William Roscoe

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 101 (August 1831) 179-81.

June 30. At Toxteth Park, Liverpool, aged 80, William Roscoe, Esq. a Royal Associate of the Royal Society of Literature, and F.L.S.

Mr. Roscoe was born at Liverpool, of obscure parentage. His father and mother were both in the service of a bachelor, a gentleman of the most amiable and generous disposition, with whose consent they married, and who, dying without a heir, left the greater part, if not the entire of his property, to the subject of this memoir.

It does not appear that his patron paid any attention to his early education, and his father had no higher ambition than to make him acquainted with writing and arithmetic. Through an obstinacy of temper, which in some minds is the forerunner of genius, Roscoe could not be prevailed upon to submit to the drudgery of scholastic discipline; and consequently did not properly avail himself even of the small advantages of education which his parents were able to afford him. It was, however, his merit to discover in time the means of self-education. He early began to think for himself; and his habits of thought and mental application soon gave evidence of that genius which afterwards shone forth with so conspicuous a splendour. At the age of sixteen, his poetical productions would have done credit to one who had enjoyed every advantage of tuition; and he was at that time found sufficiently qualified to be admitted as an articled clerk o Mr. Eyes, a respectable attorney in Liverpool. While engaged in the duties of the office, and fulfilling them to the perfect satisfaction of his superior, he first became acquainted with the advantages of a knowledge of languages, and found means, by his own unassisted efforts, to acquire a proficiency in Latin; and afterwards of French and Italian. After the expiration of his articles, be entered into partnership with Mr. Aspinall; when the entire management of an office, extensive in practice, and high in reputation, devolved on him alone.

About this time he formed an intimacy with Dr. Enfield, the tutor of the academy at Warrington, to whom, on the publication of the second volume of that popular work "The Speaker," he contributed an Elegy to Pity, and an Ode to Education. Mr. Roscoe also became acquainted with Dr. Aikin, another resident at Warrington; and these gentlemen were not less admirers of his refined and elegant style as a writer, than of his chaste and classical taste in painting and sculpture. In Dec. 1773, he recited before the society formed at Liverpool for the encouragement of drawing painting, &c. an ode which was afterwards published with "Mount Pleasant," his first poetical production, originally written when in his sixteenth year. He occasionally gave lectures on subjects connected with the objects of this institution, and was a very active member of the society.

In 1788 Mr. Roscoe published a work upon the Slave Trade, entitled "A Scriptural Refutation of a Pamphlet lately published by the Rev. Raymond Harris;" and shortly afterwards his principal poem, "The Wrongs of Africa." Incited by the enthusiasm of the same train of feeling, he composed, about the commencement of the French Revolution, two ballads, "The Vine-covered Hills," and "Millions be free!" which were equally popular in France and at home.

The great work on which Mr. Roscoe's fame chiefly rests, his "Life of Lorenzo de' Medici," was commenced in 1790, and completed in 1796. During the period of its compilation, the author lived at the distance of two miles from Liverpool, whither he daily repaired to attend the business of his office. His evenings alone could be dedicated to the work; the rare books which he had occasion to consult, were mostly procured from London, although it was a considerable advantage to him that his friend Mr. Clarke the banker had spent a winter at Florence. The work was printed at Liverpool, under his own superintendence.

In 1798, Mr. Roscoe published "The Nurse, a Poem, from the Italian of Luigi Tansillo," in 4to; 8vo, 1800.

In 1805 appeared his second great work, "The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth," the son of Lorenzo de' Medici, in four volumes quarto; the octavo edition, in six volumes, 1806.

After the publication of his first historical work, Mr. Roscoe had retired from his practice as a solicitor, and had entered himself at Gray's Inn, with the intention of practising at the Bar. In 1805, however, he was induced to join the banking-house of his friends Messrs. Clarke; and in the following year he received a strong public testimonial to his talents by being elected one of the members for his native town in Parliament. His senatorial career was brief; but during its continuance he distinguished himself as a stedfast advocate of the principles he had always professed, and as a warm partizan of the cause of emancipation throughout the debates upon the Slave Trade. After the dissolution in 1807, distrusting the power of his friends to secure his reelection, he declined entering upon a new contest, and from that time interfered with politics only by means of occasional pamphlets. The titles of the principal of these are as follow: Remarks on the Proposals made to Great Britain for a negociation with France, 1808; Considerations on the causes of the present War, 1808; Observations on the Address to his Majesty, proposed by Earl Grey, 1810; Occasional Tracts relative to the War betwixt France and Great Britain, 1811; Letter to Henry Brougham esq. on a Reform in the Representation of the People in Parliament 1811; Answer to a Letter from Mr. J. Merritt, on Parliamentary Reform, 1812; Observations on Penal Jurisprudence and the Reformation of Criminals, 1819.

Mr. Roscoe evinced his attachment to Botany by "An Address delivered before the proprietors of the Botanic Garden at Liverpool, previous to opening the Garden, May 3, 1802," published in 12mo; and by the following communications to the Transactions of the Linaenan Society: in 1806, Of the Plants of the Monandrian Class, usually called Scitaminae (vol. viii. p. 330); in 1810, "An artificial and natural arrangement of Plants, and particularly on the systems of Linnaeus and Jussieu (vol. xi. p. 50); in 1814, On Dr. Roxburgh's, description of the Monandrous Plants of India (ibid. p. 270).

Mr. Roscoe also wrote the excellent preface to Daulby's Catalogue of the Etchings of Rembrandt; and the descriptions to the Italian views in Prout's Landscape Annual.

While Mr. Roscoe's mind was chiefly occupied with his literary and political studies, a series of unforeseen circumstances, particularly several other failures, obliged the banking-house in which he was engaged to suspend payment. The creditors, however, had so much confidence in Mr. Roscoe's integrity, that time was given for the firm to recover from its embarrassments; and Mr. Roscoe, on first entering the bank after this accommodation, was loudly greeted by the populace. The difficulties, however, in which the bank was placed, rendered it impossible for the proprietors to make good their engagements. Mr. Roscoe did all that could be expected from an honest man; he gave up the whole of his property to satisfy his creditors. His library, which was very extensive, and consisted principally of Italian works, was the greatest sacrifice; the books were sold (at Liverpool) for 5150, the prints for 1880, and the drawings for 738. A portrait if Leo the Tenth was purchased for 500 by Mr. Coke, of Holkham.

Yet, upon the whole, Mr. Roscoe can scarcely be termed unfortunate. Distinguished through life by the friendship of the gifted and noble, his days were spent in a free intercourse with kindred minds, and his declining years were solaced by the affectionate attentions of justly and sincerely attached relations. He was regarded as the head of the literary and scientific circles of his native town; and much of his time was spent in the promotion of many noble public institutions which he had contributed to establish. His funeral was attended by committees of the Royal Institution, the Philosophical Society, and the Athenaeum; and by nearly two hundred gentlemen on foot, besides those in carriages.

A portrait of Mr. Roscoe, drawn and engraved by J. Thomson, was published in the European Magazine for July 1822.