Ritson, Joseph (DNB00)

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RITSON, JOSEPH (1752–1803), antiquary, born on 2 Oct. 1752 at Stockton-on-Tees, claimed descent from a family that had ‘held land and ranked among the most respectable yeomanry at Hackthorpe and Great Strickland in Westmoreland for four generations.’ From an uncle he inherited a little property at Strickland, but his father, Joseph Ritson (d. 1778), was in very humble circumstances. According to information supplied to Bishop Percy, he was a menial servant at one time in the employ of a Stockton tobacconist and afterwards of a merchant named Robinson. His mother's maiden name was Jane Gibson (d. 1780). Of eight children, Joseph and four daughters alone survived infancy. One of his sisters, Anne, married Robert Frank of Stockton, and was mother of Joseph Frank, whom the antiquary brought up and made his heir. Ritson, who was ‘an apt scholar,’ was educated at Stockton by the Rev. John Thompson, and at an early age was articled to a solicitor of the town named Raisbeck. He was subsequently transferred to the office of Ralph Bindley, a conveyancer. His leisure he devoted to literature, and in 1772 he contributed to the ‘Newcastle Miscellany’ verses addressed with some freedom to the ladies of Stockton. In the same year a perusal of Mandeville's ‘Fable of the Bees’ impelled him to forswear all animal food, and to subsist solely on milk and vegetables. To this depressing diet he adhered, in the face of much ridicule, until death, and it was doubtless in part responsible for the moroseness of temper which characterised his later years. At Stockton he formed, however, some warm friendships with men of literary or artistic tastes, who included Shield, the musical composer, and the writers Thomas Holcroft, John Cunningham, and Joseph Reed. He also came to know George Allan [q. v.] of Darlington and Robert Surtees [q. v.], who encouraged his antiquarian proclivities. In 1773 he made an archæological tour in Scotland, and acquired an antipathy to Scotsmen. During the same period he journeyed on foot to London with ‘a couple of shirts in his pocket.’

In 1775 he settled in London as managing clerk to Messrs. Masterman & Lloyd, conveyancers, of Gray's Inn. In 1780 he began business as a conveyancer on his own account, and took first-floor chambers in Gray's Inn, which he occupied for the rest of his days. In May 1784 he was appointed high bailiff of the liberty of the Savoy, and he received a patent of the post for life in 1786. He was much interested in the history of the office, and printed in 1789 ‘Digest of the Proceedings of the Court Leet of the Manor and Liberty of the Savoy from 1682.’ At Easter 1784 he had entered himself as a student of Gray's Inn, and he was called to the bar five years later. He paid frequent visits to Stockton, and maintained an affectionate correspondence with his family and friends there. In July 1785 he took his nephew Joseph Frank to live with him with a view to educating him for his own profession, and, probably for his benefit, published ‘The Spartan Manual or Tablet of Morality’ (1785), a collection of unexceptionable moral precepts. In 1791 he proved his devotion to his profession by publishing two valuable tracts on ‘the Office of Constable’ (2nd edit. 1815) and ‘the Jurisdiction of the Court Leet’ (2nd edit. 1809; 3rd edit. 1816).

