JOHN NICHOLS, a man who afforded an eminent exemplar of personal probity, and whose long life was spent in the promotion of useful knowledge, was the descendant of a respectable family. His grandfather was Bartholomew Nichols, of Piccadilly, in the parish of St. James's, Westminster.
His father, Edward Nichols, was born in the same place, Oct. 18, 1719, but resided during the greater part of his life at Islington, in Middlesex, where he died Jan. 29, 1779, in the sixtieth year of his age. He married Anne, daughter of Thomas Wilmot of Beckingham, near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. She was born in the same year with her husband, and died Dec. 27, 1783, aged sixty-four. Of all their children, two only survived, John, the subject of this Memoir, and Anne, still living, wife of Edward Bentley, Esq. of the Accountant's Office in the Bank of England.
Our Author was born at Islington, Feb. 2, 1744-5. To the place of his nativity he always retained a great affection. It was the scene of the happy days of his childhood, to which he adverts in the following affecting lines, part of a sketch of his life, printed, but not published, in 1803: — "In the summer of 1803, he in a considerable degree withdrew from the trammels of business, to a house in his native village, where he hopes (Deo volente) to pass the evening of a laborious life in the calm enjoyment of domestic tranquillity; and that his earthly remains may (at a period which he neither looks forward to with terror, nor wishes to anticipate,) be deposited with those of several near relations, whose toss be has long deplored, its the churchyard where many of his happiest days were passed in harmless sports." How little do we see of the future! Mr. Nichols had then before him twenty-three years devoted to as arduous labour as any which he had ever sustained.
He was educated at an academy kept by Mr. John Shield, a man considerable learning, who appears to have taken great pains in cultivating the talents of such as, like the subject of this Memoir, recommended themselves by attention and docility.
The profession which Mr. Nichols followed, with so much success and reputation during the whole of his long life, was not that for which he was originally destined by some part of his family. It is frequently the case with the guardians of youth, or their advisers, to be determined by petty circumstances and indistinct prospects, in the disposal of those who are under their care. Mr. Nichols had a maternal uncle, Lieutenant Thomas Wilmot, a brave officer, who in 1747 was serving under Captain, afterwards Admiral Barrington, when he captured the Duke of Chartres East Indiaman, and was in a fair way to higher promotion. This appears to have induced the friends of Mr. Nichols, who was of a good constitution and lively temper, to propose that, at a proper time, he should be taken under this uncle's protection, and educated for the naval service. Mr. Wilmot's death, however, which happened in 1751, put an end to the hopes derived from this scheme. Our author remarks, but with no great regret: "Had his life been spared, I should, instead of having been employed as a pioneer of literature, probably have been engaged under the banners of the gallant Admiral, in the naval defence of my country."
He was too young when his uncle died, to feel the loss, or to indulge dreams of naval glory, and soon had the happiness to be placed in a situation which proved more suitable to his inclinations, and more adapted, to his talents. The kindness of Providence guided him to a Master who soon discerned his worth, and to a branch of literature in which his success and industry have never been exceeded.
This master was the celebrated Mr. WILLIAM BOWYER,who,at his death, was termed "the last of learned English printers," a title which may now be dropt, while it is still allowed that he was almost the first of that distinguished class in England, and qualified both by education and learning, to be the companion and adviser of the most eminent scholars who flourished in the early part of the eighteenth century. He came into business with the advantages of an university education, and an intercourse with many learned men who had been his contemporaries at Cambridge.
It was in 1757, before Mr. Nichols was quite thirteen years of age, that he was placed under Mr. Bowyer, who appears to have quickly discovered in his pupil that amiable and honourable disposition which distinguished him all his life. He had a tenacious memory, which was but little impaired even in his latter days. He was likewise very early a lover of books, although, like most youths, who think more of gratifying curiosity than of procuring permanent advantages, his reading was desultory, and for some years his choice depended on the works submitted to his Master's press, few of which, happily for him, were of a trifling, and none of a pernicious kind. From the moment he became Mr. Bowyer's apprentice, he was intent on the acquisition of solid knowledge, and to this he was continually prompted, not only by the instructions of his Master, but by the nature of his employment. He was gradually inspired with a certain degree of ambition, of which he probably knew neither the extent or end, in consequence of intercourse with the men of learning for whom Mr. Bowyer printed.
Mr. Nichols had not been long in this advantageous situation, when his Master gladly admitted him into his confidence, and intrusted him with cares which, in case of many young men, would have been considered as unsuitable to their age, and requiring a more lengthened trial. But, besides the indispensable qualities of industry and integrity, Mr. Bowyer found in his young apprentice another merit which was of great importance to his press. Mr. Nichols brought with him no small portion of classical knowledge and taste, acquired at school, and cultivated at his leisure hours.
Of this he speaks with his accustomed modesty. "He never affected to possess any superior share of erudition; content, if in plain and intelligible terms, either in conversation or in writing, he could contribute his quota of information or entertainment." The present writer, however, has seen some early as well as later proofs, that his acquaintance with Latin was never dropt, and it is certain that his employment was a continual excitement to acquire some knowledge of the learned languages. At a very advanced period of life he speaks with exultation of his having been first employed, as a compositor, on Toup's "Emendationes in Suidam," and other works of classical criticism.
Mr. Bowyer appears to have been not only the instructive master, but the kind and indulgent friend to his apprentice, and was often anxious to amuse him by conveying a taste for poetry; of which Mr. Nichols had afforded some specimens. Of these Mr. Bowyer thought so favourably, that in 1760, when our author was only in his sixteenth year, he enjoined him, as an evening's task, to translate a Latin poem of his own, published in 1733, and entitled "Bellus homo et Academicus." This Mr. Nichols executed with considerable spirit and humour, and in the following year (1761) Mr. Bowyer associated him with himself in translating the Westminster Verses which had been spoken on the previous Coronation of George the Second.
