Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mayer, Joseph

1404959Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 37 — Mayer, Joseph1894Charles William Sutton

MAYER, JOSEPH (1803–1886), antiquary and collector, son of Samuel Mayer, tanner and currier, was born at Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, on 23 Feb. 1803. He was only fourteen when his taste for antiquities was excited by the discovery of an urn containing a quantity of Roman coins. This was in a field, near Little Madeley, Staffordshire. He earned a reward from his grandfather by deciphering the inscriptions, and thence acquired a love for ancient relics which never left him. At the age of twenty he settled in Liverpool as a jeweller and goldsmith, and being successful in business was enabled to indulge his passion for collecting. One of his earliest studies was Greek coins, his cabinet of which he sold to the French government in 1844. His museum ultimately reached great proportions, and embraced Egyptian antiquities, prehistoric and ethnographic curiosities, glass and pottery (especially a remarkable collection of Wedgwood ware); British and Anglo-Saxon antiquities, including W. H. Rolfe's collection and that of Saxon sepulchral remains made by the Rev. Bryan Faussett. Of this collection Mayer printed in 1856 a costly catalogue and history, compiled for him by Charles Roach Smith [q. v.] , and entitled ‘Inventorium Sepulchrale.’ Other sections of the museum contained antique ivories, gems and rings, enamels, miniatures, metalwork, and many other objects. The museum, valued at 80,000l., was presented by Mayer to the corporation of Liverpool in 1867, and now forms part of the public museum in William Brown Street in that town. He had previously disposed of a collection of objects of art relating to the Bonaparte family, but at the death of the owner (Mr. Mather) it was bequeathed to the corporation.

Mayer was a shrewd judge of the genuineness of all kinds of antiquities, but on one occasion was deceived. This was when he purchased some spurious papyri of the gospel of Matthew and other scriptures, concocted by the impostor Simonides, who induced him to publish them at considerable cost in 1861.

He acquired many thousands of drawings, engravings, and autograph letters bearing on the history of art in England. He became the possessor of large portions of the collections of William Upcott [q. v.] and of Thomas Dodd [q. v.], the print dealer and collector. Dodd was befriended in his latter days by Mayer, in whose house he died. These collections are described in ‘Temple Bar’ for May and July 1876 (reprinted in ‘Memoirs of Thomas Dodd, William Upcott, and George Stubbs, R.A.,’ 1879).

A number of valuable books were printed wholly or in part at his expense, among them being: 1. ‘Sprott's Chronicle, edited by Dr. William Bell,’ 1851. 2. ‘Anglo-Saxon and Old English Vocabularies,’ edited by Thomas Wright, 2 vols. 1857 and 1873; a second edition, edited by P. H. Wülcker, was brought out in 1884. 3. ‘Feudal Manuals of English History,’ edited by T. Wright, 1872. He assisted largely in the publication of Benjamin Thorpe's ‘Diplomatarium Anglicum Ævi Saxonici,’ 1865, and he supplied Miss Meteyard [q. v.] with the greater part of the materials for her ‘Life of Wedgwood’ and ‘Group of Englishmen.’

He was one of the founders of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, of which he was president from 1866 to 1869. He contributed the following among other papers to its ‘Transactions:’ 1. ‘The Mock Mayor at Newcastle-under-Lyme.’ 2. ‘Roscoe and the Influence of his Writings on the Fine Arts.’ 3. ‘Shotwick Church.’ 4. ‘Liverpool Pottery.’ 5. ‘The Arming of Levies in the Hundred of Wirral.’ 6. ‘Addresses as President.’ 7. ‘The Preparations of the County of Kent to resist the Spanish Armada.’ 8. ‘On the Art of Pottery.’ In 1876 he printed a volume on ‘Early Exhibitions of Art in Liverpool, with some Notes for a Memoir of George Stubbs.’

In 1860 he devoted himself to the volunteer movement, and was captain of the Liverpool borough guard. He afterwards raised and clothed at his own expense a corps of volunteers at Bebington, near Birkenhead, Cheshire, where he went to live in 1860. He was for a time chairman of the local board and always a benefactor to the village and neighbourhood. In 1866 he established a free library of twenty thousand volumes in Bebington, and bore the whole cost of management as long as he lived, besides providing for its continuance afterwards. The library stands in public grounds (six acres), which he also dedicated to the use of the people. He was much interested in floriculture, and was accustomed to distribute flowers during the summer months to readers who came to change their books. He founded two scholarships at the Newcastle-under-Lyme high school, and presented drawings and pictures.

He retired from business in 1873, and died unmarried at Pennant House, Bebington, Cheshire, on 19 Jan. 1886, aged 82. His private library, prints and manuscripts were dispersed by auction in 1867.

A marble statue of Mayer, by G. Fontana, was placed by the Liverpool corporation in St. George's Hall in September 1869. His portrait was presented by subscribers to the Bebington Free Library in 1872. Another portrait as a young man, painted by Daniels, is in the Mayer Museum, Liverpool. An engraved portrait is prefixed to 'Inventorium Sepulchrale.'

[Liverpool newspapers, 20 Jan. 1886; Men of the Time, 6th edit.; C. Roach Smith's Retrospections, i. 67; Prefaces to Meteyard's Life of Wedgwood and Group of Englishmen; C. T. Gatty's Catalogues of the Mayer Collection, 1877-82; Gatty's Mayer Collection considered as an Educational Possession, 1877; A Free Village Library, Bebington, 1878; communications from Mr. Rupert Simms, Newcaslle-under-Lyme.]

C. W. S.