1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Henry Baker

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 3:336-41.



HENRY BAKER, an ingenious and diligent naturalist, the son of William Baker, a clerk in Chancery, was born in Chancery-lane, London, May 8, 1698. He was placed in 1713 with John Parker, whom he left in 1720, to reside for a few weeks with Mr. John Forster an attorney. Mr. Forster had a daughter of eight years old, who was born deaf and dumb. Mr. Baker, possessed with the idea that he could instruct her in reading, writing, and understanding what was spoken, made the attempt, and was so successful that her father retained him in his house for some years, during which he succeeded equally well with a second daughter who laboured under the same privation. He afterwards made this the employment of his life. In the prosecution of so valuable and difficult an undertaking, he was very successful. Among his pupils were the hon. Lewis Erskine, son of the late earl of Buchan; lady Mary, and lady Anne O'Brien, daughters of the earl of Inchiquin; the earl of Sussex and his brother Mr. Yelverton; the earl of Haddington, the earl of Londonderry, and many others. At the end of his instructions, he is said to have taken a bond for 100 of each scholar not to divulge his method, an instance of narrowness of mind which we wish we could contradict.

In April 1729, he married Sophia, youngest daughter of the famous Daniel Defoe, who brought him two sons, both of whom he survived. On the 29th of January 1740, Mr. Baker was elected a fellow of the society of antiquaries; and, on the 12th of March following, the same honour was conferred upon him by the royal society. In 1744, sir Godfrey Copley's gold medal was bestowed upon him, for having, by his microscopical experiments on the crystallizations and configurations of saline particles, produced the most extraordinary discovery during that year. This medal was presented to him by sir Hans Sloane, then president of the royal society, and only surviving trustee of sir Godfrey Copley's donation, at the recommendation of sir Hans's worthy successor, Martin Folkes, esq. and of the council of the said society. Having led a very useful and honourable life, he died, at his apartments in the Strand, on the 25th of Nov. 1774, aged seventy-seven. His wife died in 1762; and he left only one grandson, William Baker, who was born Feb. 17, 1763, and to whom, on his living to the age of twenty-one, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune, which be had acquired by his profession of teaching deaf and dumb persons to speak. This gentleman is now rector of Lyndon and South Luffenham, in the county of Rutland. He gave also by his will a hundred pounds to the royal society, the interest of which was to be applied in paying for an annual oration on natural history or experimental philosophy, now known by the name of the Bakerian oration. He gave to each of his two executors one hundred pounds; and his wife's gold watch and trinkets in trust to his daughter-in-law Mary Baker for her life, and to be afterwards given to the future wife of his grandson. To Mrs. Baker he gave also an annuity of fifty pounds. His furniture, printed books, curiosities, and collections of every sort, he directed should be sold, which was accordingly done. His manuscripts are in the possession of his grandson. His fine collection of native and foreign fossils, petrifactions, shells, corals, vegetables, ores, &c. with some antiquities and other curiosities, were sold by auction, March 13, 1775, and the nine following days.

He was buried, as he desired, in an unexpensive manner, in the church-yard of St. Mary le-Strand; within which church, on the south wall, he ordered a small tablet to be erected to his memory, but owing to some particular regulations annexed to the new churches under the act of queen Anne, leave for this could not be obtained. "An inscription for it," he said, "would probably be found among his papers; if not, he hoped some learned friend would write one agreeably to truth."

