Stillingfleet, Benjamin (DNB00)
|←Still, John||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54
STILLINGFLEET, BENJAMIN (1702–1771), naturalist and dilettante, was born in Norfolk in 1702. His father, Edward Stillingfleet (1660?–1708), eldest son of Edward Stillingfleet, bishop of Worcester [q. v.], was a Lady Margaret scholar of St. John's College, Cambridge (graduating B.A. in 1682, M.A. in 1685, and M.D. in 1692). He was elected F.R.S. in 1688, and Gresham professor of physic. Subsequently he practised as a doctor at King's Lynn, married against the bishop's wishes, got into debt, and further offended his father by his Jacobite opinions; but, on his taking orders, the bishop obtained for him the rectory of Newington Butts, which he exchanged in 1698 for the rectory of Wood Norton and Swanton, Norfolk (cf. Baker, Hist. of St. John's College, Cambridge, ed. Mayor, ii. 702). On the bishop's death in 1699, however, he left nothing to his son, and accordingly, on the death of the latter in 1708, his widow was in straitened circumstances. Besides Benjamin, she had three daughters, of whom the eldest, Elizabeth, afterwards married John Locker [q. v.], and she herself afterwards married a Mr. Dunch.
Benjamin was educated first at Norwich school, from which he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a sub-sizar in 1720, by the advice of Bentley, then master, who had been Bishop Stillingfleet's domestic chaplain. He distinguished himself both in classics and in mathematics, and was chosen scholar in 1723, graduating B.A. in the same year. To this year also belongs his first extant work, ‘A Poetical Epistle to a Friend,’ printed in the ‘Poetical Magazine’ for 1764, and in his ‘Select Works’ (1811). In 1724 he settled at Felbrig, Norfolk, as tutor to Ashe-Windham's only son William, then seven years old, whose mother was a niece of Bishop Stillingfleet. Here Stillingfleet remained for fourteen years, having the entire charge of the boy's education until his coming of age, when he addressed to him an excellent letter of advice (Literary Life, pp. 20–64). In 1726 Stillingfleet was disappointed of a fellowship at his college; the failure was attributed to the influence of Bentley, who is reported to have said that ‘it was a pity a gentleman of Mr. Stillingfleet's parts should be buried within the walls of a college.’ Though acknowledging his scholarship, Stillingfleet after this bore a grudge against Bentley, which is evinced both in his ‘Essay on Conversation’ and in his unpublished notes on Bentley's edition of Milton. At Felbrig Stillingfleet became ardently attached to Miss Alice Barnes, granddaughter of Dr. Beck, rector of North Repps and Felbrig, and sister of the Rev. Edward Barnes, who succeeded Dr. Beck; but, after ten years' courtship, she married a richer man named Russel, and Ashe-Windham, to salve the poor tutor's wounded affections, sent him abroad with his pupil in 1737. Before leaving England probably, Stillingfleet wrote the mathematical jeu d'esprit published in 1738, under the pseudonym of Irenæus Krantzovius, as ‘Some Thoughts concerning Happiness.’
In Italy and Switzerland the travellers made the acquaintance of Robert Price of Foxley, Herefordshire, the father of Sir Uvedale Price [q. v.]; Richard Aldworth (afterwards Neville) [q. v.], the father of the first Lord Braybrooke; Lord Haddington; his brother, the Hon. George Baillie; and Dr. Dampier, an Eton master (afterwards dean of Durham), and father of Thomas Dampier [q. v.], bishop of Ely. These friends established at Geneva a ‘common room’ where they read and acted plays and pantomimes, forestalling Garrick in adopting the ‘natural’ manner and ‘improving’ ‘Macbeth’ by substituting magicians for the witches. Stillingfleet acted as ‘director of the scenes and machinist,’ and, in conjunction with Price, managed the orchestra and composed the airs for the pantomimes. In 1741, in company with Dr. Richard Pococke [q. v.], the party explored the Mer de Glace in the valley of Chamounix. The ascent was described in ‘An Account of the Glacieres or Ice Alps in Savoy’ (London, 1744, 4to), in which Stillingfleet collaborated with Windham and Price.
In 1743 they returned to England, and Stillingfleet received a pension of a hundred pounds a year from Ashe-Windham until the death of the latter in 1749, when it was continued by his son. He lived mainly in a house in Panton Square, which was rented jointly by William Windham and Price, paying visits to Aldworth Neville at Stanlake in Berkshire, and to his friend Robert Marsham at Stratton in Norfolk. At this period Stillingfleet devoted himself largely to the study of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle, and meditated a reply to Locke on the Understanding, he having espoused Hutcheson's views of ideal beauty as against Locke's denial of innate ideas. He then made preparations for a critical edition of ‘Paradise Lost.’ His material he entrusted to his friend Dr. Dampier, but Newton's proposals for his edition under the patronage of Pulteney, earl of Bath, prevented its publication. Dr. Dampier's son, the bishop of Ely, however, communicated Stillingfleet's notes to Henry John Todd [q. v.], who made use of them in his edition of 1801. The original manuscript is interleaved in a copy of Bentley's edition of 1723, now in the library of the British Museum, with which is bound up Stillingfleet's unpublished ‘Monody to the Memory of Lord Henry Spencer.’