The applause bestowed on these efforts very naturally led Mr. Nichols to become a more constant votary of the Muses, and from 1761 to 1766, his productions made no inconsiderable figure in the periodical journals. In 1763 he published two poetical pamphlets in 4to., the one entitled "Islington, a Poem," and the other "The Buds of Parnassus," which was republished in 1764, with some additional poems. in 1765, he contributed several poems to a miscellaneous collection, published by Dr. Perfect of Town-Malling, under the title of "The Laurel wreath," 2 vols. 8vo. His occasional productions of this kind, when further advanced, will be noticed hereafter.
During his minority he produced some prose essays on the manners of the age, such as they appeared to one who had been no inattentive observer. These were published in a periodical paper, written chiefly by Kelly, entitled "The Babbler," and in the Westminster Journal, a newspaper, under the signature of "The Cobbler of Alsatia."
These were merely his amusements, and indicative of an ambition which at his early age was surely pardonable. His more serious hours were devoted to the business of the press. His leading object was to please his master in the superintendance of the learned works printed by Mr. Bowyer, and in this he succeeded so well, that the relative situations of master and servant soon merged in a friendship, the compound of affection on the one side, and of reverence on the other.
So amply had he fulfilled Mr. Bowyer's expectations, as to prudence and judgment, that before his apprenticeship expired, he sent him to Cambridge to treat with that University for a lease of their exclusive privilege or printing Bibles. This was a negociation which required great delicacy and presence of mind, and these Mr. Nichols preserved on every interview. His endeavours proved unsuccessful only because the University determined, on a due consideration of the matter, to keep the property in their own hands.
This journey, however, to our young aspirant was delightful. He had never before travelled but a very few miles from his native place, and in Cambridge and its colleges he found every thing that could increase his enthusiasm for literary pursuits. He made minutes of this tour, which he used to say, afforded him the most pleasing recollections at a far distant period of life. His remarks on the passing objects on the journey, prove that he had already imbibed somewhat of the topographer's inquisitive spirit; and at Cambridge he indulged in the delights of "local emotion," by contemplating with reverence the colleges in which some eminent scholars, with whom he had already become acquainted, had studied. On one occasion he says, "Visited Peterhouse, not without a respectful thought of Mr. Markland." During his return likewise he exhibited some promising appearances of the "viator curiosus."
Soon after, Mr. Bowyer gave another proof of the value he placed on Mr. Nichols' services, when the period of them expired, by returning to his father half of his apprentice-fee. But the high estimate he had formed of him did not end here. He appears to have been long convinced that Mr. Nichols' assistance was of great importance in his printing establishment. Accordingly in 1766, he took him into partnership, and in the following year, they removed their office from White Friars to Red-lion-passage, Fleet-street, where it remained until a very few years since. This union, one of the most cordial that ever was formed, lasted until the death of Mr. Bowyer in 1777.
As Mr. Bowycr continued to be not only the printer, but the intimate friend, and assistant in the learned labours of some of the first scholars of the age, Mr. Nichols had frequent opportunities, which he never neglected, of acquiring the notice and esteem of those gentlemen. He had not, indeed, been long associated with Mr. Bowyer, as a partner, before he began to be considered as his legitimate successor, and acquired the esteem and patronage of Mr. Bowyer's friends in no common degree. This he lived to repay by handing down to posterity many important circumstances of their lives, frequently derived from personal knowledge, which but for his industry and research, and the confidence bestowed upon him by their families, must have been lost to the world.
The first publication in which he was concerned as an author, was "The Origin of Printing, in two Essays: 1. The substance of Dr. Middleton 's Dissertation on the Origin of Printing in England. 2. Mr. Meerman's account of the invention of the art at Harleim, and its progress to Mentz, with occasional remarks, and an Appendix," 8vo, 1774. Mr. Nichols informs us that the "original idea of this pamphlet was Mr. Bowyer's; the completion of it his Partner's." Mr. Nichols' share, therefore, must have been very considerable. It was published without a name, and at first was attributed to Mr. Bowyer, but the respective shares of him and his partner were soon discovered. A second edition, with many improvements, appeared in 1776, and a supplement in 1781. The foreign journals spoke with as much respect of this work as those at home.
Mr. Nichols derived considerable fame from it. He was now enabled to add to the number of his literary friends the names of Sir James Burrough and Sir John Pringle, as he had before acquired the esteem and acquaintance of Dr. Birch, Dr. Parsons, Dr. Warton, Dr. Farmer, and the Earl of Marchmont. Sir John Pringle was accustomed to submit his prize-medal speeches, which he intended for the Royal Society, to Mr. Nichols's perusal, before delivery, an honour of which so young a man may be forgiven if he was somewhat proud.
As the works which passed through Mr. Bowyer's press engaged a more than common attention, on the part of Mr. Nichols, he happened very early in life to conceive a opinion of the merits of Dean Swift, in consequence of Mr. Bowyer's having printed the 13th and 14th volumes of his works in the year 1762. Of Dean Swift, Mr. Nichols appears never to have lost sight from this time, and, applying himself closely in search of materials, published, in 1775, a supplemental volume to Mr. Hawkesworth's edition. This was republished afterwards so as to correspond with Hawkesworth's 4to, 8vo, and 12mo editions, and afterwards incorporated, with many additions and valuable biographical notes, in what may be now justly considered as thestandard edition, first printed In 19 vols. 8vo, in 1800, and reprinted in 1808. Mr. Nichols' accuracy and judgment as an editor, were so completely established by the appearance of the first mentioned volume that information respecting un published letters and tracts, was sent to him quarters. Sheridan's Life was the only part which he considered necessary to retain as originally published, since it was supposed by many, (but certainly not by the writer of this Memoir,) to furnish a defence of the objectionable parts of Swift's personal history. But, whatever the merits of this celebrated author, it appears incontestibly from the preface to the second volume, that the public is indebted to Mr. Nichols for the very complete state in which his works are now found.
