Roscoe, William (1753-1831) (DNB00)

ROSCOE, WILLIAM (1753–1831), historian, born on 8 March 1753 at the Old Bowling Green House, Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, was the only son of William Roscoe, by his wife Elizabeth. His father owned an extensive market-garden, and kept the Bowling Green tavern, which was much frequented for its garden and bowling-green. Roscoe was sent when six years old to schools kept by Mr. Martin and Mr. Sykes, in a house in Paradise Street, Liverpool, where he was taught reading and arithmetic. Leaving school when not quite twelve, he learnt something of carpentry and painting on china; his mother, an affectionate and humane woman, supplied him with books. He acquired a good deal of Shakespeare by heart, and invested in the ‘Spectator,’ the poems of Shenstone, and ‘the matchless Orinda.’ He helped in his father's market-garden, and shouldered potatoes to market until 1769, when he was articled to John Eyes, jun., and afterwards to Peter Ellames, both attorneys of Liverpool. His chief friend at this time was Francis Holden, a young schoolmaster of varied talents, who gave him gratuitous instruction in French, and who, by repeating Italian poetry in their evening walks, attracted Roscoe to the study of Italian. William Clarke and Richard Lowndes, two of his early friends and lifelong associates, used to meet Roscoe early in the morning to study the Latin classics before their business hours.

In 1773 Roscoe was one of the founders of a Liverpool society for the encouragement of the arts of painting and design. In 1774 he was admitted an attorney of the court of king's bench, and went into partnership in Liverpool, successively with Mr. Bannister, Samuel Aspinall, and Joshua Lace. In 1777, he published ‘Mount Pleasant, a descriptive Poem [in imitation of Dyer's ‘Grongar Hill’]; also an Ode on the Institution of a Society of Art in Liverpool.’ The volume obtained commendation from Sir Joshua Reynolds, and is of some interest from its denunciation of the slave trade. Roscoe remained through life a diligent writer of verse, couched in conventional ‘poetic diction’ and rarely, if ever, inspired (cf. De Quincey, Works, ed. Masson, ii. 129–130). It was, however, his pleasant lot to produce a nursery classic in verse—‘The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast.’ This first appeared in the November number of the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1806. It was written for the special delectation of Roscoe's youngest son, Robert, but it attracted the attention of the king and queen, and was at their request set to music by Sir George Smart for the young princesses, Elizabeth, Augusta, and Mary. Early in January 1807 it was published by John Harris, successor to John Newbery [q. v.], as the first of his very popular series of children's books (see edition of 1883, with introduction by Mr. Charles Welsh).

Roscoe married in 1781, and about this time began to form a collection of rare books and prints. In 1784 he was a promoter and vice-president of a new society for promoting painting and design, which held exhibitions in Liverpool, and in 1785 delivered several lectures on the history of art. In 1787 he published ‘The Wrongs of Africa’ (a poem), and in 1788 a pamphlet entitled ‘A General View of the African Slave Traffic,’ denouncing the evil, though in temperate language. He saluted the French Revolution with odes and songs, and in 1796 published ‘Strictures on Mr. Burke's Two Letters (on the Regicide Peace).’ His song ‘O'er the vine-cover'd hills and gay regions of France’ became popular.

The idea of writing the life of Lorenzo de' Medici, his principal work, had occurred to Roscoe at an early age, and in 1790 his friend William Clarke consulted on his behalf many manuscripts and books in the libraries of Florence. In 1793 he began to print the ‘Lorenzo’ at his own expense, at the press of John MacCreery [q. v.], the Liverpool printer, and the first edition (remarkable for its typographical excellence) was published in February 1796 (dated ‘1795’). Lord Orford (H. Walpole) wrote enthusiastically to Roscoe, praising the ‘Grecian simplicity’ of the style of his ‘delightful book’ (Walpole, Letters, ix. 453). The work, which soon became known in London, was commended by Mathias, and was noticed by Fuseli (who knew Roscoe intimately) in the ‘Analytical Review.’ It attracted attention in Italy, and Professor K. Sprengel of Halle published (1797) a German translation of it. Roscoe sold the copyright of the first edition for 1,200l. to Cadell and Davies, who brought out a second edition in 1796, and a third in 1799; there are many later editions.

