Steevens, George (DNB00)

STEEVENS, GEORGE (1736–1800), commentator on Shakespeare, was born at Poplar on 10 May 1736, and was baptised at Stepney parish church nine days later. He was only child of George Steevens and his wife Mary Perryman. The father, although described as ‘mariner’ in the baptismal register, was a well-to-do captain in the East India Company's fleet, who on retirement from active service occupied a substantial residence at Poplar, was elected a vestryman in 1746, obtained a seat as director of the East India Company, and died in January 1768 (cf. Gent. Mag. 1768, p. 93, where he apparently figures in the obituary as ‘Thomas Stevens, esq., formerly an East India captain’). In early years George attended a school at Kingston-on-Thames, whence he passed to Eton. He was admitted a fellow-commoner of King's College, Cambridge, on 29 March 1753, matriculating on 14 April following. He resided in the college till the summer of 1756. Although he read the classics and English literature assiduously, he left the university without a degree. He showed some interest in his college at later periods, and paid a visit to friends at Cambridge almost every autumn until his death. But his perversity of temper never rendered him a very welcome guest.

Steevens inherited from his father a competence and some real property in the neighbourhood of Poplar. When his student days closed he settled in London, at first apparently in chambers in the Temple. But he soon secured a house (formerly a tavern) at Hampstead, called the Upper Flask, near the summit of the Heath. A cousin, Mrs. Mary Collinson (born Steevens), with her daughters, kept house for him there for the rest of his life. Very methodical in his habits, he walked into London before seven each morning and paid visits to literary friends, bookshops, and publishing offices, returning on foot early in the afternoon. At his Hampstead residence he brought together a valuable library, mainly consisting of Elizabethan literature, and a fine collection of the engravings of Hogarth. ‘Mr. Steevens,’ wrote Malone to Lord Charlemont on 18 June 1781, ‘has gone so far as not only to collect a complete set of the first and best impressions of all his [i.e. Hogarth's] plates, but also the last and worst of the retouched ones, by way of contrast, to show at the same time all the varieties, and to set the value of the former in a more conspicuous light’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. x. 383). In June 1781 he ‘ransacked’ Mrs. Hogarth's house for obsolete and unfinished plates (Walpole, Corresp. viii. 55). In the same year he made contributions to Nichols's ‘Biographical Anecdotes of Mr. Hogarth,’ and his accumulated notes on the subject were incorporated after his death in ‘The Genuine Works of Hogarth’ (1808–17); on the title-page his name figured in conjunction with Nichols's. Steevens was himself a capable draughtsman, and he made many clever sketches of churches or copies of old pictures and engravings. An etching by him of an old woman named Mary Keighley is in the print-room of the British Museum.

