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Knight, Joseph (1829-1907) (DNB12)

KNIGHT, JOSEPH (1829–1907), dramatic critic, born at Leeds on 24 May 1829, was elder son of Joseph Knight, cloth merchant, who was a native of Carlisle. His mother, Marianne daughter of Joseph Wheelwright, became blind in middle life but lived to the age of seventy-three. Educated at a private boarding school, Bramham College, near Tadcaster, Knight early showed a taste for poetry and rose to be head of the school. In 1848 a promising poem by him, 'The Sea by Moonlight,' was printed at Sheffield by the headmaster for circulation among his pupils' parents.

Joining his father in business at nineteen, he devoted his leisure to literature, collecting and reading books, and taking a prominent part in the literary activities of Leeds. Elizabethan and early French poetry especially moved his youthful enthusiasm, and he never lost his admiration for the work of Drayton, Wither, and Ronsard. With his fellow-townsman, Mr. Alfred Austin, afterwards poet laureate (his junior by six years), he helped to found a Mechanics' Institute at Leeds, at which he lectured on literary subjects. On 7 April 1854 he lectured on 'The Fairies of English Poetry' before the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. At Leeds, too, he made the acquaintance of William Edward Forster [q. v.], who stayed at Knight's house while he was parliamentary candidate for the constituency in 1859. Knight seconded Forster's nomination.

In 1860 Knight adventurously abandoned a business career in Leeds for journalistic life in London. He found early employment as dramatic critic for the 'Literary Gazette,' through a chance meeting with the editor, Mr. John (afterwards Viscount) Morley. Thenceforth he largely occupied himself in writing of the contemporary stage. In 1869 he succeeded John Abraham Heraud [q. v.] as dramatic critic of the 'Athenæum,' and he retained that post till his death. In 1871, during the siege of Paris, he used his influence to secure the invitation to the Comedie Française to act at the Gaiety Theatre in London. He also acted as dramatic critic for the 'Sunday Times,' the 'Globe,' and for the 'Daily Graphic' from 1894 to 1906. But Knight's dramatic interests always ranged far beyond the contemporary theatre. He was thoroughly well versed in dramatic history, and from 1883 to the close of the first supplement in 1901 Knight was the chief contributor of the lives of actors and actresses to this Dictionary. His articles numbered over 500. On the notice of Garrick in these pages he based an independent memoir which appeared in 1894.

Knight's social charm, handsome presence, courteous bearing, and fine literary taste made him welcome in literary and dramatic circles from his first arrival in London. His early associates there included John Westland Marston [q. v.] and Sebastian Evans [q. v. Suppl. II], to both of whom he owed counsel and encouragement. At Marston's house he met leading authors and playwrights. Thomas Purnell [q. v.], a Bohemian journalist, introduced him to Swinburne, and with that poet and with Swinburne's friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he was long on terms of intimacy. Rossetti valued Knight's discernment in poetical and other matters and liked his manly geniality (cf. W. M. Rossetti's Life of D. G. Rossetti). One of Dante Rossetti's last letters was addressed to Knight (5 March 1882), and in 1887 Knight published a sympathetic and discriminating 'Life of Rossetti' in the 'Great Writers' series.

Knight found varied opportunities of proving his literary knowledge. He contributed the causerie signed 'Sylvanus Urban' to the 'Gentleman's Magazine' from 1887 till near his death, and he was a reviewer of general literature for the 'Athenæum.' In July 1883, on the death of Henry Frederick Turle [q. v.], he became editor of 'Notes and Queries,' and retained that office for life. In that capacity he indulged his versatile antiquarian and literary tastes and formed many new acquaintances. On 4 May 1893 he was elected F.S.A.

With strong affinities for Bohemian life, Knight was long a leading member of the Arundel Club. But after 1883, when he was elected to the Garrick Club (3 March), his leisure was mainly spent there. He was an ideal club companion, convivial, chivalric, and cultured. With actors and actresses he maintained cordial relations without prejudicing his critical independence. On 4 July 1905 the dramatic profession entertained him, as the oldest living dramatic critic, to dinner at the Savoy Hotel. Sir Henry Irving took the chair, and M. Coquelin and Madame Réjane were among the guests.

Knight was an ardent book collector through life, but twice he was under the necessity of parting with his collection — on the second occasion in 1905. He died at his house, 27 Camden Square, on 23 June 1907, and was buried in Highgate cemetery.

He married at the parish church, Leeds, on 3 June 1856, Rachel (d. 1911), youngest daughter of John Wilkinson of Gledhall Mount near Leeds. He had issue a son Philip Sidney, b. 2 Feb. 1857, now in Australia, and two daughters, Mrs. Ian Forbes Robertson and Mrs. Mansel Sympson of Lincoln. A posthumous portrait in oils by Miss Margaret Grose was presented to the Garrick Club in 1912 by Knight's friend Mr. H. B. Wheatley. A coloured chalk drawing by Leslie Ward is dated June 1905. William Bell Scott designed a book plate for Knight, embodying his likeness, in 1881.

Besides the books mentioned Knight published in 1893 'Theatrical Notes 1874-1879,' a collection of articles on the drama from the 'Athenæum,' and he edited in 1883 Downes's 'Roscius Anglicanus.'

[The Times, 24 June 1907; Athenæum, June 1907; Notes and Queries, 29 June 1907; J. Collins Francis, Notes by the Way, 1909, pp. i-xliii (pp. xl-xliii contain a full list of Knight's contributions to this Dictionary); V. Rendall, Some Reminiscences of Joseph Knight (Nineteenth Cent., Dec. 1911); personal knowledge.]

S. L.