William Beckford had two lives. One was real and sensational, the other was the forgery of elegant lies and half-truths he invented in Bath retirement after the young Disraeli, in a spirit of sly mischief, had sent him a homoerotic epic based loosely on Beckford's own career. Biographers have been bemused by is faked letters and dream encounters with celebrities - the 'composing for Mozart' syndrome. His real life was infinitely more stimulating and significant; he stands as the pivotal Romantic between Horace Walpole's timidity and Lord Byron's blazing self-confidence.

Beckford was reared in exotic isolation in a Palladian palace and his father's Picturesque landscape where he grew up obssessed wih dark grottoes, towers and awful images of the living dead. In the Alps he anticipated Wordsworth's delight in peasant simplicities and perilious rock climbing, but a fatal misreading of Goethe persuaded him to equate adultery with a paedophilic affair with the young Lord Courtenay.

Rushed into a precarious marriage by an apprehensive mother, he indulged his sincere loves, both legal and paedophile, until a Tory administration decided he was a dangerously loose cannon and staged the sex scandal that exiled him. In his absence his brilliantly nihilistic Arabian novel, Vathek, was treacherously pirated. Back in England, Beckford flung his wealth into the creation of Fonthill Abbey and a gloomy forest park where he could bathe in the rain with a sylph-like Albanian footman. Before the Abbey collapsed he had, by its shadowy vistas and glamorous camp furnishings, prepared the way for the wildest excesses of Victorian taste.