Dillon, John Talbot (DNB00)

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DILLON, Sir JOHN TALBOT (1740?–1805), of Lismullen, co. Meath, Ireland, traveller and historical writer, was son of Arthur Dillon, and grandson of Sir John Dillon of Lismullen, knight, M.P. for co. Meath. He was returned in 1771 for Wicklow, and in 1776 for Blessington to the Irish parliament, and held the latter seat until 1783. For a great part of this period, however, he was abroad, travelling in Italy and Spain, or residing in Vienna, where he enjoyed the favour of the emperor Joseph II, from whom he received the dignity of free baron of the Holy Roman Empire. In a short obituary notice in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for September 1805 it is said that this honour, which was accompanied by a very flattering letter from the emperor, was conferred upon him in recognition of his services in parliament on behalf of his Roman catholic fellow-subjects; and the date is given as 1782, which is repeated in the ‘Baronetages’ of Betham and Foster. He is, however, described as ‘baron of the Sacred Roman Empire’ on the title-page of his ‘Travels in Spain,’ printed in 1780, as well as in the notes to the Rev. John Bowle's edition of ‘Don Quixote,’ which came out early in the next year; and possibly the mistake may have arisen from the adoption of the date of the royal license authorising him to bear the title in this country. On his return from the continent he published his ‘Travels in Spain,’ in which he incorporated with his own the observations of the eminent Spanish naturalist, William Bowles [q. v.], whose ‘Introduction to the Natural History and Physical Geography of Spain’ had appeared in 1775, and to these he says himself the book is largely indebted for any value and interest it possesses. It passed through four or five editions, was translated into German in 1782, and to a certain extent is still an authority on the condition of Spain in the reign of Charles III. It was followed the next year by his ‘Letters from an English Traveller in Spain in 1778, on the Origin and Progress of Poetry in that Kingdom,’ a book to which Ticknor has done some injustice in a note printed in the catalogue of his library (Boston, 1879), in which he says ‘large masses of it are pilfered from Velazquez's “Origenes de la Poesía Castellana,” and I doubt not much of the rest from Sarmiento's and Sedano's prefaces.’ He must have overlooked Dillon's preface, where his ‘particular obligations’ to these very three writers are expressly and fully acknowledged. It does not profess to be anything more than a mere outline sketch of the literary history of Spain, but, though not of unimpeachable accuracy any more than the authorities on which it relies, it is in the main correct, and is, moreover, written in a pleasant, lively style. It was translated, with additions, into French in 1810, under the title ‘Essai sur la Littérature Espagnole.’ During the next few years Dillon produced several works: ‘A Political Survey of the Sacred Roman Empire,’ dealing with the constitution and structure of the empire rather than with its history; ‘Sketches on the Art of Painting,’ a translation from the Spanish of Mengs's letter to Antonio Ponz; a ‘History of the Reign of Pedro the Cruel,’ which was translated into French in 1790; ‘Historical and Critical Memoirs of the General Revolution in France in the year 1789;’ a treatise on ‘Foreign Agriculture,’ translated from the French of the Chevalier de Monroy; ‘Alphonso and Eleonora, or the Triumphs of Valour and Virtue,’ which last is a history of Alfonso VIII (or, as he, for some reason of his own, reckons him, IX) of Castile, in which, among other things, he endeavours to exonerate his hero from the charge generally brought against him of having risked the disastrous battle of Alarcos single-handed, out of jealousy of his allies, the kings of Leon and Navarre. Of these the most interesting now is the ‘Memoirs of the French Revolution,’ not only as a collection of original documents, but as giving the views of a contemporary while the revolution was yet in its first stage. Dillon was an ardent advocate of religious liberty, and an uncompromising enemy of intolerance in every shape. His admiration of the Germanic empire was mainly due to the spirit of toleration that pervaded it. He was a firm believer in the moderation of the revolution. With all his enthusiasm for liberty, however, he was not disposed to extend it to the negroes in the West Indies. ‘God forbid,’ he says, ‘I should be an advocate for slavery as a system;’ but in their particular case he regarded it as a necessary evil, and believed that upon the whole they were far better off as slaves than they would be if set free. His contributions to literature were not very important, or marked by much originality, but they are evidence of a cultivated taste and an acute and active mind. Bowle, in the preface and notes to his elaborate edition of ‘Don Quixote,’ repeatedly acknowledges his obligations to Baron Dillon for sound critical suggestions received during the progress of his work, and Baretti speaks of him with respect in his ferocious attack upon Bowle, printed in 1786, under the title of ‘Tolondron.’ He was created a baronet of the United Kingdom in 1801, and died in Dublin in August 1805.

Dillon's published works were: 1. ‘Travels through Spain … in a series of Letters, including the most interesting subjects contained in the Memoirs of Don G. Bowles and other Spanish writers,’ London, 1780, 4to. 2. ‘Letters from an English Traveller in Spain in 1778 … with illustrations of the romance of Don Quixote,’ London, 1781, 8vo. 3. ‘A Political Survey of the Sacred Roman Empire, &c.,’ London, 1782, 8vo. 4. ‘Sketches on the Art of Painting, translated from the Spanish by J. T. Dillon,’ London, 1782, 12mo. 5. ‘History of the Reign of Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile and Leon,’ London, 1788, 2 vols. 8vo. 6. ‘Historical and Critical Memoirs of the General Revolution in France in the year 1789 … produced from authentic papers communicated by M. Hugon de Bassville,’ London, 1790, 4to. 7. ‘Foreign Agriculture, being the result of practical husbandry, by the Chevalier de Monroy; selected from communications in the French language, with additional notes by J. T. Dillon,’ London, 1796, 8vo. 8. ‘Alphonso and Eleonora, or the triumphs of Valour and Virtue,’ London, 1800, 2 vols. 12mo.

[Gent. Mag. for September 1805; Betham's and Foster's Baronetages; Nichols's Illustr. of Lit. Hist. vol. viii.]

J. O.