Seward, William (1747-1799) (DNB00)

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SEWARD, WILLIAM (1747–1799), man of letters, the only son of William Seward (partner in the firm of Calvert & Seward, then the chief brewers of beer in London), was born in January 1747. When very young he was trained at a small seminary near Cripplegate, and he is said to have been at Harrow school in December 1757 (Thornton, Harrow School, pp. 136–8). For a time he was at Charterhouse school, and on 4 June 1764 he matriculated from Oriel College, Oxford. As he was possessed of considerable property and had no taste for trade, he declined, to his father's dismay, to continue in the family business.

On quitting the university Seward travelled on the continent, particularly in Italy, and then returned to London with a confirmed love of literature and the fine arts, and a pronounced tendency to hypochondria. He invariably spent the winter in London and the summer in the country (Burney, Memoirs, iii. 265). He was a great favourite in the house of the Thrales at Streatham, where Dr. Johnson often met him. To Johnson's rooms in London he was a frequent visitor, and he was among the friends that attended the doctor's funeral. Parr consulted him on Johnson's epitaph, and Seward made a suggestion which was adopted. With letters of recommendation from Johnson to Boswell he visited Edinburgh and the highlands in 1777. In August 1781 he made the ‘western tour’ in England, calling in every town on ‘a doctor, apothecary, or chemist,’ about his health, and extracting at the same time information about the place and its surroundings. Two years later (June 1783) he was going to Paris and then to Flanders, to study the pictures of Claude Lorraine. Miss Seward, an old acquaintance but no relation, met him at Buxton in June 1793.

Seward was a member of the Eumelean Club that met at the Blenheim tavern in Bond Street, and of the Essex Club founded by Dr. Johnson early in 1784. He was elected F.R.S. on 11 Feb. 1779 and F.S.A. on 25 March 1779. He died of a dropsy at his lodgings, Dean Street, Soho, on 24 April 1799, and was buried in the family vault at Finchley on 1 May. His portrait was painted by George Dance on 5 May 1793, and engraved by William Daniell. A second portrait of him, by J. G. Wood, was engraved by Holl, and published on 3 June 1799.

Seward was ‘in action all benevolence.’ In the ‘Poems of Mrs. John Hunter’ (2nd edit. 1803, pp. 74–5) is an elegy in praise of his benevolence. He did not ‘disdain’ Tom Paine, and he subscribed ten guineas towards purchasing an annuity for Porson (Watson, Life of Porson, p. 99). While doing good to every one, he spoke well of nobody, yet he could be, when he chose, a piquant and stimulating conversationalist. Miss Burney, who made his acquaintance in 1777, had always ‘a true esteem for him,’ as his pretence of affectation and his spirit of satire were but ‘quizziness’ (cf. Clayden, Early Life of Rogers, pp. 168–74).

Many articles, including a series of ‘Reminiscentia,’ were supplied by Seward to the ‘Whitehall Evening Post,’ and he contributed anecdotes and literary discoveries to Cadell's ‘Repository’ and the ‘European Magazine.’ His papers of ‘Drossiana’ in the ‘European Magazine,’ beginning in October 1789, p. 243, formed the basis of his anonymous ‘Anecdotes of some Distinguished Persons’ (1795–7), 5 vols., which passed into a fifth edition in four volumes in 1804. This was followed in 1799 by two volumes of ‘Biographiana.’ These works showed much reading and were deservedly popular. Mathias in the ‘Pursuits of Literature’ (2nd dialogue, lines 61 and 62), speaks of Seward as a ‘publick bagman for scraps,’ but in a note describes the volumes as ‘very entertaining but very dear,’ and their author as the best ‘compiler of anecdotes except Horace Walpole.’

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; European Mag. October 1799, pp. 219–20 (by Isaac Reed, and with engraved portrait); Gent. Mag. 1799, i. 439–40; Monthly Mag. 1799, p. 334; Memoirs of Dr. Burney, ii. 87–9, 154; Early Diary of F. Burney, ii. 153; Madame d'Arblay's Diary, i. 140–1, 178, 226, 231–3, 426, ii. 66, 71, 88–9, 95, 233–4, iv. 173–4, vi. 187; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 553, 638, iii. 399, ix. 467; Goldsmith's Works, ed. Gibbs, v. 412–14; Anna Seward's Letters, iii. 265–6, iv. 53–8; Hayward's Piozzi, ii. 75; Boswell, ed. Hill, ii. 337, iii. 123, iv. 198, 423, 445; Johnson's Letters, ed. Hill, i. 346, ii. 33, 35, 299, 434.]

W. P. C.