phantasmic “Palace of Five Senses,” with separate wings dedicated to “The Eternal or Unsatiating Banquet,” “The Temple of Melody,” “The Delight of the Eyes,” “The Palace of Perfumes” and “The Retreat of Mirth or the Dangerous” where seductions were accomplished (Beckford, Vathek 1-3). Reviewers of the day read the book as a Rococo Eastern tale operating under the sign of the Burkean sublime, modern critics label it a Gothic novel but sometimes puzzle at its oscillation between aesthetic seriousness, irony, and burlesque wit.

One critic has suggested that the “new virtualities of expression” of artists like De Loutherbourg inspired Beckford to push Vathek into a realm “where bearings inculcated by Western aesthetic criteria are totally lost” (Baridon 78). More plausibly, Vathek, can be seen as an early evocation of what we might call the “Romantic virtual sublime,” whereby Beckford sought to evoke in his readers the same sense of “transport” that the Christmas party guests experienced through immersion in Philippe’s virtual seraglio. Vathek is suffused with a yearning for erotic transcendence shared by many modern cyber enthusiasts. Philosopher Michael Heim sees this modern technological romanticism as powered by an erotic drive to apprehend knowledge and attain spiritual release through digital enfoldment – an experience deeper than bio-sexual fulfilment and akin to mystical union with the divine (Heim, Metaphysics 82-87).

Certainly the Fonthill Christmas party encouraged Philippe de Loutherbourg to push his own visual and kinetic experiments in daringly new aesthetic directions. When a second program of the Eidophusikon opened early in 1782, elements of the Fonthill spectacle were reincarnated as a miniature kinetic scene from Paradise Lost, featuring “Satan arraying his troops on the banks of the Fiery Lake, and the rising of the Palace of Pandemonium, as described by the pen of Milton.” An artist spectator, W.H. Pyne described the scene:

Here, in the foreground of a vista, stretching an immeasurable length between mountains, ignited from their bases to their lofty summits, with many coloured flame a chaotic mass rose in dark majesty, which gradually assumed form until it stood, the interior of a vast temple, bright as molten brass, seemingly composed of unconsuming and unquenchable fire.

Hardcastle 302-3

As a swarm of intricately-built mechanical demons clambered out of the asphaltic lake, concealed lights gradually transformed its waters from “sulphurous blue,” to “lurid” red and then again to a “pale vivid light,” an echo perhaps of the colour stages of an alchemical transmutation. For this new show Loutherbourg had also developed what Pyne called a “picturesque of sound.” Intricate machinery produced “peals of thunder,” the crackle of lightning and “groans, that struck the imagination as issuing from infernal spirits” (Hardcastle 302-03).

Reviewers sensed that Philippe had crossed a new threshold of aesthetic experiment. Not only was this Miltonic scene the Eidophusikon’s first use of a fictive narrative and actors, albeit mechanical ones, but Philippe had also pushed beyond picturesque moving landscapes to evoke “magnificent horror” that “strikes terror and admiration on the mind” (Altick 123, 217; Allen, “The Eidophusikon” 14-15). With hindsight we can see that he’d produced a miniature gothic spectral show, similar to those which the Parisian showman-scientist Gaspard Etienne Robertson made famous at the end of the century under the title of Phantasmagoria. Modern critics hail the advent of Robertson’s phantasmagoria as a paradigmatic moment in the evolution of Romantic aesthetics and cinema history, but Philippe de Loutherbourg’s primacy goes unacknowledged.[26]

Perhaps the idea of using a scene from Milton had originated with Beckford, who adored the Puritan poet’s rendering of sensual Eastern spectacle. Equally, Philippe might have remembered seeing a theatrical version of the Pandemonium scene at the Paris opera in the 1760s – a French edition of Paradise Lost from this time appears in his library catalogue.[27] He’d prepared a rather similar scene, too, for his first Garrick pantomime, The Christmas Tale, in December 1773 (Joppien 74-76). No doubt, like other contemporary artists, he was also struck by Milton’s pictorial imagination and adaptability for visual evocations of the sublime (Joppien 362-63).[28]

Equally pertinent is Simon During’s suggestion that, because of his canonical stature as religious poet, imaginative genius and national icon, Milton was often used to sanction eighteenth-century “aesthetic and literary projects” (6). The Eidophusikon certainly needed cultural authorization. Philippe had taken a gamble in 1781 by moving into commercial entertainment at a time when he was also hoping to be elected to the Royal Academy. And though he’d persuaded influential critics that the show was actually an extension of fine art which simply added “motion to resemblance” because “the most exquisite painting represented only one moment of time in action” (qtd. in Burwick 170), he knew he was on thin ice. As audience familiarity and commercial competition forced him to chase new viewers, he developed the more populist second program of January 1782 (McCalman, “Magic, Spectacle and the Art of De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon” 16-17). Yet, having just been elected a full Academician, he could afford even less to be associated with commodified popular spectacle, particularly when an influential art critic accused him in 1782 of having debased his art with showmanship.[29] No doubt he hoped that Milton’s literary stature would give his miniature phantasmagoria some much-needed gravitas.

Social anxiety may also explain why Philippe didn’t recycle the Turkish Seraglio scene from the Fonthill party into his new Eidophusikon program. One imagines it would have been a crowd pleaser. Probably he held off, because – along with the other Christmas party guests – he found himself caught in a miasma of rumour about black magical sex orgies. Beckford complained to Louisa that his gossipy Aunt Effingham “believes all the wild tales that were so charitably circulated of our orientalism last December at Fonthill” (Chapman, Beckford 121). Even respectable chaperones like Rev Sam Henley had to defend their conduct. Louisa, under pressure from her angry husband, had to break off relations with both William and her own disreputable brother George. She was packed off to the Continent to seek treatment for her worsening consumption. Though William’s affair with “Kitty” Courtenay was still known to few at this stage, clouds were gathering on this front also. The Courtenay family were growing suspicious of the relationship, alerted by several unwise letters that William had written to the boy’s aunt.

A French migrant who’d long struggled to hide a scandalous past of his own, Philippe de Loutherbourg was similarly vulnerable to social disapproval. Moreover he had neither Beckford’s money nor social rank to hide behind. Faced with the double menace of being seen as a vulgar mountebank and a libertine “mystagogue,” he decided sometime around 1782-3 to sell the Eidophusikon and return to the more respectable practices of fine art. Though he was in fact to produce a number of other innovative spectacles in the future, he never revived or extended his Fonthill experiments of Christmas 1781. In retrospect this seems a tragic decision. There were other painters in Britain and Europe with equal or greater easel talent than Philippe de Loutherbourg, but no-one could come close to his genius for creating sublime virtual spectacles.