1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bonnell Thornton

Alexander Chalmers, in The British Essayists (1802; 1856) 25:24-33.



Bonnel Thornton, the colleague of Mr. Colman, in many of his literary labours, was the son of an apothecary, and born in Maiden Lane, London, in the year 1724. After the usual course of education at Westminster school, he was elected to Christ's Church, Oxford, in 1743. The first publication in which he was concerned, was "The Student, or the Oxford Monthly Miscellany;" afterwards altered to "The Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany." This entertaining medley appeared in monthly numbers, printed at Oxford, for Mr. Newbery, in St. Paul's Churchyard. Smart was the principal conductor, but Thornton and other wits of both Universities, occasionally assisted. Thornton's first attempt appeared in the first number, "The Comforts of a Retired Life," an elegy in imitation of Tibullus. Mr. Thomas Warton was also a writer in the poetical department, and Dr. Johnson, probably at Mr. Newbery's request, wrote his "Life of Cheynel," in one of the latter numbers. The whole were afterwards collected and published in two volumes, octavo, 1748, which are now become scarce, and sold at a considerable price. In 1752, he began a periodical work, entitled "Have at ye all, or the Drury Lane Journal," in opposition to Fielding's "Covent Garden Journal." It contains some humorous remarks on reigning follies, but with too frequent mixture of personal ridicule; I know not how long it lasted. My copy contains only twelve numbers.

Our author took his degree in Master of Arts in April 7, 1750, and as his father wished him to make physic his profession, he took a degree of Bachelor of that faculty, May 18, 1754; but his bent, like that of Colman, was not to the severer studies, and they about this time "clubbed their wits" in The Connoisseur. The last number facetiously alludes to their persons and pursuits, by a sort of enigmatic description of Mr. Town, "the Connoisseur; a fair, black, middle-sized, very short man; he wears his own hair, and a periwig. He is about thirty years of age, and not more than four and twenty. He is a student of the law, and a bachelor of physic," &c. Those characteristics printed in italics belong to Colman.

What share he wrote in The Connoisseur cannot be ascertained, for the reason already assigned, but it is believed to be less than that of his partner. His habits were early relaxed and desultory, and although without a natural disposition to indolence, he was easily led from regular pursuits, and was consequently not remarkable for punctuality in his periodical supplies. Of this, one instance can be given of undoubted authority. When The Connoisseur, No. 101, came to town for publication, Colman, who happened to be in London, saw it at the publisher's, and found it contained the production of a correspondent, of very inferior merit, which Thornton had sent to press to save himself the trouble of writing one. But as the day for the appearance of this paper was the first of January, Colman was enraged at this carelessness and inattention to so remarkable an opportunity for a good essay, and came to Mr. Say's printing-office late at night, to inquire if it was possible to have a paper printed in time for next day's publication. Being told that it was barely possible, he immediately sat down in his publisher's (Mr. R. Baldwin's) parlour, and wrote the paper which now stands as the 101st, cancelling the other.

As an occasional writer, however, unfettered by times and seasons, Mr. Thornton was profuse in his contributions to magazines and newspapers. Scarce any popular topic offered of whatever kind, which did not afford him a subject for a pamphlet, an essay, a piece of poetry, or some whimsical paragraphs for the newspapers. His contributions to the Public Advertiser were very considerable, and when the St. James's Chronicle was projected, and the first thought of it was imparted to him, he became a proprietor, and, as already mentioned, a valuable contributor. A collection of the best pieces of the first year of that paper was published at the close of it, under the title of "The Yearly Chronicle for 1761; or a Collection of the most Interesting and Striking Essays, Letters, &c., which appeared in the St. James's Chronicle for 1761. To which is added, a Diary of the most Remarkable Events; the whole serving as A Complete Register of the Politics, News, Literature, &c., of that period." This was handsomely printed in an octavo volume, but notwithstanding the convenience of the plan, and the popularity of the contents, it did not succeed so well as to encourage a continuation.

About this time our author had it in contemplation to treat with Mr. Rich for the patent of Covent-garden theatre, but the negotiation proved abortive. He had, however, now given up all thoughts of the employment to which he was bred, and became an author by profession, and a general satirist, nor was it with his pen only that he exercised his humour. He projected an Exhibition of Sign Paintings, a scheme which at first appeared preposterous beyond all hopes of encouragement, but which actually took place at his house in Bow Street, Covent Garden. To this collection of daubings, Hogarth contributed a few touches in chalk, and finding, among the heads of distinguished personages, those of the king of Prussia and the empress of Hungary, he changed the cast of their eyes so as to make them leer significantly at each other.

Of this strange exhibition, a contemporary writer gives the following character: "The Original Paintings, &c., a Catalogue of which now lies before us, are the project of a well-known gentleman, who has in several instances displayed a most uncommon vein of humour. His Burlesque Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, his labours in the Drury-lane Journal, and other papers, all possess that singular turn of imagination, so peculiar to himself. This gentleman is, perhaps, the only person in England, (Mr. Hogarth excepted,) who could have projected, or have carried tolerably into execution, this scheme of a Grand Exhibition. There is a whimsical drollery in all his plans, and a comical originality in his manner, that never fail to distinguish and recommend all his undertakings. To exercise his wit and humour in an innocent laugh, and to raise that innocent laugh in others, seems to have been his chief aim in the present spectacle. The ridicule on Exhibitions, if it must be accounted so, is pleasant without malevolence, and the general strokes on the common topics of satire are given with the most apparent good-humour."

