1791 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Thomson

William Taylor, "Recollections by Thomson's Hair-Dresser" Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction 2 (12 July 1823) 114-15.



Through the kindness of our correspondent Kiow, we are enabled to present our readers with a very interesting document. A memorandum of a conversation with Mr. William Taylor, formerly barber and peruke maker, at Richmond in Surrey, which contains many curious particulars of the poets, Thomson and Pope; Lord Lyttleton, Quin, Mallet, Armstrong, &c. The conversation was held in one of the alcoves on Richmond Green, in September 1791, at which time poor Taylor was blind. This alcove was a rural rendezvous for a set of old invalids on nature's infirm list, who met there every afternoon in fine weather to recount and comment on the tales of other times. Taylor said that the late Dr. Dodd had applied to him several years ago for anecdotes and information relative to Thomson.

When this poet first came to London he took up his abode with Park Egerton, Millar's predecessor, the bookseller near Whitehall, and finished his poem on Winter in the apartment over the shop. It remained on his shelves a long time unnoticed; but after Thomson began to gain some reputation as a poet, he either went himself, or was taken by Mallet, to Miller in the Strand, with whom he entered into new engagements for printing his works, which so much incensed his first patron, and his countryman also, that they never afterwards were cordially reconciled, although Lord Lyttleton took uncommon pains to mediate between them. The following is a minute of the most important part of the conversation:—

Mr. Taylor, do you remember any thing of Thomson, who lived in Kew Lane some years ago? Thomson, Thomson the poet? — Aye, very well. I have taken him by the nose many hundred times; I shaved him, I believe, seven or eight years or more; he had a face as long as a horse; and he perspired so much, that I remember, after walking one day in summer, I shaved his head without lather by his own desire. His hair was as soft as a camel's. I hardly ever felt such; and yet it grew so remarkably, that it it was but an inch long, it stood upright on end from his head like a brush. — His person I am told was large and clumsy? Yes; he vas pretty corpulent, and stooped forward rather when he walked, as though he was full of thought; he was very careless and negligent about his dress and wore his clothes remarkably plain. — Did he always wear a wig? Always in my memory, and very extravagant he was with them. I have seen a dozen a time hanging up in my master's shop and all of them so big that nobody else could wear them. I suppose his perspiring to such a degree made him have so many, for I have known him spoil a new one only in walking to London. — He was a great walker, I believe? Yes; he used to walk from Malloch's, at Strand on the Green, near Kew Bridge, and from London, at all hours in the night; he seldom liked to go into a carriage, and I never saw him on horseback. I believe he was too fearful to ride. — Had he a Scotch accent? Very broad: he always called me "Wull". — Did you know any of his relations? Yes; he had two nephews [cousins?] Andrew and Gilbert Thomson, both gardeners, who were much with him. Andrew used to work in his garden and keep it in order at over hours; he died at Richmond, about eleven years ago, of a cancer in his face. Gilbert, his brother, lived at East Sheen with one Squire Taylor, till he fell out of a mulberry tree and was killed. — Did T. keep much company? Yes, a good deal of the writing sort. I remember Pope, and Paterson, and Malloch, and Lyttleton, and Dr. Armstrong, and Andrew Millar, the bookseller, who had a house near Thomson's in Kew Lane. Mr. Robertson (one of the company) could tell you more about them. — Did Pope often visit him? Very often, he used to wear a light-coloured great coat, and commonly kept it on in the house; he was a strange ill-formed little figure of a man; but I have heard him and Quin, and Paterson, talk together so at Thomson's, that I could have listened to them for ever. — Quin was frequently there, I suppose? Yes; Mrs. Hobart, his housekeeper, often wished Quin dead, he made his master drink so. I have seen him and Quin coming from the Castle together at four o'clock in the morning, and not over sober you may be sure. When he was writing in his own house, he frequently sat with a bowl of punch before him, and that a good large one too. — Did he sit much in his garden? Yes; he had an arbour at the end of it, where he used to write in summer time. I have known him lie along by himself upon the grass near it, and talk away as though three or four people were with him. — Did you ever see any of his writings? I was once tempted, I remember, to take a peep; his papers used to lie in a loose pile upon the table in his study, and I had longed for a look at them a good while: so one morning while I was waiting in the room to shave him, and he was longer than usual before he came down, I slipped off the top sheet of paper and expected to find something very curious, but I could make nothing of it. I could got even read it, for the letters looked all like in one. — He was very affable in his manner? O yes! he had no pride; he was very free in his conversation, and very cheerful, and one of the best natured men that ever lived. — He seldom was much burthened with cash? No, to be sure he was deuced long-winded; but when he had money, he would send for his creditors and pay them all round; he has paid my master between twenty and thirty pounds at a time. — You did not keep a shop yourself at that time? No, Sir; I lived with one Lander here for twenty years, and was while I was prentice and journeyman with him that I used to wait on Mr. T. Lander made his majors and bobs, and a person in craven Street, in the Strand, made his tie wigs. An excellent customer he was to both. — Did you dress any of his visitors? Yes; Quin and Lyttleton, Sir George I think he was called. He was so tender-faced, I remember, and so devilish difficult to shave, that none of the men in the shop dared to venture on him except myself. I have often taken Quin by the nose too, which required some courage, let me tell you. One day he asked particularly if the razor was in good order, protested he had as many barbers' ears in his parlour at home as any boy had birds' eggs on a string, and swore, if I did not shave him smoothly, he would add mine to the number. "Ah," said Thomson, "Wull shaves very well, I assure ye." — You have seen the Seasons, I suppose? Yes Sir, and once had a great deal of them by them by heart (he here quoted a passage from Spring). Shepherd, who formerly kept the Castle Inn, showed me a book of Thomson's writing, which was about the rebellion in 1745, and set to music; but I think he told me not published. — The cause of his death is said to have been taking a boat from Kew to Richmond, when he was much heated from walking? No, I believe he got the better of that; but having had a batch of drinking with Quin, he took a quantity of cream of tartar, as he frequently did on such occasions, which, with a fever before, carried him off. [Mr. Robertson did not assent to this.] — He lived, I think, in Kew Foot-lane? Yes, and died there, at the furthest house, next Richmond Gardens, now Mr. Boscawen's: he lived some time before at a smaller one, higher up, inhabited by Mrs. Davis. — Did you attend him to the last? Sir, I shaved him the very day before his death; he was very weak, but made a shift to sit up in bed. I asked him how he found himself that morning? "Ah, Wull," he replied, "I am very bad indeed." Taylor concluded by giving a hearty encomium on his character.

The following epitaph on Thomson was published in a paltry edition of his works, about the year 1788:

Others to marble may their glory owe,
And boast those honours Sculpture can bestow;
Short-lived renown: — that every moment must
Sink with its emblem, and consume to dust.
But Thomson needs no artist to engrave,
From dumb oblivion no device to save;
Such vulgar aids let names inferior ask,
Nature for him assumes herself the task;
The Seasons are his monuments of fame,
With them to flourish, as from them it came.