Muirhead, James Patrick (DNB01)
MUIRHEAD, JAMES PATRICK (1813–1898), biographer of James Watt the engineer, born 26 July 1818 at The Grove, Hamilton, Lanarkshire, was son of Lockhart Muirhead, LL.D. George Muirhead [q. v. Suppl.] was his great-uncle. His grandfather, Patrick Muirhead, minister of Dysart, was principal librarian, and from 1808 to 1829 regius professor 'of natural history, in Glasgow University; he married, in 1804, his cousin, Anne Campbell (of the Ballochlaven family), whose mother (born Muirhead) was first cousin of James Watt, and left a valuable manuscript record of the great engineer's youth.
James Patrick was educated first at Glasgow College, where between 1826 and 1832 his name appears frequently in the prize lists (especially for Latin verse). Gaining on 3 Feb. 1832 a Snell exhibition at Balliol College, Oxford, he matriculated there on 6 April 1832; but spending his long vacations in Alpine expeditions, and in the study of German rather than in working for honours, he only took a third class in lit. hum. on graduating B.A. in 1835 (M.A. 1838). Admitted advocate at Edinburgh in 1838, he published during the same year 'Disputatio Juridica ad Lib. XII. Tit. ii. Digest = de Jurejurando sive voluntario sive necessario sive Judiciali,' and for eight years he practised law in Edinburgh. In 1844 he married Katharine Elizabeth, second daughter of Matthew Robinson Boulton of Tew Park and Soho. His wife fully shared his classical and literary tastes, but she found the climate of Edinburgh so uncongenial that in 1846 Muirhead gave up a promising career at the Scottish bar, and eventually (1847) settled at Haseley Court, Oxfordshire, a property of his wife's family. While still at Oxford he had become acquainted with his kinsman, the great engineer's son, James Watt (the younger) of Aston Hall, Birmingham. Disabled by growing infirmities from writing a long-contemplated memoir of his father, the younger Watt decided to commit the task to Muirhead. Thenceforth Muirhead was mainly occupied on this labour. The first fruits of this employment was the issue in 1839 of Muirhead's translation (with original notes and appendix) of Arago's 'Eloge Historique de James Watt,' as read before the Académie des Sciences, 8 Dec. 1834. In the controversy respecting the priority of Watt or of Henry Cavendish [q. v.] in the discovery of the composition of water, Muirhead took infinite pains to sift every particle of evidence. Not satisfied with free access to the Watt and Boulton papers, and to such living authorities as Brewster, Davy, Jeffrey, and Brougham, he visited Paris in 1842 to confer with Arago, Berzelius, and other savants, and in 1846 published a clear vindication of Watt's rights, with introduction, remarks, and appendix, in 'The Correspondence of the late James Watt on his Discovery of the Theory of the Composition of Water.' This was followed in 1854 by three quarto volumes, entitled ' The Mechanical Inventions of James Watt,' a work of great labour which offers a rich mine to the scientific student. The third volume, illustrated by thirty-four admirable engravings of machinery by Lowry, deals with the 'specifications of patents;' the second with 'extracts from correspondence.' But the 'introductory memoir' (vol. i.) was of more general interest, and became the nucleus of the fuller 'Life of James Watt' which Muirhead published in 1858 (2nd edit. 1859). This work, scholarly in style and sympathetic in tone, avoids with careful accuracy the errors of unfounded claim, no less than of unfounded detraction.
Muirhead, though devoted to books, was a keen angler and a good shot. In 1857 he edited the 'Winged Words on Chantrey's Woodcocks,' a collection of epigrams by various writers, inspired by Chantrey's feat in killing at one shot and then immortalising in sculpture two woodcocks flushed at Holkham. To this volume Muirhead contributed an introduction and original verses. Subsequently Muirhead and his wife devoted much time to the education of their children. In 1875 another book saw the light, 'The Vaux de Vire of Maistre Jean le Houx, Advocate, of Vire. Edited and translated into English Verse, with an Introduction.' There Muirhead investigated and rejected the claims of Olivier Basselin, the miller, in favour of Jean le Houx. It won him a delightful letter from the aged poet Longfellow. Between August 1882 and March 1891 Muirhead contributed to 'Blackwood's Magazine' nine original poems and twenty graceful translations from English and old French poems into Latin or English verse compositions which, owing to his signature, 'J. P. M.,' were occasionally attributed in error to Professor J. P. Mahaffy. Until near the end of his life he amused himself with effusions of this kind, some of which he printed privately, as 'Folia Caduca,' 'Iter Johannis Gilpini, auctore R. Scott, with preface by J. P. M.,' 'Domina de Shalott.' Copies of the last a free translation into rhyming Latin of Tennyson's verses arrived from the binder a few hours after the translator had breathed his last, in his eighty-sixth year, on 15 Oct. 1898.
Mrs. Muirhead predeceased her husband in 1890. Their six children survive, the eldest son being Lionel Boulton Campbell Lockhart Muirhead, now residing at Haseley Court. The third son is Colonel Herbert Hugh Muirhead, R.E.
[Personal knowledge; private information; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; the Snell Exhibitions by W. Innes Addison; Muirhead's works; article on James Watt in Encyclop. Brit, by Swing.]