The next publication of our author, the "Original Works, in Prose and Verse, of William King, LL.D. with Historical Notes," 3 vols. small 8vo, 1776, afforded another decided proof of that taste for literary history and illustration, to which we owe the more important obligations, which Mr. Nichois conferred by his recent and luminous contributions to the biography of men of learning. It is evident that he must have been very early accustomed to inquiry and investigation, which enabled him to satisfy the curiosity of the reader so amply as he has done in King's Works. This publication likewise exhibits on extraordinary proof of diligence both business and study, when we consider that at this time he had scarcely reached his thirty-first year, and had the cares of a young family, just deprived of their maternal parent, to perplex and afflict his mind, with the numerous engagements in which his partnership with Mr. Bowyer, and intimacy with their common friends, necessarily involved him. But it may he noticed here, although not for the last time, that Mr. Nichols possessed not only extraordinary judgment in the allotment of his hours, but had equally extraordinary health and spirits to sustain him, amidst the intenseness of industry, and the frequent calls of complicated avocations. In both the above-mentioned works, he acknowledges having been assisted by his friend Isaac Reed of Staples Inn, a man who never was consulted on points of literary history without advantage.
In 1778, Mr. Nichols obtained a share in the Gentleman's Magazine, of which he became the editor. This was an event of the greatest importance to all his subsequent pursuits, as well as to the publick at large. Of this publication it would be superfluous to say much in this place, after the ample history of its rise and progress published by its Editor in 1821, as a Preface to the General Index from 1787 to 1818. It had not been long under his care before it obtained a consequence which it had never before reached, although the preceding volumes were formed from the contributions of some of the most able scholars and antiquaries of the time. The celebrated Burke entitled it "One of the most chaste and instructive Miscellanies of the age." This Mr. Nichols found it, and this he left it, with such improvements, however, as rendered it of paramount importance to men of literary curiosity, and of great effect in the promotion of right principles. In 1782, Dr. Warton complimented him in these words: "Your Magazine is justly in the greatest credit here (Winchester), and under your guidance is become one of the most useful and entertaining Miscellanies I know."
It might be easy, were it necessary, to add to these, the suffrages of some of the most eminent writers of the last half century. As a repository of Literary history, and of public transactions for a much longer period, its without a rival, a circumstance at which we cannot be surprized, when we consider that it contains, the early, as well as the more mature lucubrations of many hundred authors in every department of Literature. In the history of the Magazine, noticed above, Mr. Nichols has given a list of above five hundred men of note, who had been correspondents in his time, and whom he had survived. Nearly an equal number might be added of those who have died since this list was made out, and of those who are still living, and lamenting the loss of one who afforded many of them the means of being first introduced to public notice.
In order to render the various information contained in this Magazine more easily accessible, Mr. Nichols published in 1786, a complete Index to the first fifty-four volumes, compiled by the late Rev. Samuel Ayscough. This was given to the publick at a very moderate rate, but its importance was so soon acknowledged that before it was reprinted we remember the price had risen to eight and nine guineas: and both Indexes served to increase the demand for complete sets of the Magazine, which, from various causes, are not easy to be procured in a perfect state.
Gibbon, the historian, had such a value for this Miscellany, that he recommended to Mr. Nichols a Selection of the most curious and useful articles. Mr. Nichols was too much employed to have leisure for such an undertaking; but it has, however, been since accomplished, and we understand with great judgment, in 4 vols. 8vo, by a learned gentleman of New College, Oxford.
In noticing the Gentleman's Magazine, while under Mr. Nichols' care, the present writer will not attempt that which Mr. Nichols would have disdained, any comparison between it and its rivals. This indeed becomes the less necessary, as they have all dropt into oblivion, with the exception of a few of recent date, in which no rivalship seems intended. It may be added, however, that his plan was calculated for permanence. It depended on none of the frivolous fashions of the age. Its general character was usefulness combined, with, rational entertainment. Its supporters were men of learning, who found in its pages an easy mode of communicating their doubts and their inquiries, with a certainty that their doubts would be resolved, and their inquiries answered by men equal to the task. The Miscellany was particularly recommended by the impartiality of the Editor, who admitted controversialists to the most equal welcome, and never interfered but when, got of respect to his numerous readers, it became his duty to check the rudeness of personal reflection. In the course of such controversies, he must not be suspected of acceding to every proposition advanced either in warmth or in calmness, and much was no doubt admitted of which he could not approve. But his own principles remained unshaken, principles early adopted, and favourable to piety and political happiness; and such he preserved and supported amidst the most alarming storms to which his country had ever been exposed. Whatever anomalies may be occasionally perceived in the effusions of' some of his correspondents, if the whole of his administration be examined, it will be found that the main object nod tendency of the Magazine was to support our excellent Constitution in Church and State, especially when in some latter years both were in danger from violence without, and treachery within.
The sentiments of two very eminent and learned dignitaries of the Church, with the perusal of which we have been favoured since Mr. Nichols' death, may, we hope, without breach of confidence, be added to the above. Mr. Nichols "was an able, and what much more, he was a perfectly honest man. We can ill afford to lose him. As an excellent Antiquary, as a friend to literary men, and as a liberal, but thoroughly attached son of the Church of England, his memory will long live in the esteem and recollection of his friends." — "It is my firm opinion, that in the various productions which during so tong a period issued from his press not a line escaped which could he detrimental to the influence of Christianity; but on the contrary, particulariy in the conduct of that leading work, the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' the genuine principles of orthodox religion have been advocated and diffused in this nation by its channel for the longest portion of a century. And even in the amusing and instructive articles of a literary and antiquarian cast, this leading purpose seems not to have been lost sight of. While he (Mr. Nichols) sojourned with us, he was by the kindness and benevolence of his heart the delight of his friends, and must he considered as an eminent benefactor to his country."