But the main business of Steevens's life was the systematic study and annotation of Shakespeare's works. With a view to the formation on sound principles of a correct text, he directed his earliest labours to a careful reprint of twenty of the quarto editions of Shakespeare's plays, many of which he borrowed for the purpose from Garrick's library. Steevens inaccurately claimed that this reprint, which appeared in four octavo volumes in 1766 and included the sonnets, dealt with ‘the whole number’ of Shakespeare's plays ‘printed in quarto in his lifetime.’ Dr. Johnson, whose edition of Shakespeare had appeared a year earlier, was impressed by the intelligence that Steevens's useful venture displayed. The two men met in the Temple, and Johnson readily accepted Steevens's offer to prepare a more fully annotated version of his edition of Shakespeare. Steevens sent to the newspapers a prospectus describing his design, and appealed to the reading public for suggestions. He promised that his publisher (Tonson) should make payment on his behalf to ‘those whose situation in life will not admit of their making presents of their labours,’ and he undertook to treat respectfully the efforts of earlier commentators. But that counsel of perfection he was constitutionally incapable of observing. Johnson's share in the enterprise was confined to advice. On 21 March 1770 he invited his friend Farmer to supplement ‘an account of all the translations that Shakespeare might have seen, by Mr. Steevens, a very ingenious gentleman, lately of King's College.’ The edition appeared, with both Johnson's and Steevens's names on the title-page, in ten volumes in 1773. The younger man brought to his task exceptional diligence, method, and antiquarian knowledge of literature. His illustrative quotations from rare contemporary literature were apter and more abundant than any to be met with elsewhere. But his achievement exhibited ingrained defects of taste and temper. He spoke scornfully of the labours of many predecessors, and especially of those of Edward Capell, one of the most capable. In Capell's defence a clergyman, John Collins (1741–1797) [q. v.], charged Steevens with plagiarism in ‘A Letter … to George Hardinge’ (1777), which Steevens never forgave. Another commentator, Charles Jennens [q. v.], whom Steevens ridiculed with better justification, also retaliated in like fashion. Despite controversy, Steevens's edition was well received, and he ‘revised and augmented’ a reissue in 1778. Next year he prepared for the printer, John Nichols, a useful volume called ‘Six Old Plays on which Shakespeare founded his “Measure for Measure,” “Comedy of Errors,” “Taming the Shrew,” “King John,” “Henry IV,” “Henry V,” and “King Lear.”’ In 1783 Joseph Ritson [q. v.], who proved Steevens's match in the employment of virulent abuse, opened attack on his edition of Shakespeare in a pamphlet of ‘Remarks.’ About the same date a third issue of the Shakespeare was called for, but Steevens declared that he had joined the ranks of ‘dowager-editors’ and committed the task to a friend, Isaac Reed [q. v.] To Reed's revised edition of Baker's ‘Biographia Dramatica’ (1782) Steevens had already made valuable contributions. Reed completed his editorial labours on Steevens's ‘Shakespeare’ in 1785. Two years later Steevens was induced to act as literary adviser in Boydell's scheme of a fully illustrated edition of the plays (Charlemont MSS., Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. x. 383). But he affected to regard his labours in Shakespearean exegesis as at an end.

Steevens obtained admission to much literary society, and was rarely unready to aid others in literary research, although he was more at home in adverse criticism of their work. He sedulously cultivated his intimacy with Dr. Johnson, attending his morning levees and delighting ‘in the roarings of the old lion.’ In 1781 he supplied the doctor with anecdotes and quotations for the ‘Lives of the Poets,’ and bowdlerised for the work Rochester's poems; he contributed to Hawkins's edition of Johnson's ‘Works’ in 1787 a not very trustworthy collection of anecdotes. Johnson was not blind to his congenital faults, but took so charitable a view of them as to nominate him for membership of ‘The Club’ in February 1774, and of the Essex Head Club in 1783. Steevens had already joined both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society in 1767. With a few of the men of letters whose acquaintance he thus had opportunities of making—with John Nichols, Bishop Percy, Dr. Parr, Isaac Reed, Thomas Tyrwhitt, and Dr. Farmer—he lived in amity. On occasion, too, he was amiable to strangers. William Cole, no lenient judge, met him at dinner at Dr. Lort's rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, on 9 Aug. 1780, and found him ‘much of a gentleman, well bred, civil, and obliging’ (Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, ix. 803). When Cole introduced him to Horace Walpole, he made a similar impression (Walpole, viii. 146, 157). He was generous in relief of genuine distress, and joined Johnson and others in making provision for an impoverished relative of Oliver Goldsmith. Johnson left him his watch by will.

But Steevens's irrepressible saturnine humour overshadowed his virtues. In conversation, even with intimates, he recklessly sacrificed truth to cynicism. Dr. Parr, who was well disposed towards him, said he was one of the wisest, most learned, but most spiteful of men (Johnstone, Parr, viii. 128). Johnson, the most indulgent of his friends, admitted that he was mischievous, but argued that he would do no man an essential injury. When Lord Mansfield remarked that one could only believe half of what Steevens said, the doctor sagely retorted that no one could tell which half deserved credence. The main motive of his sarcasms was doubtless, as Johnson suggested, a love of making ‘sport of people by vexing their vanity.’ Broils with literary associates were consequently the chief result of the widening of his social circle. ‘He came to live,’ wrote Dr. Johnson, ‘the life of an outlaw. The warmth of his temper put him at variance with so many of his acquaintance and he wished to avoid them’ (Boswell, ii. 375). The sentiment was doubtless reciprocal.

