Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bentley, Richard (1708-1782)

BENTLEY, RICHARD, (1708–1782) writer on miscellaneous subjects, was the youngest child of Dr. Richard Bentley [q. v.], the famous scholar, and his only son who outlived infancy. He was born in 1708, and baptised in June of that year. While only a boy of ten he was admitted a member of Trinity College, Cambridge, and was elected, apparently by special favour, a fellow of that college in 1728, being at the time a 'junior bachelor,' and only fifteen years of age. Bentley was brought up to no profession, and throughout life seems to have been somewhat aimless and desultory, as well as eccentric and singularly imprudent, especially in money matters. All his contemporaries unite in speaking in the highest terms of his abilities, but neither his literary nor artistic work is of very high importance, and his name will be best remembered on account of his intimate connection with Horace Walpole and the poet Gray. For several years Bentley lived in the south of France, and afterwards in the island of Jersey, apparently in retreat, on account of his money difficulties. Subsequently he came to England to live at Teddington, near Twickenham. Whilst in Jersey he kept up a pretty constant correspondence with Walpole, and thirty-five letters of the latter addressed to Bentley (1752–1766) have been preserved and published. Walpole constantly speaks of him in the most flattering and even extravagant language, as Mr. Bentley 'whom I adore,' 'who has more sense, judgment, and wit, more taste and more misfortunes than ever met in any man.' Walpole, above all, concerns himself with his friend's artistic talents, and is perpetually urging him to send more drawings: 'Your letters grow more and more entertaining, your drawings more and more picturesque; you write with more wit, and paint with more melancholy than ever anybody did.' Walpole, in fact, found Bentley ('the Goth,' as he playfully called him) an extremely useful ally in the adornment of Strawberry Hill, for which Bentley designed a good deal of the Gothic architecture and decoration, making drawings also for his patron's friends—'a very pretty Gothic room for Lord Holdernesse,' or 'a little Gothic building for Lord Strafford.' The artistic achievement of Bentley which most attracted the attention of his friends was the set of drawings furnished by him for the fine edition of Gray's poems printed by Walpole in 1753 ('Designs by Mr. Richard Bentley for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray,' 1758, fol., with the text). The designs show some cleverness, but are rather grotesque, and certainly not worthy of the high praise bestowed upon them by the poet in his 'Stanzas to Mr. Bentley:'—

In silent gaze the tuneful choir among,
Half pleas'd, half blushing, let the Muse admire,
While Bentley leads her sister-art along,
And bids the pencil answer to the lyre.

Whilst under Walpole's eye, Bentley translated part of the Travels of Hentzner, a work which was printed at the Strawberry Hill press in October 1757 ('A Journey into England in the Year 1598, being a part of the Itinerary of P. Hentznerus,' translated by R. Bentley, Lat. and Eng., 1757, 8vo).

About the year 1761 he turned his attention to play-writing, though his efforts were rewarded with little or no success. His farce, or comedy, called 'The Wishes, or Harlequin's Mouth opened,' was acted at Drury Lane for three nights (27, 28, 30 July 1761), and at Covent Garden, 3 Oct. 1761. This curious production, which was never printed, was written with the view of ridiculing the construction of the Greek drama, especially the observance of the unities and the stoic reflection and moralisings of the chorus. The chorus in the 'Wishes' are informed that a madman, a torch in his hand, is just on the point of setting fire to a powder magazine; on hearing which they solemnly commence in strophe and antistrophe to lament their own condition, proceeding to exclaim against the thrice-unhappy madman and against the six-times unhappy fate of themselves thus exposed to a madman's fury. Bentley's tragedy 'Philodamus' (printed 1767, 4to), by its scenes of courtship, paternal vigilance, and spousal preparations, is said to have convulsed the house with laughter from the first scene to the last. A posthumous comedy of his, called 'The Prophet,' was acted for a few nights in 1788. Among his other writings may be mentioned 'Patriotism, a Mock Heroic in five cantos,' London, 1763; and 'A Letter to the Right Hon. C. F. Fox,' 1793, 8vo.

A rupture in the friendship of Bentley and Walpole had occurred (apparently about 1761), and their old intimacy was never renewed. According to Cumberland, Bentley's nephew, the friendship of the two was always of a 'sickly kind, and had too much of the bitter of dependence' in it. On the other hand, it is said that Bentley began to borrow money, and Walpole seems especially to have been annoyed by the presence of Mrs. Bentley, whom her husband was 'forward to introduce at his house when people of the first fashion were there.' Bentley is said, however, to have at one time derived his chief subsistence from a small place which Walpole had procured for him (Cole, Athenæ Cantabrig.) In his later years Bentley was living in quiet retirement in Westminster. His death took place in October 1782. He had a son, Richard, who was sent to Westminster School, and several daughters. An interesting portrait of Bentley, engraved from the original formerly at Strawberry Hill, may be found in Cunningham's edition of 'Walpole's Letters' (ii. 296).

[Cole's Athenæ Cantabrigienses (in Nichols's Literary Illustrations, viii. 672, 673, and in Sir E. Brydges's Restituta, iv. 384); The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. Cunningham, vol. ii. and reff. in index in vol. ix. under 'Bentley, Mr.;' Walpole's Short Notes of my Life, prefixed to vol. i. of the Letters; Cumberland's Memoirs; Monk's Life of Richard Bentley, D.D.; Gray's Works and Life; Boaden's Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, i. 360 f.; Sir W. Scott's Miscell. Prose Works (Cadell, 1841), i. 45 and 60; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vii. 37.]

W. W.