William Combe

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 93 (August 1823) 185-86.

June 19. At his apartments, Lambeth-road, in his 82d year, Wm. Coombe, esq. a gentleman long known to the literary world by his various productions, but who never affixed his name to his works.

He was educated at Eton and Oxford. He possessed great talents, and a very fine person, as well as a good fortune, which, unhappily, he soon dissipated among the high connections to which his talents and attainments introduced him, and he subsequently passed through many vicissitudes of life, which at length compelled him to resort to Literature for support. Innumerable are the works of taste and science which were submitted to his revision, and of which others had the reputation. A love of show and dress, but neither gaming or drinking, was the source of his embarrassments. He was indeed remarkably abstemious, drinking nothing but water till the last few weeks of his life, when wine was recommended to him as a medicine. But, though a mere water drinker, his spirit at the social board kept pace with that of the company. He possessed musical knowledge and taste, and formerly sung in a very agreeable manner. His conversation was always entertaining and instructive, and he possessed a calm temper with very agreeable manners. He was twice married. His second wife, who is now alive, is the sister of Mrs. Cosway, and possessed of congenial taste and talents.

He originally excited great attention in the fashionable world, by a poem, entitled The Diabollad, in two parts, the second of which was far inferior to the first. The hero and heroine were generally understood to be a nobleman and a duchess lately deceased. The Philosopher of Bristol, &c. and The Flattering Milliner, or modern Half-hour, performed at Bristol in 1775, were likewise by him; as was The Devil upon Two Sticks in England, being a continuation of Le Diable Boiteux of Le Sage, 4 vols. 1790; 2d edit. 6 vols. 12mo. 1810; in which many very distinguished characters at that period were introduced, and the whole entitles him to the name of the English Le Sage, which some have been pleased to confer upon him, though far inferior to Le Sage's work. He was the author also of several political pamphlets, which made a considerable impression on the publick, among which were The Royal Interview, A Letter from a Country Gentleman to his Friend in Town, A Word in Season, The Letters of Valerius on the State of Parties, 8vo. 1804, and many others. He also wrote those letters which appear under the title of Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton.

Within the last few years, under the liberal patronage of Mr. Ackermann, who continued to be a generous friend to him till his last moments, he brought forth a work which became very popular and attractive, under the title of The Tour of Doctor Syntax in search of the Picturesque. It was originally inserted in the Poetical Magazine, published by Mr. Ackermann, but afterwards reprinted in 8vo. 1812; 2d edit. 1813. and subsequent editions. This work, which he extended to a "Second and Third Tour," with nearly the same spirit and humour which characterised the first, will for ever rank among the most humorous productions of British literature. He afterwards produced poems, entitled, The English Dance of Death, and The Dance of Life, which were written with the same spirit, humour, and knowledge of mankind that marked the other works. His last poem was The History of Johnny Quae Genus, The Little Foundling of the late Dr. Syntax. All these works were illustrated by some admirable prints from the designs of Mr. Rowlandson.

For Mr. Ackermann he also wrote History of Westminster Abbey, 2 vols. 4to. 1812; Six Poems illustrative of Engravings by H.R.H. the Princess Elizabeth, 4to. 1813, and also part of the descriptions to the Microcosm of London, 3 vols 4to.; and was the author of the papers, entitled the Modern Spectator, in Ackermann's Repository of Arts.

The Bristol Observer of July 16, publishes the following anecdotes of this highly-favoured literary humourist, as given by a gentleman, one of his contemporaries, during his residence at Bristol Hotwells, which place he visited about the year 1768: — "He was tall and handsome in person, an elegant scholar, and highly accomplished in his manners and behaviour. He lived in a most princely style, and, though a bachelor, kept two carriages, several horses, and a large retinue of servants. He had resided abroad for many years. It was said that he was the son of a tradesman in London, who left him a very handsome fortune, but which it is supposed he soon dissipated, and then commenced Author. He was generally recognized by the appellation of 'Count Coombe.'"

From another quarter, says the same respectable Journal, "we have been told that a gentleman once gave Mr. Coombe the friendly hint that his sister-in-law, a lady possessing a fortune of forty thousand pounds, 'might with ease be wooed and without pains be won.' But this suggestion 'the Count' spurned from him contemptuously. The lady soon afterwards became the prize of a soldier of seemingly more precarious fortune, who, we believe, still survives her — an example of greater prudence and circumspection than he by whom she was rejected."

"As an example of his powers of conversation, the late Dr. Estlin related that a friend once met Mr. Coombe walking in Tyndall's Park with a young lady under each arm — if we heard the anecdote correctly, Miss Galton and Miss Hannah More — both of whom were in tears. 'In the name of Heaven, Coombe!' exclaimed his friend, at their next meeting, 'what had you been saying to those poor girls with whom I met you the other day, to produce so much distress?' — 'What distress? — when?' enquired the Count, in a tone of alarm at the imputation. On his memory being brought home to the fact, he rejoined, 'Oh! nothing at all — some melancholy tale of imagination, trumped up to suit their palate and diversify the scene. But of the pearly drops I was not so keen an observer as yourself'."

The life of Mr. Coombe, if impartially written, would be pregnant with amusement and instruction; but those whose literary contributions might have provided interesting materials, are probably most of them with him in the grave; and he will hereafter be chiefly remembered as the Author of Doctor Syntax.

We ought not to conclude this article without bearing testimony to the firm reliance which Mr. Coombe placed in the Divine origin of the Christian religion, and a future existence; and to the fortitude and resignation with which he supported his full conviction of the near approach of his final release from all sublunary troubles.