In 1796 Roscoe retired from his profession, and in 1799 purchased Allerton Hall, a house about six miles from Liverpool, with pleasant gardens and woods; he rebuilt (1812) the older portion, and added a library (see view in ‘The History of Liverpool,’ 1810, last plate). He now resumed the study of Greek, which he had taken up only in middle life, and worked upon his biography of Leo X, begun about 1798. For this work Lord Holland and others procured him material from Rome and Florence.

The ‘Life of Leo X’ appeared in 1805. The first impression (one thousand copies) was soon disposed of, and Roscoe sold one half of the copyright to Cadell and Davies for 2,000l. A second edition was published in 1806, and the work was translated into German and French. In 1816–17 Count Bossi issued an Italian translation with much additional matter; this was placed on the ‘Index Expurgatorius,’ but 2,800 copies were sold in Italy. The ‘Leo’ was severely criticised in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (vii. 336 f.) for its affectation of profound philosophy and sentiment, and the author was accused of prejudice against Luther. The style of this work and of the ‘Lorenzo’ is at any rate open to the charge of diffusiveness and of a certain pomposity visible also in Roscoe's private correspondence.

At the end of 1799, finding the Liverpool bank of Messrs. J. & W. Clarke in difficulties, he undertook, out of friendship, to arrange their affairs, and was induced to enter the bank as a partner and manager. He was thus again involved in business, but found time for the study of botany. He became intimate with Sir James Edward Smith, the botanist; opened (in 1802) the Botanic Garden at Liverpool, and contributed to the ‘Transactions’ of the Linnean Society, of which he was elected a fellow in 1805. At a later period (1824) he proposed a new arrangement of the plants of the monandrian class, usually called Scitamineæ. The order ‘Roscoea’ was named after him by Sir J. E. Smith. Roscoe was also interested in agriculture, and was one of those who helped to reclaim Chat Moss, near Manchester.

In October 1806 Roscoe was elected M.P. for Liverpool in the whig interest. He spoke in Parliament in favour of the bill to abolish the slave trade, and contributed to found the African Institution. Parliament was dissolved in the spring of 1807, and in May Roscoe made a sort of public entry into Liverpool attended by his friends, mounted and on foot. The line he had taken on the slave question and his support of the catholic claims had made him many enemies there, and parties of seamen armed with bludgeons obstructed the procession, and in a scene of great tumult a magistrate was attacked and his horse stabbed. Roscoe was nominated at the ensuing election, but was not again returned.

At the beginning of 1816 there was a run on Roscoe's bank, and on 25 Jan. it suspended payment. Considerable sums were locked up in mining and landed property, and, as the assets seemed ample, Roscoe, at the creditors' request, resumed the management. To satisfy part of the claims, he in 1816 sold his library, rich in Italian literature and early printed books. His friends purchased a selection of Italian and other books at the sale, to the amount of 600l., and offered them to him as a gift, which he refused. They were thereupon presented in 1817 to the Liverpool Athenæum to form a ‘Roscoe Collection.’ The sale (of about two thousand works) realised 5,150l. Roscoe's prints were sold after the books, and realised 1,915l. 1s., and his drawings and paintings 2,825l. 19s.

In 1817 Roscoe was chosen the first president of the Liverpool Royal Institution, of which he was a promoter. In 1819 he published ‘Observations on Penal Jurisprudence,’ advocating milder punishments as efficacious in reforming the criminal. Meanwhile he had succeeded in making large reimbursements to the creditors of his bank; but the estate had been overvalued, and in 1820, when the remaining creditors pressed for payment, Roscoe and his partners were declared bankrupt. The allowance of Roscoe's ‘certificate of conformity’ was petitioned against by two of the creditors, and to avoid arrest he had to confine himself indoors at his farm at Chat Moss. After some months the certificate was allowed, and he returned to Liverpool, his connection with the bank being then finally withdrawn. At this time a sum of 2,500l. was raised by Dr. Traill and other friends for the benefit of Roscoe and his family.

