Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ker, John (1740-1804)

KER, JOHN, third Duke of Roxburgh (1740–1804), book-collector, born in Hanover Square, London, 23 April 1740, was elder son of Robert Ker, second duke, by his wife Essex (d. 7 Dec. 1764), daughter of Sir Roger Mostyn, bart. In 1755 he succeeded his father in the dukedom, and in 1761 paid his addresses, while travelling on the continent, to Christiana Sophia Albertina, eldest daughter of the Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but the lady's younger sister, Charlotte, was affianced very soon afterwards to George III (September 1761), and it was deemed necessary, on political grounds, to break off the match between the duke and Christiana. ‘Both parties,’ it is said, ‘evinced the strength of their attachment by devoting their after-lives to celibacy.’ The disappointment induced in Roxburgh a ‘reserved melancholy which prefers retirement to splendid scenes of gaiety’ (Sir Walter Scott). Roxburgh's sisters, Essex and Mary, both acted as bridesmaids at the king's marriage. George III showed much friendship for Roxburgh, and appointed him a lord of the bedchamber in 1767. He received the knighthood of the Thistle on 24 Nov. 1768, became groom of the stole and a privy councillor 30 Nov. 1796, and was invested on 3 June 1801 with the order of the Garter, which he held—a very rare distinction—along with that of the Thistle. He died at his house in St. James's Square on 19 March 1804, and was buried at Bowden. His British titles of Earl and Baron Ker of Wakefield became extinct at his death, but his Scottish honours devolved on a kinsman, William, seventh lord Bellenden, born about 1728, who succeeded as fourth duke, and died without surviving issue 22 Oct. 1805 [see Ker, James Innes-, fifth Duke].

The third duke was a man of many accomplishments. According to Sir Walter Scott, who was well acquainted with him, his ‘lofty presence and felicitous address’ suggested Lord Chesterfield. When in Scotland he was an ardent sportsman, but his time in London was chiefly spent in book-collecting, and he devoted ‘hours, nay, days, in collating’ his rare editions. George III and he were often competitors for the purchase of the same book, and the duke was rarely unsuccessful in such contests. He secured an unrivalled collection of books from Caxton's press. Scott describes him as ‘a curious and unwearied reader of romance,’ making ‘many observations in writing,’ including a genealogy of the Knights of the Round Table (Lockhart, Life of Scott, 1839, iii. 35). He possessed the two rare editions, dated in 1566, of the Scottish acts of parliaments ‘of the five first Jameses and Queen Mary,’ and printed separately the few statutes omitted in the later impression for insertion in that impression. His splendid library was housed in his residence in St. James's Square, London (now No. 13, the Windham Club), and was dispersed by sale there during forty-five days, 18 May to 8 July 1812. The lots numbered 9,353, and though the duke is said to have only expended 5,000l. on the collection, 23,341l. was realised. Brunet asserts that the sale marked the highest point reached by ‘the thermometer of bibliomania’ in England. Valdarfer's edition of Boccaccio, for which the second Duke of Roxburgh had paid one hundred guineas, was sold to the Marquis of Blandford for 2,260l., after a severe competition with Lord Spencer, and Caxton's ‘Recuyell of the Historye of Troye’ fell to the Duke of Devonshire for 1,070l. 10s. (Gent. Mag. 1812, pt. ii. pp. 112–16). Roxburgh possessed a rare collection of broadside ballads bound in three volumes. Two of these had originally formed part of the Earl of Oxford's library, and after passing into the possession successively of James West and Major Thomas Pearson, had been bought by the duke at Pearson's sale in 1788 for 36l. 14s. 6d. Pearson had, with the help of Isaac Reed, made valuable additions to the collection, but the duke devoted himself to perfecting it, and the number of broadsides in his hands reached 1,340. They fetched 477l. 15s. at the sale in 1812, and were acquired by Benjamin Heywood Bright, after whose death in 1843 they were purchased by the British Museum in 1845. The whole collection has since been carefully edited for the Ballad Society by William Chappell and the Rev. J. W. Ebsworth.

To celebrate the sale of the Boccaccio on 24 June 1812, the chief bibliophiles of the day dined together in the evening at St. Alban's Tavern, St. Alban's Street, under the presidency of Lord Spencer, and there inaugurated the Roxburghe Club, consisting of twenty-four members (Gent. Mag. 1812, pt. ii. p. 79).

A portrait of the duke by Thomas Patch, in the manner of an Italian caricatura, was presented in 1884 by Sir Richard Wallace to the National Portrait Gallery.

[Douglas's Peerage, ed. Wood; Gent. Mag. 1804, pt. i. p. 383; Sir Walter Scott in Quarterly Review, xliv. 446–7; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, ii. 440–1; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Edwards's Memoirs of Libraries, ii. 132; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual, ed. Bohn; G. and W. Nicol's Sale Catalogue of the Duke of Roxburgh's Library, 1812.]

S. L.