Britton, John (1771-1857) (DNB00)

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BRITTON, JOHN (1771–1857), antiquary, topographer, and miscellaneous writer, was born on 7 July 1771 at Kington St. Michael, near Chippenham, Wiltshire, where his father was a small farmer, maltster, baker, and village shopkeeper. After a desultory education, in the course of which he acquired a love of reading, he went at sixteen to London, where he was apprenticed by an uncle to a tavern-keeper on Clerkenwell Green. Here he bottled wines in a cellar, snatching an occasional hour for the perusal of a few books. Here, too, he made the acquaintance of Edward William Brayley [q. v.], who joined him in writing and issuing a popular ballad. He was next employed as a cellarman at the London Tavern, and in Smithfield, and as a clerk in an attorney's office. Amid these employments, and the compilation of street songbooks, he was led by the success of Sheridan's 'Pizarro' to produce in 1799 his first book, 'The Adventures of Pizarro, preceded by a sketch of the voyage and discoveries of Columbus and Pizarro, with biographical sketches of Sheridan and Kotzebue.' The publisher of a dramatic miscellany to which he contributed had long before received subscriptions for a topographical work, 'The Beauties of Wiltshire.' He asked Britton to undertake its preparation, and, with the promise of Brayley's assistance, Britton consented. Two volumes appeared in 1801, and were successful. The third and concluding volume, to which Britton prefixed an interesting autobiographical preface, did not appear until 1825. Meanwhile, a publishing firm which had shared in the production of the 'Beauties of Wiltshire' engaged Britton and Brayley to co-operate in a larger enterprise, the first instalment of which appeared also in 1801 with the title 'The Beauties of England and Wales, or original delineations, topographical, historical, and descriptive, of each county. By Edward Brayley and John Britton.' The names of the two 'editors,' as they at first styled themselves, alternately took precedence of each other on the title-pages up to the seventh volume, after which each was assigned to its respective author. In the earlier volumes the letterpress seems to have been mainly Brayley's, while the general editing, including the direction of artists and engravers, was Britton's. With the completion of the first five volumes in 1803-4, subscribers were informed that the 'authors' had travelled over an extent of 3,500 miles to inspect the localities described. There had been scarcely any work of the kind so comprehensive in its plan since the appearance of the 'Magna Britannia' (1720-31). Vol. vii., containing Lancashire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire, was wholly Britton's composition, but difficulties with the proprietors suspended his editorship. Subsequently he contributed Norfolk and Northamptonshire to vol. xi. (1810), and Wiltshire to vol. xv. (1814). Britton estimated the sum expended on the work during his connection with it as joint-editor at 50,000l. Partly while he was occupied with it he contributed to Rees's 'Cyclopædia' the articles on British topography. That on Avebury he afterwards expanded for the 'Penny Cyclopædia,' for which he wrote the account of Stonehenge. He also contributed the articles on British topography and antiquities to Arthur Aikin's 'Annual Review.'

The proprietors of the 'Beauties' wished to restrict the illustrations of antiquities. Britton therefore produced separately the 'Architectural Antiquities of Great Britain represented and illustrated in a series of views, elevations, plans, sections, and details of various ancient English edifices, with historical and descriptive accounts of each,' 4 vols. 1805-14, and to these was added in 1818-26 a supplementary volume—the best of the series—'Chronological History and Graphic Illustrations of Christian Architecture in England, embracing a critical enquiry into the rise, progress, and perfection of this species of architecture.' The letterpress was meagre, but the artistic excellence of the illustrations procured success for what Southey (Quarterly Review for September 1826) pronounced to be the 'most beautiful work of the kind that had ever till then appeared.' Eight thousand pounds was expended on the work, in which Britton held a third share. His next important undertaking was the 'Cathedral Antiquities of England, or an historical, architectural, and graphic illustration of the English Cathedral Churches,' 14 vols. 1814-35. The title of the first volume is 'The History and Antiquities of the Cathedral Church of Salisbury, illustrated by a series of engravings of views, elevations, and plans of that edifice; also etchings of the ancient monuments and sculpture, including Biographical Anecdotes of the Bishops and of other eminent persons connected with the Church.' No complete publication of the kind had appeared since Browne Willis's 'Survey of the Cathedrals' in 1742, and more than 20,000l. was expended on the production of Britton's work. But, in spite of its excellence, it was so little a financial success, that its publication had to be cut short, leaving untouched the cathedrals of Carlisle, Chester, Chichester, Durham, Ely, Lincoln, and Rochester. At the end of vol. iv., while thanking the public for its purchase of 800 copies, Britton complains with natural warmth of the scant encouragement or information received from cathedral authorities. To No. 53 (August 1835) he prefixed a sketch of the history of the work, with a continuation to that date of his literary autobiography since 1825, the period which it had reached in vol. iii. of the 'Beauties of Wiltshire.' During the progress of the work he produced, with the cooperation of Pugin, the 'Specimens of Gothic Architecture' (1823-5), and the 'Architectural Antiquities of Norway ' (1825). In 1825-8 appeared his 'Public Buildings of London,' engraved and described, and in 1832-8 his useful 'Dictionary of the Architecture and Archaeology of the Middle Ages.' He co-operated with Brayley in the production of the valuable 'History and Description of the Ancient Palace and Houses of Parliament at Westminster' (1834-6), and contributed the letterpress to the 'Architectural Description of Windsor' (1842).