Roscoe was once more released from business cares, and in 1820 he began to prepare for his friend, Mr. Coke, a catalogue of the manuscripts at Holkham, Norfolk. In 1822 he published ‘Illustrations, Historical and Critical, of the Life of Lorenzo,’ in which he defended his hero from the attacks of Sismondi. In 1824 he was elected an honorary associate of the Royal Society of Literature, and was afterwards awarded its gold medal. In the same year he published a new edition of Pope's works, undertaken (in 1821) for the London booksellers. A controversy ensued between Roscoe and W. L. Bowles, who closed his case by publishing ‘Lessons in Criticism to William Roscoe, Esq. … with further Lessons in Criticism to a “Quarterly Reviewer.”’ The latest editors of Pope (Elwin and Courthope, Pope, iii. 16) regard Roscoe as an injudicious panegyrist of the poet's career, and his annotations (wherever they add to those of Warburton, Warton, and Bowles) as tending to mislead.

In December 1827 Roscoe was attacked with paralysis; he recovered, but was confined to his study with his small collection of books and prints. In June 1831 he was prostrated by influenza, and died on the 30th of the month at his house in Lodge Lane, Toxteth Park, Liverpool. He was buried in the ground attached to the chapel in Renshaw Street, Liverpool, at the services of which he had been accustomed to attend.

Roscoe married, on 22 Feb. 1781, Jane (d. 1824), second daughter of William Griffies, a tradesman of Liverpool, by whom he had a family of seven sons and three daughters. His fifth son Thomas, the author and translator (1791–1871), and his youngest son Henry, the legal writer (1800–1836), are noticed separately. His eldest daughter, Mary Anne, the verse-writer, married Thomas Jevons of Liverpool [see Jevons, Mary Anne]. His daughter Jane Elizabeth, born in 1797, married the Rev. F. Hornblower, and published several volumes of verse between 1820 and 1843; she died at Liverpool in September 1853 (Gent. Mag. 1853, ii. 326; Brit. Mus. Cat.)

Roscoe's writings had the effect of stimulating a European interest in Italian literature and history, and his zeal for culture and art in his native place deserved the tribute that was paid to his memory by the celebration at Liverpool, on 8 March 1853, of the Roscoe Centenary Festival. Dr. Traill, the friend and physician of Roscoe, describes him as simple and upright in character, and as possessing much charm of manner. In person he was tall, with clear and mild grey eyes, and an ‘expressive and cheerful face.’ De Quincey (Works, ed. Masson, ii. 127), who rather disparages the Liverpool literary coterie to which Roscoe belonged, describes him about 1801 as ‘simple and manly in his demeanour,’ but adds that, in spite of his boldness as a politician, there was ‘the feebleness of the mere belles-lettrist’ in his views on many subjects. Washington Irving in his ‘Sketch Book’ has recorded his impressions of Roscoe as he appeared shortly before 1820; Mrs. Hemans, who saw Roscoe in his latest years, speaks of him as ‘a delightful old man, with a fine Roman style of head,’ sitting in the study of his small house surrounded by busts, books, and flowers. There are numerous portraits of Roscoe: (1) Painting (æt. 38) by John Williamson is in the National Portrait Gallery, London; it was engraved in Henry Roscoe's ‘Life of W. Roscoe,’ vol. i. front.; (2) painting by Sir Martin Archer Shee (1813) for Mr. Coke of Holkham; (3) terra-cotta medallion made in 1813 by John Gibson (cf. H. Roscoe's Life, vol. ii. front.); (4) painting by J. Lonsdale (1825) presented to the Liverpool Royal Institution (engraved in Baines's ‘Lancaster,’ 1836, iii. 523); (5) bust by John Gibson presented by the sculptor to the Liverpool Royal Institution in 1827, in gratitude for the aid given to him in early life by Roscoe; (6) bronze medal (issued by Clements of Liverpool, 1806?) by Clint, after Gibson's terra-cotta medallion (this, and another portrait medal, rev. Mount Parnassus, are in the British Museum); (7) bust by Spence of Liverpool; (8) two miniatures by Haughton and Hargreaves; (9) marble statue by Chantrey, publicly subscribed for, and placed in 1841 in the Gallery of Art attached to the Liverpool Royal Institution.

