1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe

William Anderson, in Scottish Nation (1859-66) 3:445-46.



CHARLES KIRKPATRICK SHARPE, an accomplished amateur in literature, art, and music, was born about 1781. He sprung from a house which, in more than one generation, had been distinguished by a taste for literature. In 1690 his ancestor, John Sharpe, Esq., purchased from the earl of Southesk, the estate and castle of Hoddam, Dumfries-shire, which has ever since continued in the family. His grand-uncle, Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam, fought at Preston on the side of Prince Charles, and died in 1769, at the age of 76. He corresponded with David Hume, the historian, who addressed to him one of his most characteristic letters. His father, Mr. Charles Sharpe of Hoddam, was a grandson of Sir Thomas Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, the second baronet of his line. Burns, in 1790 or 1791, wrote to him a humorous letter under a fictitious signature, enclosing three stanzas, written by him to what he calls "a charming Scots air" of Mr. Sharpe's composition. In this letter he says, "You, I am told, play an exquisite violin, and have a standard taste in the belles lettres." The subject of this notice was his second son, the eldest son being General Matthew Sharpe of Hoddam, M.P. for the Dumfries burghs from 1832 to 1841. His mother was a daughter of Renton of Lamberton, a lady whose charms have been commemorated by Smollett in Humphrey Clinker. His brother was a whig of extremely liberal politics, but he himself was a tory of the old high cavalier school. He was educated at Christ church, Oxford, and at one period was designed for the ministry in the Church of England, but never took orders. Before he had attained his thirtieth year he had fixed his residence in Edinburgh, devoting his time principally to the cultivation of literature, music, and the fine arts.

His first appearance in print was in the Border Minstrelsy, edited by Sir Walter Scott, to which publication he contributed, in 1803, The Tower of Repentance, a ballad of some merit. In 1807 he published at Oxford a volume of Metrical Legends and other Poems, 8vo. He showed, however, higher skill as an artist than genius as a poet. At Abbotsford is his original drawing of Queen Elizabeth "dancing high and disposedly" before the Scottish envoy, Sir James Melville, who had excited her jealousy by commendations of the exquisite grace with which Mary Stuart led the dance at Holyrood or Linlithgow. On receiving it from Mr. Sharpe, then at Oxford, Sir Walter Scott, in a letter dated 30th December 1808, earnestly endeavoured to enlist him an a contributor to two works which be was at that time busy in projecting, viz., the Quarterly Review, and the Edinburgh Annual Register. Mr. Sharpe's drawing of the "Marriage of Muckle Mou'd Meg," illustrative of a well-known incident in border history, like his "Queen Elizabeth dancing," is a fine specimen of the humorous. Etchings of them were made, as well as of the "Feast of Spurs," and many other things of the same kind from his ever ready pencil.

In 1817 Mr. Sharpe edited The Secret and True History of the Church of Scotland, from the Restoration to the year 1678, by the Rev. James Kirkton, with an account of the murder of Archbishop Sharpe, by James Russell, an actor therein, Edinburgh, 4to. To this work he appended a series of Notes remarkable for their piquancy. In 1820 he published an edition of the Rev. Robert Law's Memorialls, or the considerable things that fell out within this island of Great Britain from 1638 to 1684, Edinburgh, 4to. This work, it is said in Watt's Bibliotheca Britannica, forms a collection of perhaps the best selected tales of witchcraft and wizardry which has been yet published. In 1823 be produced his Ballad Book, a small collection of Scottish ballads, inscribed to the editor of the Border Minstrelsy. In 1827 he edited The Life of Lady Margaret Cunninghame, and a narrative of The Conversion of Lady Warristoun. In 1828 he edited for the Bannatyne no Club the Letters of Lady Margaret Kennedy, or Burnet, to John, duke of Lauderdale, and in 1829, for the same Club, the Letters of Archibald, Earl of Argyle, to the same nobleman. He also furnished the curious engravings Illustrative of Sir Richard Maitland's History of the House of Seton to the year 1559, with the continuation by Alexander Viscount Kingston to 1687, printed for the Maitland Club in 1829. A small collection of his characteristic etchings appeared in 1833, under the title of Portraits by an Amateur. In 1837 he edited Minuets and Songs by Thomas sixth Earl of Kelly, and Sargundo, or the Valiant Christian, — a Romanist song of triumph for the victory of the Popish earls of Glenlivat in 1694. Of these works the impressions were limited, and they are not much known, except to antiquaries and bibliographers.

When Sir Walter Scott began to keep a diary in November 1825, about the first portrait he inscribed in it, was that of the subject of this notice. "Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe," it begins, "is another very remarkable man. He was bred a clergyman, but never took orders. He has infinite wit, and a great turn for antiquarian lore, as the publications of Kirkton, &c., bear witness. His drawings are the most fanciful and droll imaginable — a mixture between Hogarth and some of those foreign masters who painted temptations of St. Anthony, and such grotesque subjects. As a poet he has not a very strong touch. Strange that his finger-ends can describe so well what he cannot bring out clearly and firmly in words! If he were to make drawing a resource it might raise him a large income. But though a lover of antiquities, and, therefore, of expensive trifles, Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe is too aristocratic to use his art to assist his purse. He is a very complete genealogist, and has made many detections in Douglas and other books on pedigree, which our nobles would do well to suppress if they had in opportunity. Strange that a man should be so curious after scandal of centuries old! Not but that Charles loves it fresh and fresh also; for being very much a fashionable man, he is always master of the reigning report, and he tells the anecdote with such gusto that there is no helping sympathising with him — a peculiarity of voice adding not a little to the general effect. My idea is that Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe, with his oddities, tastes, satire, and high aristocratic feelings, resembles Horace Walpole — perhaps in his person also in a general way." One of the great publishing houses of London offered him a large sum for his autobiography, but he refused the offer. Mr. Sharpe died 18th March 1851, aged upwards of 70. His collection of antiquities was among the richest which any private gentleman had ever accumulated in Scotland.