Open main menu


SOTHEBY, WILLIAM (1757–1833), author, born in London on 9 Nov. 1757, and baptised at St. George's Church, Bloomsbury, on 19 Dec., was elder son of William Sotheby, colonel of the Coldstream guards, by his wife Elizabeth (d. 1790), daughter of William Sloane, esq., of Stoneham, Hampshire. His younger brother, Thomas (1759–1831), entered the navy, was captain of the Marlborough when she was wrecked off the Isle of Giouat, France, and rose to be an admiral of the white (cf. Gent. Mag. 1831, ii. 177–8). The father, who was elected F.S.A. on 8 Dec. 1743, died in 1766. William's guardians after his father's death were Charles Philip Yorke, fourth earl of Hardwicke [q. v.], lord chancellor, and his maternal uncle, Hans Sloane, and he succeeded to the estate of Sewardstone, on the borders of Epping Forest, which had been the property of the family since 1673. He was educated at Harrow, but at the age of seventeen purchased a commission as ensign in the 10th dragoons, and, obtaining leave of absence, studied at the military academy of Angers. Subsequently he was stationed with his regiment at Edinburgh, and there first made the acquaintance of young Walter Scott (cf. Lockhart, chap. xv.). On 17 July 1780 he increased his resources by marrying Mary, youngest daughter of Ambrose Isted of Ecton, Northamptonshire, by Anne, sister and coheiress of Sir Charles Buck, bart., of Hanby. Thereupon he retired from the army, and, purchasing the residence of Bevis Mount, near Southampton, settled down with every material advantage to a literary life. At first he mainly devoted himself to a close study of the Latin and Greek classics.

Sotheby's earliest publication was a volume of ‘Poems’ (1790), which chiefly consisted of a narrative of a walking tour which he and his brother Thomas made through north and south Wales in 1788. To this were appended a number of sonnets with an epistle in heroics on physiognomy (Bath and London). A reissue in 1794 was embellished by thirteen engravings by J. Smith.

Meanwhile, in 1791, Sotheby removed to a house in London, and thenceforth divided his time between the metropolis and his property at Sewardstone, where he occupied Fair Mead Lodge. Like his predecessors in the ownership of Sewardstone, he acted as a master-keeper of the adjoining Epping Forest. In London literary society Sotheby soon became a prominent figure. He joined the Dilettante Society in 1792, and was thenceforth one of its leading spirits. In 1794 he was elected fellow both of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. He entertained the best known men of letters of the day, and benevolently interested himself in the struggles of young authors. Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Samuel Rogers, Sir George Beaumont, Mrs. Siddons, Joanna Baillie, Maria Edgworth, Byron, Tom Moore, Southey, and Hallam were among his guests and intimate associates. Scott, who ‘ever retained for him a sincere regard,’ owed to him on his visits to London ‘the personal acquaintance of not a few of their most eminent contemporaries in various departments of literature and art’ (ib. chap. xv.) In 1806 Sotheby took Scott to Hampstead to visit Joanna Baillie, at whose house Rogers recorded a meeting with Sotheby and Mrs. Siddons at dinner a year earlier (Clayden, Rogers, i. 22). Sotheby made in 1800 elaborate manuscript corrections in the proof-sheets of ‘Richard I,’ a tedious poem by his friend Sir James Bland Burges [q. v.] (these sheets are now in the British Museum). In 1809 Sotheby joined another friend, Sir George Beaumont, in encouraging Coleridge to bring out ‘The Friend,’ and in 1812 he, with Beaumont and Sir Thomas Barnard, received subscriptions for Coleridge's ‘Lectures on the Drama’ at Willis's Rooms (Lamb, Letters, ed. Ainger, i. 255; Coleridge, Works, with memoir by J. Dykes Campbell, 1893, p. lxxxv; Knight, Wordsworth, ii. 102).

Meanwhile Sotheby by his skill as a translator secured for himself a wide literary reputation. In 1798, after rapidly acquiring a knowledge of German for the purpose, he published a translation of Wieland's German poem ‘Oberon,’ which had already achieved European popularity. The author, to whom Sotheby sent a copy of his performance with a sonnet, expressed unbounded satisfaction. A second edition, with illustrations by Fuseli, appeared in 1805. In 1802 Sotheby based on it a masque in five acts of blank verse called ‘Oberon, or Huon of Bourdeaux,’ which he dedicated to George Ellis [q. v.] An equally good reception awaited Sotheby's verse translation of Virgil's ‘Georgics,’ which appeared in 1800 (2nd edit. 1815). Jeffrey, in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (July 1804), somewhat oracularly declared it ‘capable of being advanced to the high distinction of being the most perfect translation of a classic poet now extant in our language.’ John Wilson (‘Christopher North’) asserted that it ‘stamped’ Sotheby ‘the best translator in Christendom’ (Noctes Ambros. ed. Mackenzie, iii. 456–7). It was reissued in the sumptuous ‘Georgica Publii Virgilii Maronis Hexaglotta’ (London, 1827, fol.). This finely printed volume was issued at Sotheby's expense, and was presented by him to many of the sovereigns of Europe. He vainly appealed to Scott to review it. Besides Sotheby's English version, it included a Spanish version of the ‘Georgics’ by John de Guzman, a German version by J. H. Voss, an Italian version by Francesco Soave, and a French version by James Delille.