Throughout the controversy over the authenticity of the poems which Chatterton pretended to have derived from the manuscripts of the supposititious monk Rowley, Steevens's acrid taunts embittered the fray. He gave some assistance to Tyrwhitt in preparing his edition of the so-called Rowley poems in 1777, and had not then detected that they were forgeries; but as soon as he reached that conclusion he directed all his armoury against the champions of Chatterton's honesty. To the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1782, pp. 276, 288) he contributed humorous drawings, with appropriately satirical letterpress, of the supposititious poets, Chedder and Turgot, to whom Chatterton's dupes claimed that the fictitious Rowley stood indebted. Dean Milles and Dr. Robert Glynn (afterwards Clobery), two of the most strenuous advocates of the Rowley myth, were assailed by Steevens with so much rancour that Glynn invited a heated personal altercation with him when they chanced to meet at Cambridge in the autumn of 1785 (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. ix. 282–3).

Some of the uses to which he was charged with putting his satiric talents entitled him to no quarter if the facts alleged against him can be proved. He received much attention from Garrick, who aided him in his Shakespearean researches. Garrick showed his confidence in Steevens in 1776 by adopting his barbarous proposal to play ‘Hamlet’ with ‘all the rubbish of the fifth act omitted.’ Steevens somewhat ironically suggested at the time that the omitted scenes might follow the tragedy in the guise of a farce, to be entitled ‘The Gravediggers, with the pleasant humours of Osric the Danish macaroni’ (Garrick Correspondence, i. 451). A little later, according to Garrick, Steevens slandered him in the press, and, when taxed with the offence, denied it on his word of honour, but afterwards bragged that ‘it was fun to vex Garrick.’ Garrick declined further intercourse with him, and denounced him to common acquaintances as ‘a pest to society’ (ib. ii. 361). Johnson's friend Topham Beauclerk, whose hospitality Steevens often enjoyed, similarly represented to Johnson that Steevens deserved ‘to be kicked’ for attacking in the newspapers ‘those with whom he lives on the best terms.’ Another of Johnson's friends, Sir John Hawkins—of whose ‘History of Music’ he always spoke with bitter scorn—thoroughly mistrusted him (Boswell, iv. 406). One of the Chatterton advocates, Jacob Bryant [q. v.], sent to Horace Walpole some ironical verses in the same sense in 1789:

His slaver so subtle no med'cine allays,
It kills by kind paragraphs, poisons with praise.
Thy ‘Chronicle,’ James, but too truly can tell
How the malice of man can fetch poison from Hell

(Nichols, Lit. Anecdotes, viii. 532, 540).

The proofs that Steevens was guilty of publishing anonymous libels on his boon companions are happily incomplete. In the case of Garrick some allowance must be made for the vanity which detects slander in all criticism that is not unmitigated eulogy. He contributed an appreciative notice of Garrick to Baker's ‘Biographia Dramatica,’ and the charge made against him by Garrick's biographer, Tom Davies, that he unfairly denounced Garrick's avarice after his death, is untrue; the offender was George Ashby (1724–1808) [q. v.] (Nichols, Anecdotes, vi. 633). Seward declared that the offensive paragraphs about literary persons that appeared from time to time in the ‘St. James's Chronicle,’ and were assigned to Steevens, were by an insignificant journalist, Alexander Bicknell [q. v.]