The following are the chief of Roscoe's numerous publications:

  1. ‘Mount Pleasant,’ &c., Liverpool, 1777, 4to.
  2. ‘The Wrongs of Africa,’ 1787, 8vo.
  3. ‘A General View of the African Slave Trade,’ 1788, 8vo.
  4. ‘The Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, called the Magnificent,’ 2 vols. Liverpool, 1795, 4to; 2nd ed. London, 1796, 4to; 6th ed. London, 1825, 8vo; 1846, 8vo, and later editions; German translation, by K. Sprengel, Berlin, 1797; French translation, Paris, 1799; Italian translation, Pisa, 1799; Greek translation, Athens, 1858.
  5. ‘The Nurse, a Poem translated [from the Italian of L. Tansillo] by W. R.,’ 1798, 4to; 1800, 8vo; 1804, 8vo.
  6. ‘The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth,’ 4 vols. Liverpool, 1805, 4to; 2nd ed. London, 1806; 3rd ed. London, 1827, 8vo; London, 1846, 8vo, and later editions; French translation, Paris, 1808; German translation, Vienna, 1818; Italian translation, by L. Bossi, Milan, 1816–17.
  7. ‘The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast,’ 1807, 16mo; 1808; London, 1883, 4to, ed. C. Welsh (facsimile of edition of 1808).
  8. ‘On the Origin and Vicissitudes of Literature, Science, and Art,’ &c. (lecture at the Liverpool Royal Institution, 1817).
  9. ‘Observations on Penal Jurisprudence,’ London, 1819–25, 8vo.
  10. ‘Illustrations, Historical and Critical, of the Life of Lorenzo de' Medici,’ London, 1822, 8vo and 4to; Italian translation, Florence, 1823, 8vo.
  11. ‘Memoir of Richard Roberts Jones’ (a Welsh fisher-lad of remarkable linguistic powers, befriended by Roscoe), 1822, 8vo.
  12. ‘The Works of Alexander Pope,’ edited by W. R., 1824, 8vo.
  13. ‘Monandrian Plants of the Order Scitamineæ’ (coloured plates, with descriptions by W. R.), Liverpool, 1828, fol.
  14. ‘The Poetical Books of William Roscoe’ (Roscoe Centenary edition), London, 1853, 8vo; also 1857, 8vo; 1891.

William Stanley Roscoe (1782–1843), the eldest son of William Roscoe, was educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and became a partner in his father's bank. In his latter years he was serjeant-at-mace to the court of passage at Liverpool. He was well acquainted with Italian literature, and in 1834 published a volume of ‘Poems’ (London, 8vo), which was eulogised in ‘Blackwood's Magazine’ (February 1835, pp. 153–60), though the verse is for the most part commonplace in subject and treatment. He died at Liverpool on 31 Oct. 1843 (Gent. Mag. 1844, i. 96). He was the father of William Caldwell Roscoe [q. v.]

[The principal authorities are Henry Roscoe's Life of William Roscoe, 1833; Gent. Mag. 1831, i. 796; T. S. Traill's Memoir of Roscoe, 1853; art. in Encyclop. Brit. 9th ed.; Espinasse's Lancashire Worthies, 2nd ser. pp. 274 ff.; The Liverpool Tribute to Roscoe (report of Roscoe Centenary), 1853; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit.; Memoir by Thomas Roscoe prefixed to Bohn's edition of the Lorenzo, 1846; Baines's Lancaster (1870), ed. Harland and Herford, ii. 377; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

W. W.