William Roscoe

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 147-54.

But, hark what solemn strains from Arno's vales
Breathe raptures wafted on the Tuscan gales!
LORENZO rears again his awful head,
And feels his ancient glories round him spread;
The Muses starting from their trance, revive
And, at their ROSCOE'S bidding, wake and live.

"Liverpool," says Fraser, "is proud of having produced Roscoe. Washington Irving's observations, in his Geoffrey Crayon, on the occasion of his landing in that city, and his reflections on the sale of Roscoe's library, will be recollected by all who have any feeling for generous writing." Among such there cannot, by any possibility, be included any of the readers of this memoir, and I shall accordingly waive all further notice of the paper in The Sketch-Book, and content myself with a reference to the hardly less admirable parody upon it which will be found in a witty little volume, entitled Warreniana. Here it is no longer Geoffrey Crayon, and the Liverpool Athenaeum but an anonymous American, and "No. 30, Strand," it is not ROSCOE the historian who excites the reverential emotions of the traveller but WARREN the Blacking-maker; he is not thinking of the "voice that has gone forth to the ends of the earth," but "the blacking with which he has cleaned his shoes even in the solitudes of America!" Warren, in short, "is the literary landmark of the place;" and though "the popular graces of his poetry" had made the pilgrim familiar with the name," it could not diminish the reverence which his immediate presence inspired." But to be serious.

WILLIAM ROSCOE was born March 8th, 1753, at Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, where his father was a publican and market gardener. He commenced life as a bookseller's assistant, but after a month's trial, not liking the confinement, left the occupation, and became articled in the following year to an attorney at Liverpool. He practised law with success in his native town for some years, but finding his aversion for business increase in direct ratio with his love for art and literature, he retired, in 1796, from his practice, with a moderate competency. In the following year he visited London, and with a view to practise at the bar, entered himself at Gray's Inn. Here, however, he did not keep more than one term; and returning to Liverpool, purchased a part of the Allerton estate, on which he proposed to fix his future residence, and devote the remainder of his life to the cultivation of literature, and the pursuits of a country gentleman.

Happy would it have been for William Roscoe if he had adhered to the plan which he had thus laid down. But if man proposes, he disposes not — "We do but row, 'tis fate that steers;" — and after an anchorage of a brief twelve months in the quiet haven of domestic and literary life, he found himself once more out at sea, on the storm-tossed ocean of commerce. His friend William Clarke, who, when residing for his health at Florence, had rendered such service to the historian by collecting materials to illustrate the age and life of Lorenzo, was at the head of an extensive banking-house. The year 1799 found this in a position of some embarrassment, and the aid of Roscoe was, in turn, sought as confidential adviser. The difficulties were removed, chiefly through his instrumentality; and the continuance of his aid and influence was sought as an active partner. In an evil hour, — whether through a desire to make a sacrifice to friendship, whether from anticipation of pecuniary advantage, — Roscoe bade farewell for ever to his lettered ease, and exchanged the "golden reign" of Leo, for that of the Banker, — a metaphorical reminiscence for an anticipation still more unreal and illusive. "Hoc fonte derivata clades!"

Before the taking of this fatal step, the History of Lorenzo the Magnificent had been given to the world. Happily, — in one sense, at least, — after Roscoe had become a banker, he enjoyed a few years of tranquillity, during which he had time to produce the necessary continuation of that important work, the History of the Life and Pontificate of Leo X., the illustrious son of the subject of his former labours. I need not speak of these works, which have long been classical. They elicited in this country the approbation of such men as Mathias, Parr, Hayley, Vincent, Currie, Heber, and Malone; they were welcomed with enthusiasm by the scholars of the Continent, especially those of Italy, and translated into Italian, French, and German; reprinted in America, and have gone through many editions in the country of their production. If further proof of their excellence be needed, I have only to mention, that the whole body of professed critics, with the Edinburgh Review at its head, fell foul of the later work, on account of the liberality and generosity of its sentiments, and more especially the view which the author took of the cruelties perpetrated by the early Reformers, and that the ultra Romanists themselves were no better pleased, as evinced by the fact that the Italian version was consigned by Leo XII., to the Index Expurgatorius. Other unfavourable opinions have, it is true, found occasional expression. Sismondi has dealt with their alleged historical faults in no reticent spirit, and English critics have reprehended the too uniform smoothness and elegance of the style, which belongs to that school of Blair, which, it has been said, has done so much to debase and emasculate the language. Bishop Hurd found Lorenzo "ingenious and learned;" but was inclined to tax the author with Infidelity and Jacobinism. The following quatrain is from his Commonplace Book:—

Teach me Historic Muse, to mix
Impiety with politics
So shall I write nil aliud posco
Like my lov'd Gibbon, Hume, and Roscoe.