There was no part of the Magazine on which Mr. Nichols bestowed more attention than on the record of deaths, now known by the name of OBITUARY. In order to render this an article of authority, and often indeed it has been quoted as such, he was indefatigable in his inquiries, anxiously consulted his numerous friends, and had very often the advantage of original documents from the relatives of persons of various classes, whose history might be interesting to the public. In this he not only gratified immediate curiosity, but laid the foundation of those more extended accounts which afterwards appeared in works professedly biographical. The warmth of friendship and the recency of grief might no doubt sometimes give a high colouring to these reports, which became chastened on further reflection and inquiry; but corrections or additions were impartially admitted, and the Editor at least was accessible to every communication which tended to establish the truth.
It may here be noticed that many of the additional articles in the Biographical Dictionary which he edited, in conjunction with Dr. Heathcote, in 1784, came from Mr. Nichols. How ably, and kindly, he assisted in the late edition of that work, completed in 1817, 32 vols. 8vo. can never be forgotten by its Editor, who hopes hereafter to acknowledge it more amply than merely by a reference to Mr. Nichols' printed works.
Although Mr. Bowyer's press had not issued many works interesting to English Antiquaries, Mr. Nichols appears, before the period to which we are now arrived, to have formed such connections as gradually encouraged what was early in his mind, until his inquiries became fixed on subjects relating to the antiquities of his own country. Among these preceptors we may notice Dr. Samuel Pegge, Borlase Hutchins, Denne, and Dr. Ducarel. With the latter he was long linked in friendship, and in conjunction with him, published in 1779 the "History of the Royal Abbey of Bec, near Rouen," and "Some account of The Alien Priories, and of such Lands as they are known to have possessed in England and Wales," 2 vols. But he had another coadjutor in these two works, of incalculable value, the celebrated RICHARD GOUGH, esq.
This very eminent antiquary, justly entitled the Camden of the Eighteenth Century, was, like Bowyer, an early discerner of Mr. Nichols' worth, and saw in him an able and useful assistant in his multifarious endeavours to illustrate the antiquities of Great Britain. Mr. Gough was his senior by ten years, and a higher proficient in his favourite studies. At what precise time they became acquainted, we have not been able to discover, but it seems, with much probability, to have been about the year 1770, when the first volume of the Archaeologia was printed by Mr. Nichols, to whom Mr. Bowyer, from declining health, had almost entirely resigned the business of the press. Some years before this, Mr. Gough had been a frequent correspondent in the Gentleman's Magazine, a publication constantly read by Mr. Nichols, when there was little prospect of his becoming its chief support, or of Mr. Gough's taking so active a part in the management of it, as to become nearly a coeditor. It is probable that their intimacy was perfected whilst Mr. Gough was superintending his friend Mr. Hutchins's "History of Dorsetshire" through the press. That work was issued in two volumes, fol. 1774.
Their connexion, at whatever time begun, ended in a strict intimacy and cordial friendship, which terminated only in the death of Mr. Gough in 1809. It was a friendship uninterruptedly strengthened by congeniality of pursuits, mutual esteem, and the kindness of domestic intercourse. On their final separation Mr. Nichols says with unfeigned feeling: "The loss of Mr. Gough was the loss of more than a brother — it was losing a part of himself. For a long series of years he had experienced in Mr. Gough the kind, disinterested friend; the prudent, judicious adviser; the firm, unshaken patron. To him every material event in life was confidentially imparted. In those that were prosperous no man more heartily rejoiced; in such as were less propitious, no man more sincerely condoled, or more readily endeavoured to alleviate." Mr. Nichols has since lost no opportunity of honouring the memory of his departed friend, both in his "Literary Anecdotes," and in his "Illustrations of Literary History." His last office of duty was to select and transfer to the Bo dleian Library, Oxford, the valuable collection of Topography. printed and MS. which Mr. Gough bequeathed to that noble repository.
In 1780, Mr. Nichols published a very curious "Collection of Royal and Noble Wills," 4to. In this work he acknowledges his obligations to Mr. Gough and to Dr. Ducarel, for obtaining transcripts and elucidating by notes. It was a scheme originally suggested by Dr. Ducarel, probably in consequence of the publication of the Will of Henry VII. by Mr. Astle some years before. To this work, in 1794, Mr. Nichols added the will of Henry VIII. which is now seldom to be found with the preceding, itself a work of great rarity.
Amidst these more serious employments, Mr. Nichols diverted his leisure hours by compiling a work, which seems to have been entirely of his own projection, and the consequence of early predilection. This appeared in 1780, with the title of "A Select Collection of Miscellaneous Poems, with Historical and Biographical Notes," 4 vols. small 8vo. To these were added, in 1782, four other volumes, with a general poetical Index.
In this curious work, he has not only revived many pieces of unquestionable merit, which had long been forgotten, but produced some originals from the pens of men of acknowledged genius. In so large a collection are some which might perhaps have been allowed to remain in obscurity without much injury to the public, but even in the production of these he followed the opinion, and had the encouragement, of some of the best critics of the time, Bishops Lowth and Percy, Dr. Warton, Mr. Kynaston, &c.
The biographical notes were deemed very interesting, and were happily the occasion of a similar improvement being made to Dodsley's Collection of Poems, in the edition of 1782, if we mistake not, by Isaac Reed. In Mr. Nichols's collection are a few of his juvenile attempts at versification, of which he says, they will at least serve as a foil to the beauties with which they are surrounded." Mr. Nichols never claimed a high rank among poets, but there is evidently too much disparagement in the above opinion.
