Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thornton, Bonnell

THORNTON, BONNELL (1724–1768), miscellaneous writer and wit, son of John Thornton, apothecary, of Maiden Lane, and afterwards of Chandos Street, Westminster, was born in Maiden Lane in February 1724. He was admitted a queen's scholar at Westminster in 1739, and while at school made an associate of William Cowper, who was two years his junior; through Cowper he became intimate later on with George Colman the elder, and with Robert Lloyd. He was elected to Oxford in 1743, matriculated from Christ Church on 1 June 1743, and graduated B.A. 1747, M.A. 1750, and M.B. 1754. His father intended him to pursue the profession of medicine, but long before he left Oxford he had commenced a literary career. Having contributed to the ‘Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Miscellany,’ a periodical of which Christopher Smart was the guiding spirit, he essayed a venture of his own on somewhat similar lines, ‘Have at ye all, or the Drury Lane Journal,’ in emulation of Fielding's ‘Covent Garden Journal,’ but this had a very short life. He also wrote papers in the ‘Adventurer,’ the the paper conducted by Hawkesworth upon the collapse of the ‘Rambler.’ One of his papers (No. 9), on sign-post painting, is dated 2 Dec. 1752, and from this seems to have originated the practical jest which he executed two years later in conjunction with the six other old Westminsters, including Cowper, Colman, Robert Lloyd, and Joseph Hill, who dined together every Thursday as ‘The Nonsense Club;’ the frolic consisted in advertising and opening at Thornton's house in Bow Street, Covent Garden, an ‘Exhibition by the Society of Sign Painters of all the Curious Signs to be met with in Town or Country,’ in ridicule of the recently organised exhibitions of the Society of Arts in 1754 [see Shipley, William]. An amusing catalogue raisonné of the exhibition was published, in which Thornton had a principal share.

In January 1754, having now settled in London, Thornton commenced ‘The Connoisseur’ in conjunction with Colman (who was still at Oxford), and the literary alliance thus commenced continued unimpaired throughout the remainder of Thornton's life. ‘The Connoisseur’ ran to 140 weekly papers, and met with a fair amount of success (a sixth edition, in four volumes, was published in 1774; reprinted in Chalmers's ‘British Essayists,’ vols. xxv. xxvi.). Both Cowper and Lloyd assisted in the work, which is remarkable for the unity of result attained by the joint productions of Thornton and Colman (cf. Southey, Life of Cowper, 1853, i. 32). The two allies next became original proprietors of the ‘St. James's Chronicle,’ a newspaper which they soon invested with ‘a literary character far above that of its contemporaries.’ A selection of the contents of the first volume was published at the close of a twelve months' issue as ‘The Yearly Chronicle for 1761’ (London, 8vo). The ‘Chronicle’ did not survive 1762, and Thornton seems for a time to have contemplated a theatrical career as manager or joint-patentee of Covent Garden. It was probably as a prospective patron that Robert Lloyd addressed to him in 1760 ‘The Actor: a Poetical Epistle.’ The negotiations, however, fell through, and Thornton returned to desultory work as a satirist and journalist. He contributed to the ‘St. James's Magazine,’ which Lloyd had started in September 1762, and in May 1763 he issued a burlesque ‘Ode on St. Cæcilia's Day, adapted to the Antient British Musick: the Salt Box, the Jew's Harp, the Marrow Bones and Cleavers, the Hum Strum of Hurdy-Gurdy,’ &c. (London, 1763, 4to). Thornton's reputation as a wit gave a wide currency to this trifle. It was set to music and performed at Ranelagh to a crowded audience on 10 June 1763. In the same vein he issued in 1767 his ‘Battle of the Wigs; an additional Canto to Dr. Garth's Poem of the Dispensary’ (London, 4to), in ridicule of the disputes which were then raging between the licentiates and the fellows of the College of Physicians [see art. Schomberg, Isaac, (1714–1780)].

In the meantime Thornton had been devoting attention to a translation into blank verse of the comedies of Plautus. Two volumes, containing seven plays—‘Amphitryon,’ ‘The Braggard Captain,’ ‘The Captives,’ ‘The Treasure,’ ‘The Miser,’ ‘The Shipwreck,’ and ‘The Merchant’—were issued in 1767, and dedicated to Colman, whose translation of Terence had stimulated his old friend to the task (London, 8vo; revised ed. 1769). Only five of the plays are to be credited to Thornton, the ‘Captivi’ having been rendered by Colman, and ‘Mercator’ by Richard Warner of Woodford, who completed the comedies in three additional volumes (London, 1774, 8vo); but Thornton's versions are held to be the best, being highly praised by Southey for their playfulness and ingenuity, and the translation goes by his name. Thornton died in London on 9 May 1768, and was buried in the east cloister of Westminster Abbey, where a Latin inscription by his friend Dr. Joseph Warton marks his grave. He married, in 1764, Sylvia, youngest daughter of Colonel John Brathwaite, governor of Cape Coast Castle; his widow, with a daughter and two sons (one of whom, Robert John Thornton [q. v.], is noticed separately), survived him.

Dr. Johnson was much diverted by Thornton's witty sallies, and was fond of repeating the songs of his ‘Burlesque Ode,’ but the author was eclipsed in such trifles by several of his contemporaries—for example, Kit Smart—and the acceptance won by many of his jeux d'esprit must be attributed in a great measure to the tendency to mutual admiration that was rife among members of the ‘Nonsense Club.’ The trifling or abortive character of many of the enterprises of so clever a man as Thornton was attributed by the younger Colman to convivial excesses, which also shortened his life.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Gent. Mag. 1768 p. 224; Welch's Alumni Westmon. p. 319; Southey's Life of Cowper, i. passim; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, vol. i. passim; Peake's Memoirs of the Colmans, i. 42, 347–9; Chalmers's British Essayists, xxv. pref.; Walpole's Corresp. ed. Cunningham, v. 85; Fox-Bourne's Hist. of Newspapers; Nathan Drake's Essays, 1810, ii. 323; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; English Cyclopædia; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn); Brit. Mus. Cat.]

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