The wit of this singular exhibition will, perhaps, be better understood by a few specimens from the catalogue, than by any general character. The catalogue was intended to convey the projector's meaning, where he had any, and among its numerous articles we have: "No. 9, The Irish Arms, by Patrick O'Blaney. N.B. Captain Terence O'Cutter stood for them." These arms were a pair of extremely thick legs in white stockings, and black garters. "No. 16, A Man," nine tailors at work. "No. 35, A Man in his Element, a Sign for an Eating House;" a cook roasted on a spit at a kitchen fire, and basted by the devil. "No. 36, A Man out of his Element," a sailor fallen off his horse, with his skull lighting against the ten-mile stone from Portsmouth. "No. 64, View of the Road to Paddington; with a presentation of the Deadly Never Green, that bears Fruit all the year round. The Fruit at full length, by Hogarty." Tyburn, with three felons on the gallows. The critics deemed this piece remarkable for the execution. "No. 71, Shave for a Penny, Let Blood for Nothing;" a man under the hands of a barber-surgeon, who shaves and lets blood at the same time, by cutting at every stroke of his razor. Some humour was also intended in the juxtaposition of some of the signs, as "The Three Apothecaries' Gallipots," and "The Three Coffins, its Companion," &c., &c. The names of the artists, as Masmore, Lester, Ward, Fishbourne, &c., were in fact the names of the journeymen printers in Mr. Baldwin's office. But perhaps enough has been said of this attempt to amuse the "lovers of fun," which, for a short time, had considerable success. It was one of those odd schemes which could not be expected to last, or to be repeated, and which the public, at a less good-humoured period, might, in all probability, be disposed to consider as an insult.

The Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, above mentioned, was another effect of the burlesque kind, from Mr. Thornton's sportive muse, and afforded much entertainment. The sternest muscles must relax where it is read. It was professedly adapted to "the ancient British Music," viz: the saltbox, the Jews-harp, the marrowbones and cleavers, the humstrum or hurdy-gurdy, &c. Dr. Johnson praised its humour, and seemed much diverted with it nor could it be less diverting to hear him repeat the following passage, which he frequently did:—

In strains more exalted the salt-box shall join,
And clattering and battering and clapping combine;
With a rap and a tap, while the hollow side sounds,
Up and down leaps the flap, and with rattling rebounds.

In such compositions, Mr. Thornton's imagination was particularly original and fertile, and so various that no writer has ever excelled in so many species of wit, both of the superior and inferior kinds, although his inclination, and sometimes his subjects, led him more frequently to the latter. What reputation this might have conferred, however, has been in a great measure lost, from his writing anonymously, and upon subjects that had no permanent interest with the public, and from no collection having been made of his pieces when they could be ascertained, and attributed to the proper author. Mr. Colman once announced to his friends a design to collect all his partner's works, but neglected it until it became impracticable amidst his more urgent engagements, as manager of the Haymarket Theatre.

In 1766, encouraged, as he says, by the success of his friend Colman's translation of Terence, he published two volumes of a translation of Plautus, in blank verse, proposing to complete the whole, if that specimen should be approved. These volumes contain seven plays, of which "The Captive" was translated by Mr. Warner, who afterwards completed all that Thornton had left unfinished; and "The Mercator," by Colman. The remaining five are "The Amphytrion, The Braggart Captain, The Treasure, The Miser, and The Shipwreck." This work was not very successful, yet Warburton said of it, that "he never read so just a translation, in so pure and elegant a style." In 1767, our author published "The Battle of the Wigs," as an additional Canto to Garth's Dispensary, the subject of which was the disputes then subsisting between the Fellows and Licentiates of the College of Physicians. His "City Latin," in ridicule of the inscription on Blackfriar's Bridge, is still remembered. This edifice, indeed, afforded scope for the talents of many authors at that time, among whom Dr. Johnson distinguished himself by contending for a particular species of arch.

Besides these publications, he is said to have written the papers in The Adventurer marked A. This has been already adverted to in the preface to that work, as resting entirely upon the authority of the writer of his life in the Biographical Dictionary, while Sir John Hawkins asserts they were written by Bathurst. It may be necessary now to add, that, upon a strict revisal of those papers, since that preface was written, and upon a comparison with some of which he is the acknowledged author, there appears sufficient internal evidence to induce the belief that he was the writer of the Adventurers, signed A. If this be the case, of which I have now little doubt, and which has been confirmed by some information received subsequent to the consideration of the subject in the Preface to The Adventurer, what is there said of Bathurst falls to the ground, although it may yet be true that Dr. Johnson wrote some papers for him.

In 1764, Mr. Thornton married Miss Sylvia Brathwaite, youngest daughter of Colonel Brathwaite, who was governor of Cape Coast Castle in Africa, and who, when the ship in which he was returning to England, was taken by a Spanish privateer, fell under a treacherous blow by one of the sailors, who had observed a valuable brilliant on his finger. With this lady, Mr. Thornton appears to have enjoyed the highest domestic felicity, for which he was eminently qualified by a most affectionate heart, until his prospects were closed by bad health, which hurried him to his grave in the 44th year of his age, May 9, 1768. He left a widow, a daughter, and two sons, of whom Dr. Thornton, physician, is the only survivor.

His character may be taken from the epitaph written in Latin by his friend Dr. Joseph Warton, and placed on his monument in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. "His genius, cultivated most happily by every kind of polite literature, was accompanied and recommended by manners open, sincere, and candid. In his writings and conversation he had a wonderful liveliness, with a vein of pleasantry peculiarly his own. In ridiculing the failings of men, without bitterness, and with much humour, he was singularly happy; as a companion, he was delightful."