In the same year (1780), on the suggestion, and with the assistance of Mr. Gough, he began to publish the "Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica," a work intended to collect such articles of British Topography, MS. or printed, as were in danger of being lost, or were become so scarce as to be out of the reach of most collectors. His reputation was now so fully established that he had ready assistance from most of the eminent Antiquaries of that day; and in 1790, the whole was concluded in fifty-two parts or numbers, making eight large quarto volumes, illustrated by more than three hundred plates, with great exactness and accuracy, both in these and in the letter-press. A complete copy of this work is very rarely to be found, and when found, valued at an enormous price. A continuation was begun some time after, under the title of "Miscellaneous Antiquities," of which six numbers were published.
It is to be feared Mr. Nichols was a considerable loser by this work, not only in the expenses of printing and engraving, but in the purchase of manuscripts and drawings. He could not indeed have been long connected with Mr. Gough, without imbibing a portion of his disinterested spirit, and looking for his best reward in the pleasure of the employment, and the consciousness that be was contributing much valuable information for the use of posterity, and the honour of his country. Mr. Nichols thought as little of ex pence as of fatigue, and to the fear of either he seems to have been an entire stranger. His success, however, was not different from that of his brethren, for we know no class of writers worse rewarded than Antiquaries.
The publication of the Bibliotheca Topographica took up ten years, and in some hands might have been quite sufficient to employ the whole of those years. But such was the unwearied industry of our author, that within the same period no less than eighteen publications issued from his press, of all which he was either editor or author.
As a complete list of his works will be appended to this article, we shall only notice here those which are more particularly connected with his researches as a Biographer. In 1781 he published in 8vo, "Biographical Anecdotes of William Hogarth." This was republished in 1782, again in 1785, and a fourth and most complete edition in 1810-1817, in 3 vols. 4to, with very elegant reduced plates. Of this work, on its first appearance, the testimony of Lord Orford may be considered as decisive: — "Since the first edition of this work (the Anecdotes of Painting), a much ampler account of Hogarth and his Works has been given by Mr. Nichols; which is not only more accurate, but much more satisfactory than mine: omitting nothing that a collector would wish to know, either with regard to the history of the painter himself, or to the circumstances, different editions, and variations of his prints. I have completed my list of Hogarth's Works from that source of information." in 1822, Mr. Nichols superintended a superb edition of Hogarth's works, from the original plates, restored by James Heath, esq.; and furnished the Explanations of the subjects of the Plates. Let it not be forgotten that these Explanations were written by Mr. Nichols in his seventy-eighth year.
In the same year (1781) he was the author of "Biographical Memoirs of William Ged, including a particular account of his progress in the art of Block-printing." But what in the course of years and by slow gradations, almost imperceptibly became the most important of all Mr. Nichols's biographical labours, was his "Anecdotes of Bowyer, and of many of his literary Friends," 4to, 1782. He had printed in 1778, twenty copies of "Brief Memoirs of Mr. Bowyer," 8vo, for distribution, "as a tribute of respect, amongst a few select friends." Gratitude to so kind a benefactor induced Mr. Nichols to make, from time to time, additions to this little work, quite unconscious that it would at last extend to the noblest monument raised to his own memory, as well as that of his friend.
The second and much enlarged edition of 1782 was welcomed with ardour by all classes of men of literature, and soon rose to more than double the price at which it was originally offered to the publick. The author was consequently again anxious to enlarge what was so generally acceptable, but had to encounter many interruptions from other extensive designs which lie now began to meditate.
Of these the most important of all was his "History of Leicestershire," of which it has been justly said that it might have been the work of a whole life. Although generally devoted to subjects of the topographical kind, he acknowledged to the present writer that he had been induced to fix upon Leicestershire, as his magnum opus, from circumstances of a domestic kind, both his amiable wives having sprung from respectable families in that County.
This, however, like the other extensive work just mentioned, was not the accomplishment of a complete design, distinctly laid down in plan, and regularly executed. It grew from lesser efforts, among which we may enumerate "The History and Antiquities of Hinckley," which he published in 1782, 4to. "The History and Antiquities of Aston Flamvile and Burbach, in Leicestershire, 1787, 4to." "Collections towards the History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Leicester," 1790, 2 vols. 4to. It was in the preface to these volumes that he first intimated his intention to give the publick a much more complete work of the kind, soliciting assistance, which appears to have been tendered so liberally, that about 1792, he was enabled to begin to print his great work of "The History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Leicester," of which Parts I. and II. were published in 1795. Of this a third part was published in 1798, a fourth in 1800, a fifth in 1804, a sixth in 1807, the seventh and concluding part in 1811, and an Appendix in 1815, in which he was assisted by his son; the whole making four large volumes elegantly printed in folio, and illustrated by a profusion of views, portraits, maps, &c. and complete Indexes.
If any proofs were wanting of Mr. Nichols's power of literary labour, and, what is equally necessary, the frequent revision of that labour, the History of Leicestershire might be allowed to remain as completely decisive. But even this extensive undertaking cannot be allowed to stand alone. During the years in which he was preparing his materials, travelling into all parts of the county, and corresponding with, or visiting every person likely to afford information, he appeared as editor or author of no less than forty-seven articles. Among these were a second edition of "Bowyer's Greek Testament." "Bishop Atterbury's Correspondence," 5 vol. 8vo. illustrated, as usual, with topographical and historical notes, the result of arduous research and frequent correspondence with his learned friends. "A Collection of Miscellaneous Tracts by Mr. Bowyer." "The History and Antiquities of Lambeth Parish." "The Progresses and Royal Processions of Queen Elizabeth," 2 vol. 4to. and a third in 1804. "The History and Antiquities of Canonbury, with some account of the parish of Islington," 4to. "Illustrations of the Manners and Expences of Ancient Times in England," 4to. In 1815, the author speaks of this volume: "I have no hesitation in saying, in a case where it can neither promote my interest, nor hazard my veracity, that this is not only, one of the scarcest publications of the eighteenth century, but, in its way, is also one of the most curious."
