RICHARD FARMER was born at Leicester in the year 1735. His early education he received at Leicester, under Mr. Andrews, and left it with the character of being estimable for temper and talents. He entered, when of proper age, a pensioner at Emanuel college, Cambridge, when Dr. Richardson was master; his tutors were Mr. Bickham and Mr. Hubbard. Dr. Richardson was a good-humoured man, warmly attached to tory principles, and no less strict in the minutiae of college discipline. It was matter of triumph to him to have been present, when a boy, at the trial of Sacheverell; and so rigid a disciplinarian was he, as to punish the wearing of a neckcloth — which at that time was deemed unacademical — instead of a stock, with the same strictness as a deviation from moral rectitude. On this view of Richardson's character a wag wrote a copy of verses, closing with these lines,
A crime like this all human nature shocks,—
He wore large neckcloths in the room of stocks!
The same strictness was preserved by Richardson, when Dr. Jebb introduced a Grace into the senate-house for public examination. Dr. Jebb was a zealous whig, and his grace, in the judgment of Richardson, carried the appearance of dangerous innovation. Dr. Richardson at the same time was old and feeble; but he chose to be carried to the senate-house: and when his shrill voice, on giving his vote, could scarcely be heard, he cried out to one of the masters, inquiring whose voice it was, "It was I, master, it was I; I came to save the university!" Dr. Richardson was author of a folio volume written in Latin, on the prelates of England.
Dr. Farmer, while an undergraduate, was neither distinguished for any gross vices nor for any extraordinary qualities. He was, however, known to be a man of reading, distinguished rather for sprightly parts than profound speculations, and much esteemed in the circle of his friends. His bachelor of arts degree he took in the year 1757, and ranked as what is called a senior optime; he was of the same year with Dr. Waring and Dr. Jebb, the two first men of the year. The degree, though an inconsiderable one, and particularly so in 1757, procured him notice in the college, and he contested the silver cup given at Emanuel college to the best graduate of the year, with Mr. Sawbridge brother to the alderman of that name, but was unsuccessful.
In 1760 he took his master of arts degree, and succeeded, as classical tutor, to Mr. Bickham, who went off to the valuable living of Loughborough in Leicestershire, in the gift of Emanuel college. The first books that he lectured in were Euclid's Elements, Aristophanes, Tully's Offices, the Amphictyon of Plautus, and Hurd's Horace. In later periods he lectured in Quintilian, Grotius de Veritate Religionis Christianae, and the Greek Testament. In discharge of the part of his office more immediately classical, Dr. Farmer was entitled to considerable respect. He was a good scholar. But theology and mathematics were not his favourite studies. He did not give lectures in Euclid many years, but in Grotius and the Greek Testament he continued to lecture till he resigned the tuition. In the year 1767 he took the degree of bachelor in divinity. About this time he was appointed one of the preachers of Whitehall; an engagement that required him to be in London a certain number of months in the year, a situation favourable to one now becoming a collector of books. Farmer, though his expenses at that time were few, was as yet possessed of but a limited income, and now more particularly occupied his time in reading our old English authors. In a course of years, indeed, he collected many valuable books, and as his income increased, he could occasionally gratify a more expensive taste; but, generally speaking, he was as often seen at the end of an old book stall, as in the splendid shops of more respectable booksellers, and the sixpence a-piece books were to him sometimes of more value than a Baskerville classic, or a volume printed at Strawberry-Hill. In this way he gradually got together an immense number of books, good, bad, and indifferent, which at length sold for more than £2000. In the year 1766 he published the first edition of his valuable Essay on the learning of Shakspeare, addressed to Joseph Cradock, Esq., of Gumley-Hall in Leicestershire. A second edition was called for in the following year. It appeared with only a few corrections of style, but no additional information. A third was printed in 1789, without any additions except a note at the end, accounting for his finally abandoning his intended publication of the Antiquities of Leicester. The Essay is also given at large in Mr. Steevens' and Mr. Reed's edition of Shakspeare, printed in 1793.
