John Pinkerton

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 96 (April 1826) 469-72.

March 10. At Paris, aged 67, John Pinkerton, Esq. F.S.A. Perth, a voluminous and celebrated Author and Editor. Mr. Pinkerton claimed descent from an ancient family seated at Pinkerton, near Dunbar. His grandfather was Walter, a worthy and honest yeoman at Dalserf, who had a numerous family. As presbyterians at that time abounded in the West of England, there was considerable intercourse between them and those of Scotland.

James Pinkerton, a son of Walter, settled in Somersetshire, where having acquired a moderate property as a dealer in hair, (an article, as wigs were generally worn, then much in request,) he returned to his native country about 1755, and married Mrs. Bowie (whose maiden name was Heron), the widow of a respectable merchant at Edinburgh, who brought him an increase of fortune, and left three children. James, the eldest, joined the army as a volunteer, and was slain at the battle of Minden, his brother Robert succeeding to an estate in Lanarkshire, left by their father.

John Pinkerton, the youngest son, was born in Edinburgh, Feb, 17, 1758. After acquiring the rudiments of education, at a small school, kept by an old woman at Grangegate Side, near that city, where was a house belonging to his mother, he was, in 1764, removed to the grammar school at Lanark, kept by Mr. Thomson, who married the sister of the poet of that name.

Inheriting from his father a portion of hypochondriacism, young Pinkerton was always a diffident boy, and he neither entered into competition with his schoolfellows in education, nor joined in their boisterous but healthy amusements. At school he was generally the second or third of his class; but nothing remarkable distinguished this period, except one incident; Mr. Thomson one day ordered the boys to translate a part of Livy into English; when he came to young Pinkerton's version, he read it silently to himself, then, to the great surprise of the boys, walked quickly out of the school, but soon returned with a volume of Hooke's Roman History, in which the same part of Livy was translated. He read both aloud, and gave his decided opinion in favour of his disciple's translation, which not a little flattered boyish vanity, and perhaps sowed in him the first seeds of authorship.

After being six years at school, the last year of which only was dedicated to the Greek, he returned to the house of his family near Edinburgh. His father having some dislike to university education, John was kept in a kind of solitary confinement at home; and this parent, being of a severe and morose disposition, his durance little tended to give much firmness to his nerves. An hour or two passed every day in attending a French teacher; and, in his eagerness to attain this language, he had totally lost his Greek, and nearly his Latin also: but soon after, meeting with Rollin's Ancient History, and observing references to the original authors, he bought the History of Justinus, &c. and soon recovered his Latin so as to write, when he was about thirteen years of age, tolerable fragments in that language. He afterwards studied mathematics two or three years, under Mr. Ewing, an able teacher at Edinburgh, and proceeded as far as the doctrine of infinites.

Intended for the profession of the law, young Pinkerton was articled to Mr. Wm. Aytoun, an eminent writer to the signet, with whom he served a clerkship of five years. He did not, however, neglect the cultivation of his mind, and having felt the witchery of verse by reading Beattie's Minstrel, and other poems, he wrote an elegy, called Craigmillar Castle, which he dedicated to Dr. Beattie. This production, which was published in 1776, was followed by the composition of one or two tragedies, but they were never printed.

In 1780, soon after the expiration of his clerkship, his father died; and being often disappointed in procuring uncommon books at Edinburgh, he visited London, where the size and extent of the booksellers' catalogues are said to have formed his sole motive for wishing to fix his residence. This determination was confirmed by the bankruptcy of some merchants in Glasgow, who held about 1,000 of his father's money, all which was lost. He accordingly went to Scotland in the spring of 1781, took up the remaining sums lying in mercantile hands, and, returning to England, settled in the neighbourhood of London in the winter of that year.