Although Byron described Sotheby in his ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ (1809) as one who wrote poetry with sincerity, small success attended the publication of the original verse, which flowed abundantly from his pen. In 1799 Sotheby issued an ode, ‘The Battle of the Nile’ (1799), and dedicated it to Lord Spencer, first lord of the admiralty. His second son took part in the engagement. There followed ‘A Poetical Epistle to Sir George Beaumont, Bart., on the Encouragement of the British School of Painting’ (1801); an ambitious epic called ‘Saul,’ a blank-verse poem in two parts (1807); ‘Constance de Castille’ (1810), an imitation of Scott's ‘Lady of the Lake;’ and ‘A Song of Triumph on the Peace’ (1814).

Sotheby also made strenuous efforts in tragedy, but developed no genuinely dramatic power. Before 1790 a tragedy by him, ‘Bertram and Matilda,’ was acted privately at Winchester by himself and his friends. Subsequently he published at least six other historical tragedies—all in five acts and in blank verse. The earliest was ‘The Cambrian Hero, or Llewelyn the Great: an Historical Tragedy’ (Egham, no date). There followed in separate volumes ‘The Siege of Cuzco’ (1800); ‘Julian and Agnes, or the Monks of the Great St. Bernard’ (1801), dedicated to the Earl of Hardwicke, and subsequently revised and renamed successively ‘The Confession’ (1814) and ‘Ellen, or the Confession’ (1816); and ‘Orestes,’ dedicated to the Marquis of Abercorn (1802, 4to). ‘The Confession’ and ‘Orestes’ reappeared with three hitherto unpublished tragedies, ‘Ivan,’ ‘The Death of Darnley,’ and ‘Zamorin and Zama,’ under the general title of ‘Five Tragedies,’ in 1814.

Only one of these pieces was accorded a public representation on the stage. ‘Julian and Agnes’ was acted on 25 April 1800 at Drury Lane, with Mrs. Siddons in the part of the heroine, and Kemble, whose rendering was said to be ‘peculiarly fine,’ in that of the hero (Genest, vii. 503–5). At an impressive point in the play Mrs. Siddons by an unhappy accident struck the head of a dummy infant that she was carrying against a door-post, and the audience was unseasonably convulsed with laughter, in which the actress joined. There was no second performance. Although the other pieces were offered to Drury Lane, ‘the barbarous repugnance of the principal actors (according to Byron) prevented the performance’ (Byron, Works, xv. 48). In 1816 Byron good-naturedly induced the management to accept ‘Ivan,’ but after three or four rehearsals it was withdrawn ‘upon some tepidness on the part of Kean or warmth on that of the author’ (ib. iii. 174, 229). Kean declared himself unable to make anything of the title-rôle (Genest, x. 233). Sotheby at once republished the piece. Byron insisted at the time that he was ‘capriciously and evilly entreated’ (Clayden, Rogers, i. 239), but afterwards uncivilly expressed regret at having befriended Sotheby's ‘trash’ (ib. p. 255).

Sotheby, who had been greatly distressed by the death on 1 Aug. 1815 of his eldest son, William, colonel in the guards, now sought distraction from his troubles in a long tour in Italy. He left England in May 1816 with his family and two friends, Professor Elmsley and Dr. Playfair. They returned by way of Germany at the close of the following year. He published his impressions in ‘Farewell to Italy, and occasional Poems’ (1818), most of which he reissued with additions in ‘Poems’ (1825; another edition, 1828). On resuming residence in London, Sotheby mainly devoted himself to a verse translation of Homer. ‘The First Book of the Iliad, a Specimen of a New Version of Homer,’ appeared in 1830, and was well received. The whole of the ‘Iliad’ (in heroics) followed in 1831. Christopher North extolled the rendering in five articles in ‘Blackwood's Magazine.’ The ‘Odyssey’ followed in 1834 with a reissue of the ‘Iliad,’ and seventy-five illustrations engraved by Henry Moses from Flaxman's designs (4 vols.).