Meanwhile Ritson zealously studied English literature and history, and especially ballad poetry. He was a regular reader at the British Museum. In October 1779 he paid a first visit to the Bodleian Library, and in July 1782 he spent some weeks at Cambridge, where he made Dr. Farmer's acquaintance. His studious habits confirmed his wayward and eccentric temper, and his passion for minute accuracy often degenerated into pedantry. He soon adopted an original and erratic mode of spelling, in which it is difficult to detect any scientific system (cf. Letters, i. 203–5). It was apparently intended to rest on a phonetic basis, but is chiefly characterised by a duplication of the letter ‘e’ at the close of words, as in ‘ageës,’ ‘romanceës,’ ‘writeërs.’ Pall Mall became ‘Pel Mel,’ Mr. ‘mister,’ and capital ‘I's’ were disallowed. In 1778 Ritson avowed himself a confirmed Jacobite, and privately printed as a broadside elaborate tables showing the descent of the crown of England in the Stuart line. In 1780 he is said to have edited a second edition of the scurrilous ‘Odes of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams.’ In 1781 he issued at Newcastle ‘The Stockton Jubilee, or Shakespeare in all his Glory,’ an unwarrantable satire on the chief inhabitants of his native town. In 1782 he entered on more serious work, and published ‘Observations on the three first volumes of the “History of English Poetry,”’ in the form of an anonymous ‘familiar letter to the author,’ Thomas Warton. Although he convicted Warton of many errors, especially in his interpretation of early English, his disregard of the decencies of literary controversy roused a storm of resentment (cf. Brydges, Restituta, iv. 137). A controversy followed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine;’ in this he took part, but showed no sign of repentance. When Warton's death was announced in 1790, he expressed, however, some remorse for his lack of ‘reverence’ (Letters, i. 169). With similar virulence he assailed in 1783 Johnson's and Steevens's edition of Shakespeare of 1778 in ‘Remarks Critical and Illustrative on the Text of the last Edition of Shakespeare.’ Ritson displayed a thorough knowledge of his theme, but his corrections were made with offensive assurance and were often of trifling value (cf. St. James's Chronicle, 1783). He seems to have once met Dr. Johnson, whom, as an editor, he now accused of ‘pride of place.’ To give more convincing proof of Steevens's shortcomings, he projected an edition of Shakespeare on his own account, but he printed only two sheets of the ‘Comedy of Errors’ in 1787, and thenceforth contented himself with extensively annotating Johnson's and Steevens's edition for his private satisfaction. But he characteristically pursued with adverse criticism all Steevens's editorial successors. Isaac Reed [q. v.] in his edition of Shakespeare of 1785 treated him, he complained, with marked disrespect (Letters, i. 105–8); and when the ‘Critical Review’ commended Reed's work, he scornfully attacked it in ‘The Quip Modest’ (1788). He extended an equally captious reception to Malone's edition of 1790, in a tract entitled ‘Cursory Criticisms’ ‘addressed to the monthly and critical reviewers’ in 1792. Malone replied in a letter to Dr. Farmer. In 1795 Ritson summarily detected the plot of Samuel Ireland [q. v.] to foist on the public forged manuscripts which, it was alleged, were by Shakespeare.

In a somewhat less acrid vein he prepared a long series of anthologies of popular poetry, a field of literature on which he won his least disputable triumphs. Of local verse he was one of the earliest collectors. His ‘Gammer Gurton's Garland, or the Nursery Parnassus,’ an anthology of nursery rhymes, was issued at Stockton in 1783; his ‘Bishopric Garland, or Durham Minstrel,’ at the same place in 1784; his ‘Yorkshire Garland’ at York in 1788; ‘The North Country Chorister’ at Durham in 1792; ‘The Northumbrian Garland, or Newcastle Nightingale,’ at Newcastle in 1793. The last four tracts were in 1810 reissued in one volume, by R. Triphook, as ‘Northern Garlands.’ In none of these is any of Ritson's characteristic bitterness discernible. His larger designs in the same field were not equally void of offence. His ‘Select Collection of English Songs’ appeared in three volumes in 1783. There were a few vignettes by Stothard, and the third volume supplied music to the songs. A second edition, revised by Thomas Park, appeared in 1813. The preface on the origin and progress of national song, which was creditable to Ritson's erudition, was disfigured by an attack on Bishop Percy. While allowing the bishop's ‘Reliques’ many merits, he charged Percy with having introduced forged or garbled versions of many ballads. He issued anonymously in 1791 ‘Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry from Authentic Manuscripts and old printed Copies adorned with [fifteen] Cuts’ by Thomas and John Bewick. In 1792 he published another work of value on a like topic, ‘Ancient Songs from the time of King Henry the Third to the Revolution’ (2 vols.; new edits. 1829 and 1877). This had been at press since 1787; it contained vignettes by Stothard. In the prefatory essays on ‘The Ancient English Minstrels’ and on ‘The Songs, Musick, and Instrumental Performances of the Ancient English,’ Ritson pursued the war with Percy by throwing unjustifiable doubt on the existence of the manuscript whence Percy claimed to have derived his ballads. Ritson's ‘English Anthology’ of modern poetry from Surrey onwards (1793–1794, 3 vols.), which Stothard again illustrated, met with little attention, but Ritson sustained his reputation by his edition of ‘Poems … by Laurence Minot’ (1795) and by his exhaustive work on ‘Robin Hood, a Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads now extant relating to that celebrated English Outlaw’ (1795, 2 vols.). The last volume, wrote Sir Walter Scott, is a notable illustration of the excellences and defects of Ritson's system. Every extant allusion to Robin Hood is printed and explained, but Ritson's ‘superstitious scrupulosity’ led him to publish many valueless versions of the same ballad, and to print indiscriminately all ‘the spurious trash’ that had accumulated about his hero's name. The work was embellished by Bewick's woodcuts (later editions are dated 1832, with ‘The Tale of Robin Hood and the Monk,’ and 1885, with additional illustrations by modern artists).