In 1781 Mr. Pinkerton published, in 8vo. "Rimes," as he peculiarly chose to designate some minor poems; and "Hardyknute, an Heroic Ballad, now first published complete [a Second Part being added]; with the other more approved Scottish Ballads, and some not hitherto made public, in the Tragic style. To which were prefixed, Two Dissertations: 1. On the Oral Tradition of Poetry. 2. On the Tragic Ballad," small 8vo. The latter work is reviewed in vol. LI. p. 279; as in vol. LII. p. 131, is a second edition of the "Rimes," and his "Two Dithyrambic Odes: 1. On Enthusiasm. 2. To Laughter," 4to. 1782; whilst in the same volume, p. 243, are noticed his "Tales in Verse," also published in that year.

From his boyish days Mr. Pinkerton had been fond of collecting medals, minerals, and other curiosities; and having received from a lady in Scotland a rare coin of Constantine, on his Sarmatian victory, which she had taken as a farthing, he soon laid the foundation of a little collection, and used to read Addison's Dialogues on Medals with infinite delight. These pursuits led him to see the defects of common books on the subject, and he drew up a manual and tables for his own use, which afterwards grew to the excellent and complete "Essay on Medals," the first edition of which was published by Dodsley, in two 8vo. volumes, 1784. He was materially assisted in its completion by the late Mr. Southgate of the British Museum and Mr. Douce. The third and last edition was edited by Mr. Harwood.

In 1785 Mr. Pinkerton surprised the literary world with a very extraordinary performance, entitled, "Letters of Literature," under the assumed name of Robert Heron. In this work he depreciated the ancient authors, in a manner which called forth the indignation of the poet Cowper; and criticised the best of the moderns, with an air of assurance that could not have been warranted even by the most confirmed character for taste, learning, and judgment. He had also the vanity to recommend a new system of orthography, more fantastical and absurd, if possible, than that which his countryman, Mr. Elphinstone, endeavoured with so much zeal to introduce. Unfortunately too, it happened that the odium of the performance actually alighted on a countryman of his, whose name was in reality Robert Heron, and who was just then coming before the publick as all author. However, this book obtained for Mr. P. an introduction to Horace Walpole, through whom he became acquainted with Gibbon the historian, who recommended him to the booksellers as a fit person to translate the "English Monkish Historians," a work which, had the proposal met with encouragement, might have tended to a more generally diffused knowledge of the history of the middle ages. On the death of his patron, the Earl of Orford, Mr. Pinkerton sold a collection of his Lordship's remarks, witticisms, and letters, to the proprietors of the Monthly Magazine, in which miscellany they appeared periodically, under the title of Walpoliana, and when exhausted, the whole were reprinted in two small volumes, with a portrait of the gifted Nobleman.

In 1786 our second Chatterton issued two 8vo. vols. entitled, "Ancient Scottish Poems, never before in Print; but now published from the [pretended] Manuscript Collections of Sir Richard Maitland, of Lethington, Knight, Lord Privy Seal of Scotland, and a Senator of the College of Justice. Comprizing Pieces written from about 1420 till 1586. With large Notes and a Glossary." This publication is fully reviewed in vol. LVI. pp. 147-150. The manuscripts were feigned to have been discovered in the Pepysian Library at Cambridge.

In 1787 Mr. Pinkerton published in 2 vols. 12mo, under the feigned name of H. Bennet, M.A., "The Treasury of Wit; being a methodical Selection of about Twelve Hundred of the best Apothegms and Jests; from books in several Languages," — a compilation pronounced to be much superior to most of the kind. It was accompanied by many just and pertinent observations, in a Discourse on wit and humour, considered under the four different heads; — Serious Wit, Comic Wit, Serious Humour, and Comic Humour. The same year produced in one volume, 8vo. his well-known "Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths, being an Introduction to the Ancient and Modern History of Europe;" and though he figured afterward in many other walks of literature, the prejudices embalmed in that extraordinary production continued to the end to hold almost the undivided possession of his mind. He seriously believed that the Irish, the Scotch Highlanders, and the Welsh, the Bretons, and the Spanish Biscayans, are the only surviving descendants of the original population of Europe, and that in them, their features, their manners, their history, every philosophic eye may trace the unimproved and unimprovable savage, the Celt. He maintained in every company that he was ready to drop his theory altogether the moment any one could point out to him a single person of intellectual eminence sprung from an unadulterated line of Celtic ancestry. He used to appeal boldly to the History of Bulaw, in particular; asking what one GREAT MAN the Celtic races of Wales, Ireland, or Scotland, had yet contributed to the rolls of fame? And it must be owned that he had studied family genealogies so indefatigably, that it was no easy matter to refute him without preparation. If you mentioned Burke, "What," said he, "a descendant of De Bourg? class that high Norman chivalry with the riffraff of O's and Mac's? Show me a great O, and I am done." He delighted to prove that the Scotch Highlanders had never had but a few great captains — such as Montrose, Dundee, the first Duke of Argyle — and these were all Goths; — the two first, Lowlanders; the last a Norman, a "de Campo bello"! The aversion he had for the Celtic name extended itself to every person and every thing that had any connection with the Celtic countries. The opinions advanced in his remarkable "Dissertation," were ably and amply combated, as well elsewhere, as in our own pages, by a correspondent, in vol. LVII. pp. 1203, 305; and again, by Mr. W. Williams, in Vol. LX. pp. 601-5.