I remember, in bygone days (about 1846), once hearing Michelet himself but a second-rate writer, speak in disparaging terms of Roscoe, in a lecture-room in Paris; but these are exceptions, and it can hardly be doubted that these histories will continue to be read as long as a taste for elegant literature shall exist among us.

It is well for the fame of Roscoe as a man of letters, that he had thus early completed the great works on which it must rest. In 1816, the banking-house with which he was connected fell once more into those difficulties, the occurrence of which has now unhappily become, at least in this country, a recognized feature of a commercial career. Time and opportunity were granted for extrication, chiefly from confidence in Roscoe and respect for his character. But this proved in vain, and the necessity becoming apparent of realizing, not only the assets of the concern, but the private property of the partners, Roscoe at once, with heroic fortitude, resolved to offer to public sale his whole personal effects, including his library, pictures, engravings, and other works of art, which it had been an important part of the business of his life to bring together and of which he made such a noble use. After the deprivation of sight — the calamity of Homer, Milton, D'Israeli, Prescott, and Thierry, — surely the greatest misfortune which can happen to a man of letters is the loss of his books. There is a noble class of intellect which, dealing rather with the abstract, — knowing, as it would seem, much from intuition, — and retaining, moreover, all that has ever come within its grasp, — may come at length, to be able to dispense, in great measure, with that from which it derived its fulness. The possessor of such a mind can say, with a fine old poet:—

I scorn fortune and was ever free
From that dead wealth depending on her power;
My treasure still I beare about with me,
Which neither time nor tyrants can devoure.
[Recreations with the Muses, by William Earl of Sterline. Folio, 1627.]

But there is also another and inferior order of mind, as well as a more concrete branch of literary work, which has to do with facts and figures; and neither of these can dispense with the extraneous aid of books. As was said of old, "Scire ubi aliquid invenire possis magna pars eruditionis est," and in this case the learning perishes with the means of reference, as well as the labour and the pleasure of a life. The world cannot estimate the extent of such a loss, and may thus receive pardon for allow it to occur. "The scholar only knows," says Washington Irving, "how dear these silent, yet eloquent, companions of pure thoughts and innocent hours become in the season of adversity. When all that is worldly turns to dross around us, these only retain their steady value. When friends grow cold, and the converse of intimates languishes into vapid simplicity and commonplace, these only continue the unaltered countenance of happier days, and cheer us with that true friendship which never deceived hope, nor deserted sorrow."

Here is an expression of feeling which cannot fail to find a responsive echo in the mind of every lover of books; and who, among these, is there who will not sympathize with Roscoe in the anguish which the forced severance from these objects of his love brought to his soul, and admire the manly philosophy with which he prepared his mind to meet the blow? The following exquisite sonnet was composed by him at this period, and expresses at once his grief and his fortitude:—

As one who destined from his friends to part,
Regrets his loss, but hopes again erewhile
To share their converse, and enjoy their smile,
And tempers, as he may affliction's dart;
Thus, loved associates, chiefs of elder art,
Teachers of wisdom, who could once beguile
My tedious hours, and lighten every toil,
I now resign you; nor with fainting heart;
For pass a few short years, or days, or hours,
And happier seasons may their dawn unfold,
And all your sacred fellowship restore;
When, freed from earth, unlimited its powers,
Mind shall with mind direct communion hold,
And kindred spirits meet to part no more.

An eminent man of letters on the other side of the Channel, — "Le Bibliophile Jacob," alias M. Paul Lacrois, a writer to whom all lovers of books must owe a debt of gratitude, — appears to have suffered a loss similar to that of Roscoe, and alludes to it in touching language. In the preface to his reprint of the Moyen de Parvenir of Beroalde de Verville, the following passage occurs: — "Mon commentaire n'est qu'une faible reminiscence de celui que j'avais prepare, il y a cinqu ans, et qui a ete egare pendant un voyage. I'avaise, a cet epoque, comme instrumens et comme materiaux, une excellente biblioteque que des revers de fortune m'ont force de vendre aux encheres. Sous Louis XIV. ce fut Boileau qui acheta la biblioteque de Patru; sous Louis XVl, ce fut Catherine II. gens de lettres deviennent ministres, un homme de lettres qui vend sa biblioteque ne peut s'addresser qu'au public, et n'a pas la consolation de voir se livres passe tous a la fois dans des mains royales ou lettrees. Mais, comme je ne me lasse pas de le repeter, qu' importent les livres? qu'importent les ecrivains qui le font?"