Sotheby maintained his many literary friendships till the end. Byron, on some trivial pretence, seems alone of Sotheby's early acquaintances to have renounced friendly relations with him; in 1818 he wrote malevolently of ‘the airs of patronage which Sotheby affects with young writers, and affected both to me and of me for many a good year’ (Clayden, Rogers, i. 255). Sotheby delivered an eloquent speech on 31 March 1822 before the Dilettante Society on the death of his friend Sir Henry Charles Englefield [q. v.], and it was privately printed. On 22 April 1828 Scott was Sotheby's guest at a dinner party at his London house, when ‘that extraordinary man’ Coleridge orated on Homer and other topics (Lockhart). In the summer and autumn of 1829 he made a tour in Scotland, and visited Scott at Abbotsford. In June 1833 he attended the third meeting of the British Association at Cambridge, and penned a poem on the proceedings, which was published posthumously with a memoir and verses written in 1831–2 on Scott's declining health and death.

Sotheby died at his residence in Lower Grosvenor Street on 30 Dec. 1833, and was buried on 6 Jan. 1834 in the family vault in Hackney churchyard, Middlesex. Hallam attended his deathbed. Wordsworth wrote to Rogers of his grief at the death of ‘the veteran Sotheby’ (Clayden, Rogers and his Contemporaries, ii. 87). Sotheby's widow, Mary Isted, who was born on 28 Dec. 1759, died on 14 Oct. 1834.

Sotheby's portrait was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence, and the picture was engraved by F. C. Lewis. An unfinished drawing in crayons, also by Lawrence, was executed in 1814. Both painting and drawing are now at Ecton, the property of Major-general F. E. Sotheby.

Sotheby, wrote Byron, ‘has imitated everybody, and occasionally surpassed his models.’ Although his poems and plays were held in high esteem by his friends, his translations of Virgil and Wieland alone deserve posthumous consideration. They are faithful to their originals and betray much literary taste, if they are not of the stuff of which classics are made. As a translator of Homer, Sotheby, who owed much to Pope, failed to reproduce Homer's directness of style and diction. The translation, although eminently readable, was a work of supererogation (cf. Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer, 1896, pp. 10–11). Sotheby's intimate relations with men of high distinction in literature give his career its chief interest. His literary correspondence is preserved at Ecton.

Of Sotheby's seven children, the eldest, William, died in 1815, a lieutenant-colonel in the foot-guards; George (1787–1817) entered the East India Company's service, and was killed in defending the residency at Nagpoore during the Mahratta war, on 27 Nov. 1817; Hans, also in the East India Company's service, died on 27 April 1827; Frederick (d. 1870) was colonel in the Bengal artillery, and C.B.

Sotheby's grandson, Hans William Sotheby (1827–1874), son of his third son, Hans, was a man of literary taste and knowledge. He was fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, from 1851 to 1864, and contributed to ‘Fraser's Magazine’ (December 1860 and January 1861) an article on ‘Life and Times of Thomas de Quincey,’ and to the ‘Quarterly Review’ (July 1875) a notice of Comparetti's ‘Virgilio nel medio evo’ (Boase, Reg. Exeter College, p. 189; cf. Jeaffreson, Recollections, i. 152, 189).

Charles Sotheby (d. 1854), the second and eldest surviving son, who succeeded to Sewardstone Manor, entered the navy; was present as a midshipman at the battle of the Nile in 1798, took part in the operations in Egypt in 1801, and against the Turks in 1807. He was appointed to the Seringapatam in 1824, and in her was active in suppressing piracy in the Mediterranean. He attained flag-rank on 20 March 1848, and died rear-admiral of the red at his residence in Lowndes Square on 20 Jan. 1854 (Gent. Mag. 1854, i. 191). His eldest son (by his first wife, Jane, daughter of William Hamilton, seventh lord Belhaven), Charles William Hamilton Sotheby (1820–1871), high sheriff of Northamptonshire in 1881, succeeded to the Ecton estates in that year on the death of his cousin, Ambrose Isted, and sold Sewardstone in 1884; his half-brother, Major-general Frederick Edward Sotheby, succeeded to Ecton on his death in 1887.

[Memoir prefixed to Lines suggested by the third meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science … by the late William Sotheby, Esq., F.R.S., London, 1834; Crabb Robinson's Diary; Clayden's S. Rogers and his Contemporaries; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Moore's Memoirs, ed. Lord John Russell; Southey's Correspondence; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. viii. 411; Nichols's Lit. Illustrations, viii. 324–5.]

S. L.