The suspicion had a prima facie justification in the fact that Steevens at one time owned a share in the ‘St. James's Chronicle,’ and was an occasional contributor to it, as well as to other journals (the ‘Critical Review,’ the ‘Morning Post,’ and the ‘General Evening Post’). But many of his contributions have been identified, and, although biting enough, do not transgress the bounds of social decency. His journalistic achievements mainly consisted of epigrams and parodies suggested by contemporary literary crazes, or of burlesque accounts of alleged antiquarian discoveries. The former were often smart and pointed. The latter, conceived in a spirit of mere mischief, caused inevitable irritation. His skits included ‘The Frantic Lover’ (reprinted from Dodsley's ‘Annual Register’ in Almon's New Foundling Hospital for Wit, 1771, iv. 89); ‘A Song in the Character of a Stationer’ (in the St. James's Chronicle, 11 Jan. 1774); ‘The Insensible Lover’ (ib.); a satiric account of the installation of John Rivington as master of the Stationers' Company (ib. 8 July 1775; Nichols, Illustrations, vi. 433–4); ‘Elinor Rummin,’ an epigram on the ‘grangerising’ craze, suggested by the excitement among collectors caused by the discovery of an illustrated copy of the so-named poem by Skelton in Lincoln Cathedral Library (Nichols, Anecdotes, ii. 660); and laughably stinging verses on the birthday odes of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye [q. v.] ‘Reasons why it is probable ‘that the coffin [usually alleged to] contain the body of Milton’ should really contain that of Mrs. Smith (St. James's Chronicle, 7 Sept. 1790; reprinted in European Magazine, September 1790, p. 206) was a skit on a dry antiquarian pamphlet on the subject of Milton's burial by Philip Le Neve [q. v.] Steevens's pretended description of the upas tree of Java in the ‘London Magazine,’ on the authority of a fictitious Dutch traveller, was conceived in a like vein.

Less can be urged in defence of other journalistic diversions. He contributed to the ‘Theatrical Review’ (1763, i. 61–6) a forged letter purporting to be a description by George Peele of a meeting at the Globe with Shakespeare and others. This was unsuspectingly transferred to Berkenhout's ‘Biographia Literaria,’ and has led later investigators into needless perplexity (cf. Lee's Shakespeare and the Modern Stage, 188–197). A practical joke of a more laboured kind, which does Steevens even less credit, was devised to play off a trivial score against Richard Gough, director of the Society of Antiquaries, who declined Steevens's proposal to make over four rare plates by Hogarth in exchange for books. Steevens, in 1789, having procured a block of marble, and having engraved upon it by means of aquafortis some Anglo-Saxon letters, placed it in the window of a shop in Southwark, and caused it to be represented to the Society of Antiquaries that it had been dug up in Kennington Lane, and was the tombstone of Hardecanute. Jacob Schnebbelie [q. v.] produced in good faith a drawing, which was engraved by Basire and published in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1790, i. 217). Samuel Pegge, falling into the trap, read a paper on the inscription before the Society of Antiquaries on 10 Dec. 1789; but the deception was discovered before the disquisition was printed in the ‘Archæologia.’ An acrimonious correspondence between Steevens and those he hoped to dupe followed in the daily and monthly journals (Gent. Mag. 1790, i. 217, 290–92; General Evening Post, 25 Oct. 1790; Nichols, Lit. Illustrations, v. 430–32). Steevens finally committed the stone to the custody of Sir Joseph Banks, and it was regularly exhibited at his assemblies in Soho Square.