On 7 July 1845 Britton was entertained at dinner at Richmond by a number of admirers. After the formation of a Britton Club in the December of the same year, a sum of nearly 1,000l. was raised by a subscription, Britton having previously intimated his intention to devote any money so raised to the publication of an autobiography. He accepted an annual pension on the civil list procured for him by Mr. Disraeli when chancellor of the exchequer. In 1850 appeared 'The Autobiography of John Britton. In three parts.' Part i. scarcely brought down his autobiography further than 1825, but it was written very much more fully than the previous fragments. Part ii. (and last) is a 'descriptive account' of his literary productions of every kind, drawn up by Mr. T. E. Jones, who had for fifteen years been his amanuensis and secretary. Britton died in London on 1 Jan. 1857. "There is a succinct but adequate account of Britton's services to archaeological art in Mr. Digby Wyatt's obituary 'notice' of him read before the Royal Institute of British Architects on 12 Jan. 1857, and published in the volume of its 'Papers' for 1856-7.

Britton was for many years an active member of the Royal Literary Fund, and his protests against the provisions of the Copyright Acts compelling the transmission of eleven copies of every work, however costly, published in the United Kingdom to certain public and other libraries, contributed to the reduction of that number to six. He was instrumental in founding the Wiltshire Topographical Society. Having corresponded on the subject in 1831 with the first Lord Lansdowne, he proposed in 1837 the formation of a society to be called 'The Guardian of National Antiquities,' and in 1840 he published a 'Letter to Joseph Hume on the subject of making some government provision for preserving the ancient monuments of Great Britain.' Britton himself successfully promoted the reparation of Waltham Cross and of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon.

Several of Britton's minor publications not previously noticed deserve mention. In 1816 he issued an engraved view of Shakespeare's bust in the church of Stratford with 'Remarks,' in which he disputed the genuineness of the accepted portraits, and contended for the superior value of the bust as a likeness. His 'Remarks on the Life and Writings of Shakespeare' in the Whittingham edition of 1814 were expanded in successive editions, with a useful list appended of essays and dissertations on Shakespeare's dramatic writings. Britton's 'Memoir of Aubrey,' 1845 (for the Wiltshire Topographical Society), is one of the best biographies of the Wiltshire antiquary that have appeared, and contains interesting extracts from Aubrey's unpublished correspondence. For the same society Britton edited all that is valuable in Aubrey's (until then unpublished) 'Natural History of Wiltshire,' 1843. In 1830 he published an annotated edition of Anstey's 'New Bath Guide,' and in 1848 'The Authorship of the Letters of Junius elucidated, including a biographical memoir of Colonel Barré,' to whom he attributed them (see Quarterly Review for December 1851). Besides being one of the most continuously productive writers and editors of his time, Britton for many years performed the duties of surveyor and clerk to a local board of commissioners.

[Britton's writings, especially his Autobiography; Gent. Mag. February 1857; Builder, 10 Jan. 1857; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

F. E.