The "Catalogues" of Roscoe's various collections were very extensive, and were prepared by their owner with his own hand, in order that they should be considered worthy a place in libraries, and thus remain a permanent record of the literary and artistic treasures once possessed by him. The sales were well attended, and the biddings high: the books realized 5,150; the engravings and etchings, 1,915: and the paintings and drawings, 2,826. Besides these sale "Catalogues," which are now difficult to meet with, there is another and later memorial of the famous collection, in the shape of a slender tome, entitled Roscoe's Library; or, Old Books and Old Times, by the Rev. James Aspinall, M.A. (London and Liverpool, 1853, 8vo, pp. 77), — a volume which, in addition to its bibliographic information, contains some interesting details of celebrated libraries and their dispersion.

It would probably have been better, alike for the character of Liverpool and the happiness of Roscoe, had these collections been preserved to him. The merchants of his native city are doubtless clever book-keepers; but in their ledger account with their distinguished townsman, they had strangely miscalculated the amount of his credit. But at Liverpool, as Irving found, he who was known as an author elsewhere, was "spoken of as the banker," and here the balance was on the wrong side. A good deal, too, may be said per contra. Roscoe's independence of feeling would probably have led him to refuse the gift; much of the collection was merely ornamental; and the total value was little short of 10,000. An attempt was, indeed, made by a few liberal-minded friends to secure for his use the working portion of his library. It was found, ultimately, that he could not retain even this; and the volumes, which had been carefully selected by Mr. Shepherd, were finally presented to the Liverpool Athenaeum; the use of them, and the faculty of their removal from the library, being reserved, for his lifetime, to their former possessor.

Four years of intense business labour and anxiety now ensued; at the close of which it became obvious that the proposed plan for settling the affairs of the bank could not be carried out. Actions at law ere commenced; the personal library of Roscoe was imperiled; and it became necessary, after all, to seek relief in bankruptcy. He obtained his certificate in 1830, and found himself, at the age of 70, bookless and a beggar, in infirm health and broken spirits. Here, once more a few friends stepped forward, collected a sum of 2,500, and vested it in trustees for the benefit of the historian and his family. In 1822, he published his important Illustrations of the Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, with a reply therein to the strictures and criticisms of Sismondi, who, it is pleasing to know, subsequently visited his literary antagonist at Liverpool, and passed several pleasant days with him, as his guest. In the same year, too, he drew up a very curious account of a poor Welsh fisher-lad, who, though in the utmost indigence, and of weak intellect in other directions, had managed to obtain an extraordinary knowledge of languages. He was critically acquainted with Hebrew, Greek and Latin, Welsh was his mother tongue; English he had learnt as a foreign language; and he both read and spoke with fluency French and Italian. This extraordinary character had an interview with the eminent scholar, Dr. Samuel Parr. Latin was too simple to engage their attention, but they discussed the refinements of Greek, and the works of the critics who had illustrated it. They then went off into Hebrew and its analogous tongues, when it became apparent that the lad, — who in point of attire, would have shamed a beggar, — was getting the best of it. The Doctor now tried to take refuge in Chaldee, but soon had to beat a precipitate retreat. When Jones was asked what he thought of his interlocutor, he replied with faint praise, "He is less ignorant than most men." Roscoe draws a parallel between the circumstances of the early life of the subject of his memoir, and those of Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher; and compares him, in the character of his mind, and the earnestness of his pursuits, with Magliabechi, the learned librarian of the Grand Duke's library at Florence. Under more favourable circumstances, he might also have been no mean rival to the Cardinal Mezzofanti, whose linguistic acquirements will be the marvel of all succeeding ages to the end of time. I have said this much from the curiosity of the subject, for the authorship of the pamphlet is not generally known, and I do not think that Canon Williams has mentioned "Dick of Aberdaron" in his Dictionary. A fine portrait is prefixed to Roscoe's memoir, from which it is apparent that the plate was etched by Mrs. Dawson Turner, of Great Yarmouth, from a drawing by John Williamson, an eminent portrait-painter of Liverpool. When this portrait was shown to Dick, he turned it about from side to side, and at length exclaimed, "It is my own." Roscoe then asked him to write a suitable inscription of his name, etc., to put under it; when the ragged lad, who had not the least idea of his head being engraved, or an inscription required, opened his waistcoat, and unwound from his body a piece of white calico, five or six feet long by three broad, on which there appeared in large letters, inscribed by himself, the words, "Verbum Dei Libertas," and beneath, the legend: "R. Johannes, Caernarvonensis, Linguae Hebraeae professor, Rabbi Nathan unus e discipulis, et veritatis libertatisque indignissimus Martyr." There is also a spirited wood-cut, showing the eccentric scholar, at full length, reading from a book supported by his two hands.