Mr. Baker was a constant and useful attendant at the meetings of the royal and antiquary societies, and in both was frequently chosen one of the council. He was peculiarly attentive to all the new improvements which were made in natural science, and very solicitous for the prosecution of them. Several of his communications are printed in the Philosophical Transactions; and, besides the papers written by himself, he was the means, by his extensive correspondence, of conveying to the society the intelligence and observations of other inquisitive and philosophical men. His correspondence was not confined to his own country. To him we are obliged for a true history of the coccus polonicus, transmitted by Dr. Wolfe. It is to Mr. Baker's communications that we owe the larger alpine strawberry, of late so much cultivated and approved of in England. The seeds of it were sent in a letter from professor Bruns of Turin to our philosopher, who gave them to several of his friends, by whose care they furnished an abundant increase. The seeds likewise of the true rhubarb, or rheum palmatum, now to be met with in almost every garden in this country, were first transmitted to Mr. Baker by Dr. Mounsey, physician to the empress of Russia. These, like the former, were distributed to his various acquaintance, and some of the seeds vegetated very kindly. It is apprehended that all the plants of the rhubarb now in Great Britain were propagated from this source. Two or three of Mr. Baker's papers, which relate to antiquities, may be found in the Philosophical Transactions. The society for the encouragement of arts, manufactures, and commerce, is under singular obligations to our worthy naturalist. As he was one of the earliest members of it, so he contributed in no small degree to its rise and establishment. At its first institution, he officiated for some time gratis, as secretary. He was many years chairman of the committee of accounts: and he took an active part in the general deliberations of the society. In his attendance he was almost unfailing, and there were few questions of any moment upon which he did not deliver his opinion. Though, from the lowness of his voice, his manner of speaking was not powerful, it was clear, sensible, and convincing; what he said, being usually much to the purpose, and always proceeding from the best intentions, had often the good effect of contributing to bring the society to rational determinations, when many of the members seemed to have lost themselves in the intricacies of debate. He drew up a short account of the original of this society, and of the concern he himself had in forming it; which was read before the society of antiquaries, and would be a pleasing present to the public. Mr. Baker was a poetical writer in the early part of his life. His Invocation of Health got abroad without his knowledge; but was reprinted by himself in his Original Poems, serious and humorous, Part the first, 8vo, 1725. The second part came out in 1726. He was the author, likewise, of The Universe, a poem, intended to restrain the pride of man, which had been several times reprinted. His account of the water polype, which was originally published in the Philosophical Transactions, was afterwards enlarged into a separate treatise, and hath gone through several editions. In 1728 he began, and for five years conducted the Universal Spectator, a periodical paper, under the assumed name of Henry Stonecastle; a selection of these papers was afterwards printed in 4 vols. 12mo. In 1737 he published Medulla Poetarum Romanorum, 2 vols. 8vo, a selection from the Roman poets, with translations. But his principal publications are, The Microscope made easy, and Employment for the Microscope. The first of these, which was originally published in 1742, or 1743, has gone through six editions. The second edition of the other, which, to say the least of it, is equally pleasing and instructive, appeared in 1764. These treatises, and especially the latter, contain the most curious and important of the observations and experiments which Mr. Baker either laid before the royal society, or published separately. It has been said of Mr. Baker, "that he was a philosopher in little things." If it was intended by this language to lessen his reputation, there is no propriety in the stricture. He was an intelligent, upright and benevolent man, much respected by those who knew him best. His friends were the friends of science and virtue: and it will always be remembered by his contemporaries, that no one was more ready than himself to assist those with whom be was conversant in their various researches and endeavours for the advancement of knowledge and the benefit of society.

His eldest son, David Erskine Baker, was a young man of genius and learning, and, like his father, a philosopher, an antiquary, and a poet. Being very partial to mathematical and geometrical studies, the duke of Montague, then master of the ordnance, placed him in the drawing-room in the Tower, to qualify him for the royal engineers. In a letter to Dr. Doddridge, dated 1747, his father speaks of him in these terms: "He has been somewhat forwarder than boys usually are, from a constant conversation with men. At twelve years old he had translated the whole twenty-four books of Telemachus from the French: before he was fifteen, he translated from the Italian, and published, a treatise on physic, of Dr. Cocchi, of Florence, concerning the diet and doctrines of Pythagoras; and last year, before he was seventeen, he likewise published a treatise of sir Isaac Newton's Metaphysics, compared with those of Dr. Leibnitz, from the French of M. Voltaire. He is a pretty good master of the Latin, understands some Greek, is reckoned no bad mathematician for his years, and knows a great deal of natural history, both from reading and observation: so that, by the grace of God, I hope he will become a virtuous and useful man." In another letter he mentions a singular commission given to his son, that of making drawings of all the machines, designs, and operations employed in the grand fire-works to be exhibited on occasion of the peace of 1748. It is to be regretted, however, that his father's expectations were disappointed by a reverse of conduct in this son, occasioned by his turn for dramatic performances, and his marrying the daughter of a Mr. Clendon, a clerical empiric, who had, like himself, a similar turn. In consequence of this unhappy taste, he repeatedly engaged with the lowest strolling companies, in spite of every effort of his father to reclaim him. The public was, however, indebted to him for The Companion to the Playhouse, 1764, 2 vols. 12mo; a work which, though imperfect, had considerable merit, and shewed that he possessed a very extensive knowledge of our dramatic authors; and which has since (under the title of Biographia Dramatica been considerably improved, first in 1782, by the late Mr. Isaac Reed, 2 vols. 8vo, and more recently, in 1812, enlarged and improved by Mr. Stephen Jones, so as to form 4 vols. 8vo. He died Feb. 16, 1767. Mr. Baker's other son, Henry, followed the profession of a lawyer, and occasionally appeared as a poet and miscellaneous writer. In 1756 he published Essays Pastoral and Elegiac, 2 vols. 8vo, and left ready for the press an arranged collection of all the statutes relating to bankruptcy, with cases, precedents, &c. entitled The Clerk to the Commission, a work which is supposed to have been published under another title in 1768.