The resumption of his Shakespearean work diverted him from such mischievous sport. It was a needless dispute which he forced on a rival editor, Edmund Malone [q. v.], that led him to resume his editorial functions. Malone had contributed to Reed's edition of 1785 a few notes in which he differed from Steevens. Steevens demanded that Malone should transfer these notes without alteration to the edition of Shakespeare on which Malone was engaged between 1783 and 1790. Malone declined, and when his edition appeared in 1790 Steevens concentrated his energies on an effort to displace it. A new edition was set on foot. Reed aided with suggestions, and Steevens walked daily, late at night or in the early morning, from Hampstead to Reed's rooms in Staple Inn to correct the sheets. Reed was usually in bed. The edition was published in 1793 in fifteen volumes, and is the definitive contribution to Shakespearean exegesis that Steevens published in his lifetime. There were some twenty-five large-paper copies. ‘Pericles’ was added, at Farmer's suggestion, to the Shakespearean canon, but the sonnets and poems were excluded, for Steevens asserted that ‘the strongest act of parliament that could be framed would fail to compel readers into their service’ (p. vii). The illustrative notes were throughout replete in recondite learning, but the text was often recklessly altered in order to convict the cautious Malone of ineptitude. Malone was not the only personal foe on whom Steevens avenged himself. With a malignity that was not without humour he supplied many obscene notes to coarse expressions in the text, and he pretended that he owed his indecencies to one or other of two highly respectable clergymen, Richard Amner [q. v.] and John Collins (1741–1797) [q. v.], whose surnames were in each instance appended. He had known and quarrelled with both. Such proofs of his confirmed perversity justified the title which Gifford applied to him of ‘the Puck of Commentators.’

Steevens's fantastic acrimony provoked much retaliation. Tom Davies and Arthur Murphy both published repulsive sketches of him. But the denunciation that he felt most acutely was that in Mathias's ‘Pursuits of Literature,’ which appeared anonymously in 1794. When Steevens met Mathias, who was reported to deny the authorship of the ‘Pursuits,’ he remarked that the work could only be from the pen of ‘a liar and a blackguard’ (Clayden, Samuel Rogers, p. 384). Steevens further retorted in a coarse poem in the ‘St. James's Chronicle’ (1–3 May 1798) (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. i. 212). In the controversy respecting the authenticity of the Shakespearean manuscripts forged by young William Henry Ireland [q. v.] he intervened with characteristic asperity. He had previously distrusted the elder Ireland as a rival collector of Hogarth's prints. From 1795 to 1797 he assailed him and his friends with unrelaxing fury (cf. Gent. Mag. 1797, ii. 931); and when Gillray published a caricature of Ireland, Steevens prepared the inscription, parodying Dryden's verses on Milton, and crediting Ireland with the combined impudence of Lauder, Macpherson, and Chatterton.

In his last years Steevens was a frequent visitor at the house in Soho Square of Sir Joseph Banks, one of the few acquaintances familiarity with whom did not breed contempt. It is said that he used to present Banks daily with a nosegay which he carried with him from Hampstead, attached to his cane. In 1795 he joined with Bishop Percy in editing Surrey's poems, and those of other earlier practisers of blank verse; a first volume was printed, and Percy sent a second volume to press in 1807, but the whole impression excepting four copies, one of which is in the British Museum, was destroyed in the fire at Nichols's printing office in 1808. The work was not reprinted. In 1796 Steevens subscribed 1,000l. to Pitt's loyalty loan, and he held a commission in the Essex militia. Steevens died unmarried at his house at Hampstead on 22 Jan. 1800. ‘The outlaw is at last dead in his den,’ wrote Samuel Rogers four days later (Clayden, Early Life of Rogers, p. 393). He was buried in the chapel at Poplar, beside other members of his family. A fine monument by Flaxman, with full-length portrait in bas-relief, still stands in the north aisle. The inscription describes Steevens as having cheerfully employed a considerable portion of his life and fortune in the illustration of Shakespeare. There follow some eulogistic verses by William Hayley (cf. engraving in Nichol's Illustrations, v. 427; Lysons, Environs, Suppl.). Steevens bequeathed Zoffany's portrait-group of Garrick and Mrs. Cibber to George Keate; his fine collection of Hogarth's prints to the statesman, William Windham; his edition of Shakespeare, illustrated with fifteen hundred drawings or engravings of persons and places mentioned in the text, to Earl Spencer (it is now in the John Rylands Library at Manchester); and a corrected copy of his edition of Shakespeare, with many unprinted notes in manuscript, to his friend Isaac Reed, with two hundred guineas.