During the same period Mr. Nichols published an edition of "The Tatler," 6 vols. 8vo. with notes respecting biography, but particularly illustrative of manners. From the sources that had supplied many of these, he edited afterwards, "Sir Richard Steele's Epistolary Correspondence," 2 vol. 8vo. "The Lover and Reader." "The Town Talk, &c." "The Theatre and Anti-Theatre," by the same author, 3 vols. all illustrated with notes, furnished from many forgotten records, and family communications. Mr. Nichols appears to have first turned his attention to the British Essayists in consequence of his connexion with Bishop Percy, Dr. Calder, and others who intended to publish editions of the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, with the same species of annotation, explanatory of the manners and spirit of the times, and including memoirs of the authors. When they entered on their work, there was a possibility of recovering much information, and much information was recovered; a considerable part of which we have since seen added to various editions of these periodical writings, frequently without the candour of acknowledgment.
The extent of Mr. Nichols' literary productions will yet appear more extraordinary, when we add that, during the period we have hastily gone over, he became engaged in some of those duties of public life which necessarily demanded a considerable portion, of time and attention; and it may be asked, without much hazard of a ready answer, where could he find that time? Certain it is, that he did find it, without any apparent injury to his usual pursuits, and that for many years he enjoyed a well-earned reputation as a member of the Corporation of London.
In December 1784, the respect he had acquired in the City induced his friends to propose him as a member of the Common Council for the Ward of Farringdon Without. He was accordingly elected on the 21st of that month, and with the interval of only one year, held this situation, (10 years as Deputy, under Alderman Wilkes,) until the year 1811, when he resigned all civic honours. He had previously declined the solicitation of his fellow-citizens of the Ward to become their Alderman on the death of Wilkes. A considerable time before his resignation he had felt it his duty to seek health and quiet in retirement, but it is also more than probable that the prevalence of party-spirit among those with whom he had been accustomed to act, but could act no longer, had its effect in precipitating a measure which many of his friends wished he had taken much sooner. The writer of this memoir hopes he will not be thought anxious to take from the number of Mr. Nichols' useful accomplishments, when he adds that his highly-respected friend was not qualified for political life, as it too frequently, appeared among many with whom he was obliged to associate. He could not indulge asperity of thought or of language; he had nothing of the malevolence of party-spirit, and never thought worse of any man for differing from him, ever so widely, in opinion. Unfit, however, as he was to join in the clamour of the day, he retained the respect of his colleagues, as an amiable and honest man, and an honour to the situation he had filled.
In 1804 his views were directed to an honour more in unison with his literary pursuits. He had for some time been a member of the Court of Assistants of the Stationers' Company, and in the above year attained what he called "the summit of his ambition, in being elected Master of the Company." Nor can any one think such ambition of the trivial kind who re collects how nearly connected this company is with the literature of the age, and that among its members are to be found the liberal and munificent p atrons of learned men, who are no longer dependant on the petty rewards which in former days flowed, tardily enough sometimes, from the blandishments of dedication.
How well Mr. Nichols discharged the duties of Master, not only on this occasion, but for many years after as Locum Tenens, has been repeatedly acknowledged, and still lives in the memory of the Court. Their rooms are decorated by portraits presented at various times by Mr. Nichols, among which are those of Robert Nelson, esq. the elder and younger Bowyer, Archbishop Chichele, Sir Richard Steele, and Matthew Prior; with a bust of Mr. Bowyer, and with the quarto copper-plate, finely engraved by the elder Basire, that an impression of it may be constantly given to every annuitant under Mr. Bowyer's will.
On the 8th of January 1807, by an accidental fall, at his house in Red Lion Passage, Mr. Nichols had one of his thighs fractured; and on the 8th of February, 1808, experienced a far greater calamity, respecting not only himself but the publick, in the destruction, by fire, of his printing office and warehouses, with the whole of their valuable contents. "Under these accumulated misfortunes," we use his own words, "sufficient to have overwhelmed a much stronger mind, he was supported by the consolatory balm of friendship, and offers of unlimited pecuniary assistance; — till, cheered by unequivocal marks of public and private approbation (not to mention motives of a higher and far superior nature [author's note: Here Mr. Nichols quotes a passage from Bishop Hough, 'I thank God, I had the hope of a Christian, and that supported me']), he had the resolution to apply with redoubled diligence to literary and typographical labours."
It would be difficult perhaps to find many instances of a "stronger mind" than Mr. Nichols displayed at his advanced age, while suffering under both the above calamities. In the case of the fracture, the present writer had an opportunity to witness an instance of patient endurance and of placid temper, which he can never forget. Only three days after the accident, he found Mr. Nichols, supported by the surgical apparatus usual on such occasions, calmly reading the proof of a long article which he had that morning dictated to one of his daughters, respecting the life and death of his old friend Isaac Reed, which went to press as he left it, and indeed wanted no corrections. This accident left some portion of lameness, and abridged his usual exercise, but his general health was little impaired, and his vigour of mind remained unabated, when he had to endure the severer trial of the destruction of his printing-office and warehouses.
This, it might have been naturally expected, would have indisposed him for all future labours. He was now in his sixty-third year, and could not be far from the age when "the grasshopper is a burthen." For fifty years he had led a life of indefatigable application, and had produced from his own efforts, works enough to have established character, and content ambition. He was not desirous of accumulating wealth, and the reward of his industry had been tardy; but it seemed now approaching, and he had reason to expect a gradual advantage from his various productions, and a liberal encouragement in his future efforts. It was therefore a bitter disappointment, when, at the close of a cheerful day, and reposing in the society of his family, he heard that his whole property was consumed in a few short hours.