Roscoe joined proficiency as a draughtsman to his other varied accomplishments. Many of the etchings in his great work on monandrian plants were produced from drawings by himself. He etched with the dry-point several book-plates for his friends; and executed the admission ticket for the Exhibition for Promoting Painting and Design in Liverpool, in 1787; and to the exhibition of the previous year he contributed two drawings in crayon ("Portrait of a Gentleman," and "Boy Sleeping, Nos. 142 and 143).

Perhaps it may be new to some that it was his pen which furnished the admirable preface to the Catalogue of the Etchings of Rembrandt of his friend and brother-in-law, Daulby. He also wrote the preface to Strutt's Dictionary of Engravers (1785-6, 2 vols. 4to), an admirable introduction to the subject, which has been translated into most of the modern languages. He translated the Nurse of Luigi Tansillo (Liverpool, McCreery, 1798, 4to), a beautiful specimen of local typography; and produced many other works of minor importance, — pamphlets on the slave-trade, speeches, addresses on various occasions political and literary, etc., — of which I cannot even make mention.

As a poet, he is known by those beautiful verses, — "O'er the vine-covered hills and gay regions of France," of which an imitation is given in the Noctes Ambrosianae, No. 53. His poetical works were, for the first time, collected and published by Ward and Lock, London, small square 8vo, 1857, pp. 104.

About the year 1821, George IV. founded the Royal Society of Literature, which was incorporated by Charter in 1825. The King made a contribution to the new society of one thousand guineas a year, to be distributed among ten literary men, who were to receive the title of "Royal Associates," and be chosen at the discretion of the Council. The gentlemen selected as the original recipients of this bounty were: — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Rev. Edward Davies, Rev. John Jamieson, D.D., Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus, Thomas James Mathias, James Millingen, Sir William Ouseley, WILLIAM ROSCOE, Rev. Henry John Todd, and Sharon Turner.

To the credit of Roscoe's discrimination it should not be forgotten, that he early discovered and encouraged the genius of the late John Gibson, the eminent sculptor, who was a frequent visitor at Allerton Hall, and by whom, in 1827, a bust of the historian in marble was presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution, "in gratitude to one to whom he was indebted for what little merit he might possess as a sculptor; who first inspired him with ideas worthy of his profession, and kindled within him an ardent love of fame in the pursuit of it."

It was well said by old George Buchanan:—

Sola doctorum monumenta vatum
Nesciunt fati imperium severi
Sola contemnunt Phlegethonis et Orci
Jura superbi,—

and WILLIAM ROSCOE, who in the chances and changes of life had ennobled prosperity, dignified adversity, and thus showed himself equal to either fortune, has cast a lustre by his genius over the town of his nativity which will shine bright when the story of her commerce shall be as vague as that of Tyre and Sidon. He died at his residence, Toxeth Park, Liverpool, June 30th, 1831, in his eighty-first year, "ultimus suorum;" and at the close of his long career saw occasion to "thank the Almighty for having permitted him to pass a life of much happiness, which, though somewhat chequered by vicissitude, had been, on the whole, one of great enjoyment."

The life of Roscoe was written by his son Henry (London, 1833, 2 vols, 8vo), and has two portraits prefixed, — one from a painting by John Williamson, the other engraved from the medallion by Gibson. The best miniature of Roscoe is said to be one by Thomas Hargreaves. The bust by Sir Francis Chantrey, at the Gallery of Arts, is said to be "one of those mistaken idealizations which are too often indulged in by the most eminent of artists." There is, besides, the monument, with bust, by Davis, in the Renshaw Street Chapel, a bust by Spence, of which an engraving is before me; a portrait, drawn and engraved by Thompson, in the European Magazine, July, 1822; another engraved by Hopwood "from an original picture;" and perchance others which have not found their way into my portfolio.