In 1789 the deceased author published in 8vo. a collection of ancient Latin Lives of the Scottish Saints, a work which greatly tended to illustrate the early history of his native country. It is reviewed in vol. LVI. p. 509, vol. LIX. p. 635, and is now a scarce volume, no more than one hundred copies of it having been printed. This was soon after followed by a new and greatly enlarged edition of his Essay on Medals (see vol. LIX. p. 837), which has become the standard work for information on that interesting and useful subject. In the same fruitful year he published an edition of "The Bruce, or the History of Robert King of Scotland, written in Scottish verse, by John Barbour," 3 vols. 8vo.

In 1790 this prolific writer again put forth some of his numismatic researches, in "The Medallic History of England to the Revolution," 4to.; and published "An Inquiry into the History of Scotland, preceding the reign of Malcolm III. or 1056; including the authentic History of that Period," 2 vols. 8vo. (republished in 1795) with some additional observations, containing replies to the various reviews, &c. (see vol. L. pp. 416, 506). In 1792 he edited three octavo volumes of "Scottish Poems, reprinted from scarce editions" (see vol. LXVIII. pp. 32, 446).

In 1793 Mr. Pinkerton married Miss Burgess, of Odiham, Hants, sister to the present Bishop of Salisbury; but the union was not happy, and the parties separated. The lady has been dead some years.

Our author's next important literary labours were in biography, he contributing the lives to "Iconographia Scotica, or Portraits of Illustrious Persons of Scotland, with biographical notes," 2 vols. 8vo. 1795-1797 (see vol. LXV. 1100, LXVI. 858, LXVIII. 802); and to the "Scottish Gallery, or Portraits of Eminent Persons of Scotland, with their Characters," 8vo. 1799.

His talents were then directed to geography, and they produced a standard work in this branch of science. The "Modern Geography, digested on a new plan," appeared first in two quarto volumes, in 1802; a second edition published in 1807, consists of three; and there in an Abridgement in a single octavo. In 1806 Mr. Pinkerton travelled to the French capital, and on his return published his observations, under the title of "Recollections of Paris," 2 vols. 8vo. Subsequently he was employed in editing a "General Collection of Voyages and Travels," which was extended to nineteen volumes, quarto; and a "New Modern Atlas," in parts, both which works commenced in 1809. For a short time the Critical Review, with but little success, was under his superintendence.

Mr. Pinkerton's last original work was "Petralogy, or a Treatise on Rocks," 2 vols. 8vo. 1811; but in 1814, still pursuing his attacks on the Celts, he republished in two octavo volumes, his "Inquiry into the History of Scotland," together with his "Dissertation on the Origin and Progress of the Scythians or Goths."

Mr. Pinkerton had of late years resided almost entirely in Paris. His appearance was that of "a very little and very thin old man, with a very small, sharp, yellow face, thickly pitted by the small pox, and decked with a pair of green spectacles."

After this very detailed memoir, any lengthened character were needless. It will have been perceived that Mr. Pinkerton was an eccentric, but highly industrious literary workman, and that his talents, though in some instances ill-directed, were commensurate with undertakings of no ordinary rank in literature.