The present writer had on this occasion a striking proof of the uncertainty of sublunary enjoyments. In the afternoon of that fatal day, Mr. Nichols sent to him one of the most lively letters he had ever received. — On the following morning, he hastened to visit Mr. Nichols, and found him, as was to be expected, in a state of considerable depression: but in a few days his mind appeared to have recovered its tone. He felt the power of consolation, and was excited to fresh activity. — Thus, in two remarkable instances, he displayed a temper and courage rarely to be found; in the case of his personal accident, when his recovery was doubtful, and of his subsequent calamity, when his loss was irreparable.
Hopeless as such a return to accustomed pursuits may appear, Mr. Nichols resumed his labour with an energy equal to what he had ever displayed when in the prime of life. Besides completing his "History of the County of Leicester," already mentioned, he returned to his "Life of Bowyer," of which one volume had been printed, but not published, just before his fire, under the title of "Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, comprising Biographical Memoirs of William Bowyer, Printer, F.S.A. and many of his learned friends; an incidental view of the progress and advancement of Literature in this Kingdom during the last century; and Biographical Anecdotes of a considerable number of eminent Writers and ingenious Artists."
This he lived to extend to nine large volumes, 8vo; to which he afterwards, finding materials increase from all quarters, added four volumes, under the title of "Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century, consisting of authentic Memoirs and Original Letters of Eminent Persons; and intended as a sequel to the Literary Anecdotes." It was one of the last actions of his life, to show the writer of this memoir a fifth volume nearly printed, and to announce a sixth volume in preparation. Of these it is hoped the publick will not be long deprived, as Mr. Nichols had the happiness to leave a son, fully acquainted with his designs, equally respected by his friends and correspondents, and amply qualified to perpetuate the reputation which has attached to his name.
It is very difficult for the present writer to speak of this extraordinary and satisfactory work, in measured terms. Himself an ardent lover, and an humble inquirer into the biography of Great Britain, he has enjoyed in this extensive collection a fund of information which it would be in vain to seek elsewhere. It is original in its plan and in its execution, nor perhaps will there soon arise an Editor, to whom manuscripts of the most confidential kind, epistolary correspondence, and other precious records will be intrusted with equal certainty of their being given to the publick accurately and minutely, and yet free from injury to the characters of the deceased, or the feelings of the living.
By the vast accumulation of literary correspondence in these volumes, Mr. Nichols has released the biographical inquirer from much of the uncertainty or, vague report, and has in a great measure brought him near to the gratification of a personal acquaintance. These records embrace the memoirs of almost all the learned men of the eighteenth century, and there are scarce any of that class with whom Mr. Nichols's volumes have not made us more intimate. Candid biographers of future times must be ready to acknowledge with gratitude that their obligations are incalculable. Already indeed the publick has done justice to the merits of this work; for of all Mr. Nichols's publications it has been the most successful, and is soon likely to be one of the "recherches" among book collectors. As in the present memoir we have confined ourselves to the notice of such of his various labours as involve somewhat of his personal character, we may refer to the "Anecdotes" and "Illustrations" for many traits of the most amiable kind, which will now be viewed with affectionate interest by those who know him, and will ensure the highest respect from, those who had not that happiness.
The fourth volume of the "Illustrations" was published in 1822, before which he had published, among other works, "Hardinge's Latin, Greek, and English Poems," 8vo, 1818; "Miscellaneous Works of George Hardinge, Esq. 1819," 3 vols. 8vo; a new edition of his "Progresses of Queen Elizabeth," with considerable additions, 3 vols. 4to; which was followed by the "Progresses of King James the First," 3 vols. 4to, which had engaged his attention almost to the hour of his death. These are both works of great curiosity, comprehend a great many rare and valuable fragments of royal history, a large collection of rare tracts, and much illustration of the manners and custom of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In Mr. Nichols's death, which took place on Sunday, Nov. 26, there was much cause for affliction, and much to afford consolation. It was sudden beyond most instances we have ever heard of. He had passed some cheerful hours with his family, and was retiring to rest about 10 o'clock at night. He had reached a step or two of the lower staircase, accompanied by his eldest daughter, when he said, but with no particular alteration of voice, "Give me your hand," and instantly, but gently, sunk down on his knees, and expired without a sigh or groan, or any symptom of suffering.
On the Monday before, he complained as if he had caught cold; and on Thursday, when the writer of this memoir saw him for the last time, he mentioned something of the kind, but said nothing of pain, or of any internal feeling that could give alarm. Before parting he conversed in his usual lively manner, about many things past and to come, and when the interview ended, he bid his visitor farewell, as one whom he fully expected to see, with some other friends, within a few days. He had no presentiment of death, and during his last week wrote two or three articles for the Magazine with his accustomed ease and spirit.
Sudden as his death was, and there is something in sudden death to which no argument can reconcile the greater part of survivors, it could not fail even upon a slight reflection to administer consolation. When the first impression was over, it was felt as a great blessing that Mr. Nichols had outlived the common age of man with entire exemption from the pains and infirmities he had witnessed in the case of some of his dearest friends. There was here none of that imbecility so afflicting to friends and relatives; memory and judgment were strong to the last.
For several years he had been accustomed to write some lines on the return of his birth-day, for the amusement of his family. These were generally contemplative mid serious, affectionate as regarding his family, and pious as regarding himself, his advanced age, his probable dissolution, and his firm reliance on the merits of his Redeemer. All came from the heart, and delighted those whom he wished to delight, a family eminent for mutual affection. The last of these verses, printed in the Magazine for 1824, may be considered as his dying words and his dying prayer.
His old age, at whatever period the reader may date it, imposed no necessity of leaving off his accustomed employments, or discontinuing his intercourse with society. He had no chronic disorder, hereditary or acquired, and his occasional illnesses were of short duration. He was always ready to gratify his anxious family by applying to medical advice, and was never wanting in such precautions as became his advanced years. His constitution to the last exhibited the remains of great strength and activity. If, as asserted, a healthy old man is "a tower undermined," it was not easy in him to discover what had given way.
