Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Swinburne, Henry (1743-1803)

SWINBURNE, HENRY (1743–1803), traveller, born at Bristol on 8 July 1743, was the fourth son of Sir John Swinburne of Capheaton, Northumberland, third baronet, and head of an old Roman catholic family, who married on 20 July 1721 Mary, only daughter of Edward Bedingfeld, and granddaughter of Sir Henry Bedingfeld of Oxburgh, Norfolk. His father died in January 1744–5, and his mother died at York on 7 Feb. 1761. Henry was educated at Scorton school, near Catterick, Yorkshire, and was then sent to the monastic seminary of Lacelle in France. He afterwards studied at Paris, Bordeaux, and in the Royal Academy at Turin, devoting special attention to literature and art.

The death at Paris on 1 Feb. 1763 of his eldest brother, who had in the previous year devised to him a small estate at Hamsterley in Durham and an annuity, combined with his patrimony, placed him in independent circumstances. He proceeded to Italy, where he carefully examined the pictures, statues, and antiquarian relics at Turin, Genoa, and Florence, and learnt the language of the country. On his way back to his native land he met at Paris Martha, daughter of John Baker of Chichester, solicitor to the Leeward islands, a young lady with a good fortune, who was being educated at a convent of Ursuline nuns. They were married at Aix-la-Chapelle on 24 March 1767.

The young couple then settled at Hamsterley, where the husband laid out the estate ‘with a painter's eye.’ After a few years they tired of life spent among country squires and their wives, and went abroad. They passed the autumn of 1774 and the following months until September 1775 at Bordeaux, and then visited the Pyrenees. There Swinburne left his wife, and, in the company of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, travelled through Spain, returning to Bayonne in June 1776. The manuscript descriptive of his journey was sent to England, and committed to the editorial care of Dr. Samuel Henley [q. v.] It was published in 1779 as ‘Travels through Spain, 1775 and 1776,’ and was illustrated with many excellent and accurate drawings, taken on the spot, of Roman and Moorish architecture. In 1787 it was reprinted in two octavo volumes, and in the same year a French translation by J. B. De la Borde came out at Paris. Abridgments, with engravings from some additional drawings by Swinburne, appeared in 1806 and 1810. Swinburne was the first to make known in this country ‘the arts and monuments of the ancient inhabitants of Spain.’ His ‘Travels’ are often cited by Gibbon (Decline and Fall, chaps. ix. and x.).

Immediately on his return to Bayonne in June 1776 Swinburne, with his family, travelled to Marseilles, and a supplementary volume describing the expedition was issued in 1787. They then proceeded by sea to Naples, and travelled in the two Sicilies, where they stayed for 1777 and 1778, and for the early months of 1779. Their return to England was by Vienna, Frankfort, and Brussels, and they arrived in London in July 1779, but after a few months in England passed once more through France to Italy. Their stay in that country was from March to July 1780, and they stopped from that month to the following November in Vienna. As lovers of antiquity and Roman catholics in religion, they formed acquaintance with the chief literati in each country, and received many compliments from the catholic sovereigns. At Vienna Maria Theresa conferred on Mrs. Swinburne the female order of ‘La Croix Étoilée,’ and the Emperor Joseph stood godfather to their son of that name. They were in Brussels from February to June 1781, and again crossed to England.

The first volume of Swinburne's ‘Travels in the two Sicilies, 1777–1780,’ was published in 1783, and the second came out in 1785, and the plates in both volumes were of great excellence. Swinburne's drawings were faithful to fact and elegant in design. A second edition appeared in 1790; a French translation of them by La Borde was issued at Paris in 1785, and in the same year a German translation by J. R. Forster was published at Hamburg. At a later date La Borde translated the supplementary ‘Journey from Bayonne to Marseilles.’

Hannah More met Swinburne in London society in May 1783, and described him as ‘a little genteel young man. He is modest and agreeable; not wise and heavy, like his books’ (Roberts, Hannah More, i. 282). By this time his wife's property in the West Indies had been ‘devastated and utterly laid waste by the French and Caribs.’ Having obtained letters of introduction to the French court from Vienna, he proceeded to Paris (1783), and through Marie-Antoinette's influence obtained ‘a grant of all the uncultivated crown lands in the island of St. Vincent,’ valued at 30,000l. In February 1785 Pitt offered half that sum for it, and on receiving a refusal passed through parliament a bill to impose heavy taxation upon the unproductive lands in all the West Indian islands. Swinburne then parted with his interest for 6,500l. From September 1786 to June 1788 Swinburne was again in Paris, and high in favour with Marie-Antoinette, who directed that his eldest son should be enrolled among the royal pages, and placed under the especial care of the Prince de Lambesc. Swinburne's last years were clouded by misfortune. His eldest daughter, Mary Frances, married on 7 Sept. 1793 Paul Benfield [q. v.], when magnificent settlements were made for her, but that adventurer's wealth crumbled away as rapidly as it grew, and Swinburne was involved in the ruin. His eldest son perished in a storm on his way to Jamaica in 1800.

In the meantime Swinburne was sent to Paris in September 1796 as commissioner to negotiate an exchange of prisoners with France, but, in consequence of difficulties arising from the capture by the French of Sir Sidney Smith, was unsuccessful, and in December 1797 was recalled to England. In December 1801 he went out to the lucrative post of vendue-master in the newly ceded settlement of Trinidad, and also as commissioner to deliver up the Danish West Indian islands to a Danish official, when he acquitted himself so well that the British merchants made him a handsome gift, and the king of Denmark presented his widow with 2,000l. He died from a sunstroke at Trinidad on 1 April 1803, and was buried at San Juan, where his friend, Sir Ralph Woodford, raised a monument to his memory. He had issue four sons and six daughters. His library was sold by Leigh & Sotheby in 1802, but the chief articles were bought in by his brother.

A portrait, painted by Richard Cosway, was engraved by Mariano Bovi in 1786 as a frontispiece to the ‘Journey from Bayonne’ (1787), and reproduced for ‘The Courts of Europe’ (1841). Another reproduction was made at Augsburg. A different portrait, engraved by W. Angus, possibly from that painted by T. Seaton, which in 1867 belonged to the family (Cat. Third Loan Exhib. No. 165), is in the ‘European Magazine’ (1785). His wife's portrait, by Cosway, was also engraved by Bovi in 1786.

There were published in 1841, under the very inefficient editorship of Charles White, two volumes entitled ‘The Courts of Europe at the close of the last Century,’ which consisted of the letters of Henry Swinburne, mostly on foreign life (dating from March 1774, and chiefly addressed to his brother, Sir Edward Swinburne); many of the anecdotes and statements must be read with caution (Quarterly Review, lxviii. 145–76). They were reprinted in 1895. The copy of the original edition in the library of John Forster at the South Kensington Museum has, at the end of the first volume, manuscript notes for a new edition. Many extracts from this work are given by Philarète Chasles in his ‘Études sur la Littérature de l'Angleterre’ (pp. 67–74), by Albert Babeau in ‘Voyageurs en France’ (pp. 351–6), and by Babeau in ‘La France et Paris sous le Directoire’ (pp. 261–99).

[Gent. Mag. 1793 ii. 861, 1803 i. 479; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. iii. 759, vii. 541; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. viii. 640, ix. 157; Surtees's Durham, ii. 290; Biogr. Univ. new edit.; Didot's Nouvelle Biogr. Univ.; Burke's Peerage; European Mag. 1785, ii. 243; Hodgson's Northumberland, i. pt. ii. 233.]

W. P. C.