Apart from bequests of 500l. to Charlotte Collins of Graffham, Midhurst, and of 300l. ‘for a ring’ to his cousin and housekeeper, Mrs. Mary Collinson, all the rest of his property, including his library, passed to Mrs. Collinson's sister, his ‘dearest cousin,’ Elizabeth Steevens of Poplar (Monthly Mirror, 1800; cf. Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 20082, f. 126); she died at his house at Hampstead in March 1801, aged ‘about 52’ (Nichols, Illustrations, vii. 53). Steevens's books were sold by the auctioneer King some months before, in May 1800. The 1943 lots brought 2,740l. 15s. A copy of the second folio of Shakespeare, which had belonged to Charles I, was purchased for 18l. on behalf of George III, and it is now in the king's library at the British Museum. Two copies of Langbaine's ‘Dramatick Poets,’ into which he had transcribed Oldys's and others' notes, are also in the British Museum (cf. Addit. MSS. 22592–5 and c. 45 d. 14–15). A copy of Fuller's ‘Worthies,’ with his manuscript additions, formed lot 1799 (cf. Bibliotheca Steevensiana: a Catalogue of the curious and valuable Library of George Steevens, esq., 1800, with names of purchasers and prices in manuscript in British Museum; Clarke, Repertorium Bibliographicum, p. 543). Some of Steevens's letters to Thomas Hill, William Cole, and others are among the additional manuscripts at the British Museum. His handwriting was small, neat, and clear.

Isaac Reed [q. v.] brought out in 1803 a new issue of Steevens's edition of Shakespeare in twenty-one volumes, in which he embodied Steevens's unpublished notes. This is usually quoted as ‘the first variorum.’ The ‘second variorum.’ of 1813 was mainly a reprint. The third and best ‘variorum,’ which was begun by Malone, was completed by James Boswell the younger in 1821. It was the last edition in which Steevens's valuable and suggestive notes were reproduced in their entirety, but every recent edition of Shakespeare draws from them the aptest of their illustrative extracts from contemporary literature.

According to Cole's account of Steevens in 1780, he was ‘well made, black, and tall.’ A portrait by Zoffany was engraved at the expense of Sylvester Harding. Another portrait by George Dance, R.A., was engraved by W. Daniell. A reduced copy forms the frontispiece of Nichols's ‘Illustrations,’ vol. vii. A miniature belongs to Mrs. Inglis of Cheltenham, a great-granddaughter of Mrs. Collinson. Steevens perversely destroyed two portraits of himself—a miniature by Meyer, and a painting of him in the character of Barbarossa, a character he assumed in private theatricals.

[Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 650–63, and Illustrations, v. 440 seq. (Correspondence with Nichols and Gough), vii. 1–3 (Correspondence with Percy); Gent. Mag. 1800, i. 178; Thespian Dict. 1805; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Lysons's Environs, Suppl. 1811, pp. 293–5; Park's Hampstead; D'Israeli's Curiosities of Lit.; Walpole's Letters, ed. Cunningham; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill.]

S. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.258
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
144 i 5 Steevens, George: for son read child
6 after Mary insert (Perryman)
145 ii 13 after Oliver Goldsmith, insert Johnson left him his watch by will.
146 i 26-27 for Beauclerk Topham read Topham Beauclerk
ii 11f.e. for Mirror’ read Review’ (1763, i. 61-6)
7f.e. for Birkenhout's read Berkenhout's
148 i 30 for housekeeper read cousin and housekeeper
32 for his sister read his ‘dearest cousin,’ Mrs. Collinson's sister
38 for Her brother's books read Steevens's books
ii 22 after vol. vii. insert A miniature belongs to Mrs. Inglis, Mrs. Collinson's great-granddaughter.