Meanwhile Ritson had engaged in a new controversy. In 1784 he demonstrated in a letter signed ‘Anti-Scot,’ in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ that John Pinkerton's ‘Select Scotish Ballads’ (1783) was largely composed of modern forgeries by the alleged collector (cf. Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xi. 256). Although Pinkerton frankly admitted the deceit, Ritson's wrath did not abate, and he resolved to teach Pinkerton how his work ought to be done. In 1785 he printed ‘The Caledonian Muse: a Chronological Selection of Scottish Poetry from the earliest times,’ but a fire in the printing office destroyed the whole impression and the manuscript of the introductory essay. The text alone, with vignettes engraved by Heath after the designs of Thomas Bewick, was published in 1821. In the winter of 1786–7 Ritson made a walking tour through the north of Scotland, and in 1794 he issued a somewhat meagre collection of ‘Scottish Song with the genuine Music’ (2 vols.), with a few charming illustrations and a glossary. Pinkerton not unnaturally castigated the work in the ‘Scots Magazine.’ But this was not the last blow Ritson aimed at Pinkerton. To refute the latter's ‘Origin of the Scythians or Goths,’ he compiled his ‘Annals of the Caledonians,’ which appeared after his death. Ritson contended against Pinkerton for the Celtic origin of the Scottish people, and charitably ascribed to madness Pinkerton's difference of opinion.

In 1791 Ritson visited Paris. He was in full sympathy with the leaders of the French Revolution, and on returning home avowed an extravagant admiration for the republican form of government. In 1793 he adopted the new republican calendar, and lost no opportunity of displaying his democratic sentiments. He accepted also the religious views of his French heroes, and he declared himself an atheist. He sought the acquaintance of Godwin, Holcroft, and Thelwall, but a closer scrutiny of ‘these modern prophets and philosophers’ somewhat abated his enthusiasm for their propaganda.

Ritson had already shown symptoms of nervous derangement. In 1796 his health was so uncertain as to bring his literary work to a standstill. Pecuniary troubles subsequently harassed him. He engaged in hazardous speculation, and lost heavily, with the result that to meet his debts he had to sell his property in the north and portions of his library. But his interest in his literary projects revived about 1800, when Sir Walter Scott applied to him for aid in his contemplated work on ‘Border Minstrelsy.’ Scott had formed a high opinion of Ritson's literary sagacity, and his compliments conquered Ritson's asperity. In 1801 he visited Scott at Lasswade, and, despite an inconveniently strict adherence to a vegetarian diet and occasional displays of bad temper, did not forfeit his host's respect. They corresponded amicably until Ritson's health finally broke. On returning from Lasswade to London, Ritson resumed his literary labours with renewed energy, and in 1802 he produced two works of value. The earlier, the suggestion of which he acknowledged was due to Steevens, was the useful ‘Bibliographia Poetica: a Catalogue of English Poets of the Twelfth, Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Centurys, with a Short Account of their Works,’ 1802, 8vo. The second was his ‘Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës,’ 1802, 3 vols. 8vo, which opens with a learned dissertation, once more censuring Bishop Percy. The romances include ‘Iwaine and Gawin,’ ‘Sir Launfal,’ ‘Emare,’ and eight others of early date. The notes and glossary are very elaborate.

But Ritson's nervous ailment was rapidly reaching an acute stage. ‘An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food as a Moral Duty,’ which Richard Phillips [q. v.] published in 1802, after it had been refused by many other publishers, bears marks of incipient insanity. Its perverse arguments were caustically exposed by the ‘Edinburgh Review’ in April 1803 in an article jointly written by Lord Brougham and Sydney Smith (cf. Moore's Correspondence, vii. 13). For declining to obey the precepts set forth in the pamphlet, Ritson is said to have driven his nephew from his house. After some months' incessant work Ritson's brain completely gave way. Barricading himself within his chambers at Gray's Inn early in September 1803, he threatened with violence all who approached him. On 10 Sept. he set fire to masses of manuscripts, including a valuable catalogue of romances; and the steward of Gray's Inn broke into his rooms in the fear that he would burn the house down. To a neighbour and a bencher of the inn, Robert Smith, he explained, when challenged to account for his conduct, that ‘he was then writing a pamphlet proving Jesus Christ an impostor.’ A few days later he was removed to the house of Sir Jonathan Miles at Hoxton, where he died of paralysis of the brain on 23 Sept. 1803. He was buried four days later in Bunhill Fields. His executor and sole legatee was his nephew, Joseph Frank of Stockton. His library was sold by Leigh & Sotheby on 5 Dec. 1803. It contained many rare books and several manuscripts by Ritson. Among the latter were a ‘Villare Dunelmense,’ a ‘Bibliographia Scotica’ (reputed to be of great value, which was purchased by George Chalmers), and an annotated copy of Johnson's and Steevens's edition of Shakespeare, including three volumes of manuscript notes, which was purchased by Longman for 110l. The whole collection of 986 lots fetched 681l. 5s. 9d. Ritson combined much pedantry with his scholarship; but he sought a far higher ideal of accuracy than is common among antiquaries, while he spared no pains in accumulating information. Sir Walter Scott wrote that ‘he had an honesty of principle about him which, if it went to ridiculous extremities, was still respectable from the soundness of the foundation.’ But Scott did not overlook his friend's peculiarities, and in verses written for the Bannatyne Club in 1823 he referred to ‘Little Ritson’

    As bitter as gall, and as sharp as a razor,
    And feeding on herbs as a Nebuchadnezzar.