His natural faculties remained unimpaired during the whole course of his life, with the exception of his sight, which for several years past had become by degrees less and less distinct. Three days only before his death he made a very extraordinary declaration to the writer of this article "I cannot now read any printed book, but I can read manuscript."
Although we are not desirous to report miracles in order to embellish the life of this worthy man, yet it may be allowed, and he felt it as such, to be an extraordinary instance of the kindness of Providence that a degree of sight was still left which enabled him to peruse and select from the vast mass of literary correspondence now before him, such articles as were proper for his "Illustrations." As to printed books, he had the assistance of his amiable daughters, who were his amanuenses and his librarians. Those who knew the ardour of his parental affection could easily perceive that, amidst a privation which would have sunk the spirits of most men, he had now a new source of domestic happiness and thankful reflection. He lived also to see his son advancing to reputation, in the same business and the same literary pursuits in which himself delighted, and a grandson eagerly pursuing his footsteps. We may well exclaim, "O fortunate senex!"
As much of Mr. Nichols' personal character has been introduced in the preceding pages, it only remains to be added that it was uniformly remarkable for those qualities which procured universal esteem. The sweetness of his temper, and his disposition to be kind and useful, were the delight of his friends, and strangers went from him with an impression that they had been with an amiable and benevolent man. During his being a Member of the Corporation, he employed his interest, as he did elsewhere his pen, in promoting charitable institutions, and in contributing to the support of those persons who had sunk from prosperity, and whose wants he relieved in a more private manner. For very many years he filled the office of Registrar, or Honorary Secretary of the Literary Fund, which gratified his kind feelings by enabling him to assist many a brother author in distress. Nor was his assistance less liberally afforded to those of his own profession, whom he respected and whom he encouraged, either in their outset in life, or when in difficulties. In all this he experienced what all men of similar character have experienced. He sometimes met with those who availed themselves of his unsuspicious temper and known benevolence, yet he was rarely heard to complain of ingratitude. He never introduced the subject; but, when closely pressed, he would acknowledge some instances in his own experience, yet with great reluctance, and an apparent willingness to have it thought that his bounty had not been injudicious.
His literary transactions were uniformly conducted on the best principles. His early associations were mostly with honourable men, whom he was ambitious to copy; and those who have been longest connected with him in business acknowledge with pleasure and respect that Mr. Nichols never discovered the least symptom of what is mean or selfish. He performed nothing, indeed, during his long life, of which he might not have delighted to hear. His friendships were never dissolved, for they were never unequal. By those of superior rank he was treated with the respect due to the character of a gentleman and a man of talent; while his inferiors found him useful, kind, and benevolent, always a friend, and often a patron.
By what means he preserved the "mens sana in corpore sano" for so many years of unequalled literary labour has been incidently hinted in the preceding pages. The subject might perhaps admit of more discussion, if this article had not already extended further than the writer originally intended. As to health, medical writers have given us no rules for procuring longevity, but what experience proves to be fallacious. All that requires to be said here, and it may afford a useful lesson, is, that Mr. Nichols had originally a good constitution, which he preserved by exercise, and the vicissitudes of constant employment. His mind was always employed on what was useful; and such a mind is made to last. Both mind and body there is every reason to think were preserved in vigour by the uncommon felicity of his temper. He had none of the irascible passions, nor would it have been easy to have provoked him to depart from the language and manners which rendered his company delightful.
There was much in the division of his time which enabled him to perform the arduous tasks which he imposed on himself. He began his work early, and despatched the business of the day before it became necessary to attend to publick concerns, or join the social parties of his friends. He had another habit which may be taken into the account. From his youth, he did every thing quickly. He read with rapidity, and soon caught what was important to his purpose. He spoke quickly, and that whether in the reciprocity of conversation, or when, which was frequently the case, he had to address a company in a set speech. He had also accustomed himself to write with great rapidity; but this, he used jocularly to allow, although a saving of time, did not tend to improve his hand.
Upon the whole, if usefulness he a test of merit, no man in our days has conferred more important favours on the republic of letters.
Mr. Nichols was twice married. First, in 1766, to Anne, daughter of Mr. William Cradock. She died in 1776, leaving two daughters, one of whom married the Rev. John Pridden, M.A. F.S.A., and died in 1815; the other is still living: and secondly, in 1778, to Martha, daughter of Mr. William Green, of Hinckley, in Leicestershire. She died in 1788, leaving one son, John Bowyer Nichols, Esq. and four daughters, three of whom are still living, and the eldest of them is married to John Morgan, Esq. of Highbury.
He was interred in Islington Churchyard, where his parents and all his children who died before him are deposited. Mr. Nichols, at the time of his death, was probably the oldest native of Islington, and his grave is only a very few yards from the house in which he was born.
His funeral was, (as he would have wished,) as private as possible; attended only by all his male relatives who had arrived at man's estate and by his attached friends, James and William Morgan, and Wm. Herrick, Esqrs.; W. Tooke, Esq. F.R.S.; A. Chalmers, Esq. F.S.A.; H. Ellis, Esq. F.R.S.; Charles and Robert Baldwin, George Woodfall, and J. Jeaffreson, Esqrs.
There are several good portraits of Mr. Nichols: — 1. painted 1782, aet. 37, by Towne, and engraved by Cook, published in "Collections for Leicestershire;" 2. painted by V. D. Puyl, 1787, (unpublished); 3. drawn by Edridge, published in Cadell's "Contemporary Portraits;" 4. drawn by J. Jackson, Esq. R.A. and engraved by Heath, 1811, aet. 62, published by Mr. Britton, and inserted in the "Literary Anecdotes," 5. another painted by Jackson, mezzotinted by Meyer, published in "History of Leicestershire," 6. painted and engraved by Meyer, 1825, aet. 80, and published with this Magazine. Several small copies have been made from the above prints. There is also a faithful bust of Mr. Nichols, by Giannelli.