The first piece of preferment obtained by Farmer was most probably given him as a token of esteem, no less than as a testimony to his literary merit. This was the chancellorship of Lichfield and Coventry, bestowed on him by his friend Bishop Hurd. A prebendary stall was also conferred on Farmer by the same prelate when afterwards advanced to that see. On the death of Dr. Richardson, in the year 1775, he was chosen master of Emanuel college by the fellows of that society, Mr. Hubbard, the senior fellow, declining it on account of age and infirmities. He now took his doctor of divinity's degree, and was shortly after succeeded in the tutorship by a man of great taste and learning, Mr. afterwards Dr. Bennet, bishop of Cloyne. He next obtained, on the death of Dr. Barnardiston, the office of principal librarian: these two appointments he was fairly entitled to from his literary character. In the same year he served, in his turn, the office of vice-chancellor of the university, and was presented by the minister of the day, Lord North, with a valuable piece of preferment, a prebend of Canterbury. The offer of a bishopric was twice made him by Mr. Pitt, but declined. The truth is, the solemnity and formality of the episcopal character would have sat but awkwardly on Farmer. He chose to move without restraint, and to enjoy himself without responsibility: to use his own language to a friend, "one that enjoyed the theatre and the Queen's Head in the evening, would have made but an indifferent bishop." A piece of preferment, however, was soon conferred on him by Mr. Pitt, no less agreeable to his taste, in point of situation, than valuable in point of income, — a residentiaryship of St. Paul's. This was given him in exchange for the prebend of Canterbury. It was agreeable to his taste, as requiring three months' residence in the capital, and only three, in the year; enabling him to enjoy in succession his literary clubs in London, and his literary retreat at Cambridge.
The various editors of Shakspeare, not excepting Johnson, are to be ranked among the admirers and friends of Farmer. Steevens, Malone, Reed, &c. have all borne testimony to the merit of his Essay. In this work Dr. Farmer fully demonstrates, that our immortal poet was more indebted to nature than to art, and that his matters of fact were deduced from our old chronicles and romances, and from translations of the classics, not from original writers. It is well-known that the other side of the question had been maintained by most of the critics and commentators on Shakspeare, — Pope, Theobald, Warburton, Upton, Grey, Dodd, and Whalley. The purport of this pamphlet, and the province of the author of it, cannot be better explained than in Farmer's own words: "I hope, my good friend — he is addressing Mr. Cradock — you have acquitted our great poet of all piratical depredations on the ancients, and are ready to receive my conclusion. He remembered perhaps enough of his schoolboy learning, to put the hig, hag, hog, into the mouth of Sir Hugh Evans, and might pick up in the writers of the time, or the course of his conversation, a familiar phrase or two of French or Italian; but his studies were most demonstratively confined to nature and his own language. In the course of this disquisition, you have often smiled at all such reading as was never read, and possibly I may have indulged it too far: but it is the reading necessary for a comment on Shakspeare. Those who apply solely to the ancients for this purpose, may with equal wisdom study the Talmud for an exposition of Tristram Shandy. Nothing but an intimate acquaintance with the writers of the time, who are frequently of no other value, can point out his allusions, and ascertain his phraseology. The reformers of his text are equally positive and equally wrong. The cant of the age, a provincial expression, an obscure proverb, an obsolete custom, a hint at a person, or a fact no longer remembered, hath continually defeated the best of our guessers: you must not suppose me to speak at random, when I assure you, that from some forgotten book or other, I can demonstrate this to you in many hundred places, and I almost wish that I had not been persuaded into a different employment."
The latter years of Dr. Farmer's life were pretty equally divided between Emanuel college and the residentiary house at Amen-corner. His literary friends, as usual, engaged much of his time. Dr. Farmer died after a long and painful illness in 1797.