Ritson's impatience of inaccuracy led him to unduly underrate the labours of his contemporaries, and his suspicions of imposture were often unwarranted. But his irritability and eccentricity were mainly due to mental malady. He showed when in good health many generous instincts, and he cherished no personal animosity against those on whose published work he made his splenetic attacks. With Surtees, George Paton, Walter Scott, and his nephew he corresponded good-humouredly to the end. He produced his works with every typographical advantage, and employed Bewick and Stothard to illustrate many of them. It is doubtful if any of his literary ventures proved remunerative.

In person, according to his friend Robert Smith, Ritson resembled a spider. A caricature of him by Gillray represents him in a tall hat and a long closely buttoned coat. A silhouette by William Park of Hampstead is prefixed to Haslewood's ‘Account’ and to the ‘Caledonian Muse,’ 1821.

After Ritson's death many new editions of his anthologies were issued by his nephew, in addition to his printed but unpublished ‘Caledonian Muse’ (1821, by R. Triphook). His nephew, Frank, also edited from his unpublished manuscripts: 1. ‘The Office of Bailiff of a Liberty,’ 1811, 8vo. 2. ‘The Life of King Arthur,’ 1825, 8vo. 3. ‘Memoirs of the Celts or Gauls,’ 1827, 8vo. 4. ‘Annals of the Caledonians, Picts, and Scots,’ 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1828, 8vo. 5. ‘Fairy Tales, now first collected, to which are prefixed two dissertations (1) On Pygmies, (2) On Fairies, by Joseph Ritson, esq.,’ 1831. Ritson's ‘Critical Observations on the Various and Essential Parts of a Deed’ first appeared in 1804 as an appendix to ‘Practical Points or Maxims in Conveyancing,’ by his old master, Ralph Bradley of Stockton (3rd edit. 1826).

Ritson has been wrongly credited with a well-executed translation of the ‘Hymn to Venus’ ascribed to Homer, 1788, 8vo. This is the work of Isaac Ritson (1761–1789), native of Emont Bridge, near Penrith, who became a schoolmaster at Penrith and a competent classical scholar. Subsequently he attended medical classes at Edinburgh, and finally settled in London, where he contributed medical articles to the ‘Monthly Review.’ Besides the ‘Hymn,’ Isaac Ritson wrote the preface, and much besides, of James Clarke's ‘Survey of the Lakes in Cumberland’ (1787). His friends predicted for him a distinguished literary career; but he died prematurely at Islington in 1789, aged 28. He was not related to the better known Joseph (Gent. Mag. 1803, ii. 1031; Hutchinson, Cumberland).

One Jonathan Ritson (1776?–1846), a native of Whitehaven, attained great skill as a wood-carver, being employed at Arundel and Petworth (1827–46) completing the work of Grinling Gibbons, from whom much of his own is with difficulty distinguished. A portrait by Clint is at Petworth (Gent. Mag. 1846, i. 548).

[Letters of Joseph Ritson, esq., from originals in possession of his nephew, with a Memoir by Sir Harris Nicolas, 2 vols. 1833; Letters from Ritson to Mr. George Paton, Edinburgh, 1829; Some Account of the Life and Publications of the late Joseph Ritson, esq., by Joseph Haslewood, 1824; Surtees's Hist. of Durham, iii. 193; Memoir in the Monthly Magazine for November 1803, reprinted in the Monthly Mirror for May 1805, attributed to William Godwin; British Critic, October 1803; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes and Illustrations; Mathias's Pursuits of Lit. p. 100; De Quincey's Works, ed. Masson, xi. 441–2; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Chambers's Book of Days, ii. 405–6; Scott's Introduction to the 1830 edition of the Border Minstrelsy. Two unpublished letters, now in the possession of Mr. Charles Davis of Kew, from H. C. Selby of Gray's Inn to Bishop Percy, dated respectively 6 April and 14 June 1804, give some account of Ritson's life and last days, chiefly derived from the narrative of Robert Smith, a bencher of the inn, whose chambers were above those of Ritson.]

S. L.