In 1746 Price married a sister of Lord Barrington, and they persuaded Stillingfleet to make his chief home with them at Foxley, though to maintain his independence he insisted on living in a neighbouring cottage. In 1748 he contributed to Dodsley's ‘Collection’ ‘An Essay on Conversation,’ which Dr. Doran styles (A Lady of the Last Century, p. 296) his contribution ‘towards the social reform commenced by Johnson, Miss Mulso (Mrs. Chapone), and Mrs. Montagu. … It rings with echoes of Pope, and lays down some very excellent rules that, implicitly followed, would make conversation impossible.’ The poem, which consists of about three hundred rhyming couplets, is addressed to Windham. It was about this time that Mrs. Agmondesham Vesey began at Bath those evening assemblies for rational conversation without card-playing in which she was rivalled by Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu [q. v.], and to which the name ‘Blue Stocking’ or ‘Bas Bleu’ afterwards attached. There seems little doubt that this nickname arose from the grey or blue worsted stockings that Stillingfleet habitually wore at these assemblies, which his conversation tended more than anything else to enliven (cf. Boswell, Life of Johnson, chap. lxxiii.; D'Arblay, Memoirs of Dr. Burney, ii, 262–3; and see art. Montagu, Elizabeth).
His health being delicate and his eyes becoming subject to inflammation, Stillingfleet, who had refused several offers of travelling tutorships, began to devote himself first to field sports, then to gardening, and then to botany, beginning this last study with the works of Gerard, Parkinson, and Ray, consulting Theophrastus and Dioscorides in the original; and, probably through his friend Robert Marsham, making the acquaintance between 1750 and 1755 of the Linnæan system, of which he became one of the earliest defenders. He was also a proficient performer on the violoncello, and his intercourse with Price kept up his interest in music. In ‘The Letters of Mrs. Montagu’ (1813, vol. iv.), is one from Stillingfleet, dated 1757 or 1758, giving an account of the early days of Malvern as a watering-place.
In 1759 Stillingfleet published ‘Miscellaneous Tracts relating to Natural History, Husbandry, and Physick; translated from the Latin, with Notes,’ being six essays from Linnæus's ‘Amœnitates Academicæ,’ with a preface of thirty pages and ‘Observations on Grasses’ by the translator. This preface has been styled ‘the first fundamental treatise on the principles of’ Linnæus published in England, so that the issue of this work ‘may be considered as the æra of the establishment of Linnæan botany in England’ (Archdeacon Coxe, Life of Stillingfleet, p. 123). With his friend Price, Stillingfleet made occasional tours, and the journal of one in Wales undertaken in 1759, and printed in Coxe's ‘Life’ (pp. 126–50), to some extent anticipates such ‘tours in search of the picturesque’ as those of William Gilpin [q. v.]
In February 1760 he wrote the drama of ‘Moses and Zipporah,’ intended to be set as an oratorio by his friend, John Christopher Smith [q. v.], the pupil and successor of Handel, and, probably about the same time, those of ‘Joseph,’ ‘David and Bathsheba,’ and ‘Medea,’ two acts of the latter being actually set, though abandoned as too horrible for the stage. These dramas were printed, but never published, only eighteen copies being struck off. ‘Paradise Lost,’ an oratorio, also set to music by Smith, was performed twice at Covent Garden during 1760, and published with a dedication to Mrs. Montagu, the whole edition of one thousand copies being sold for the author's benefit on the first night. In the same year was published ‘The Honour and Dishonour of Agriculture,’ translated from the Spanish (of Father Feijoo) ‘by a farmer in Cheshire,’ which is stated in Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (ii. 336) to have been ‘edited, if not translated,’ by Stillingfleet, and it is noteworthy that Stillingfleet is stated by Sir James Edward Smith in Rees's ‘Cyclopædia’ to have directed William Hudson (1730?–1793) [q. v.] to the writings of Linnæus, and persuaded him to write his ‘Flora Anglica’ (1762).
In 1760 Lord Barrington, then secretary for war, at the instance of his brother-in-law Price, appointed Stillingfleet surveyor of the barracks in the Savoy, and the guardroom at the Tilt-yard, St. James's, and Kensington. This produced an income of about 100l. a year, half of which he gave to the support of an orphan niece and a widowed sister. His poverty prevented his marrying Anne Scudamore of Kentchurch, Herefordshire, whose acquaintance he made in London somewhat late in life. In gratitude to Lord Barrington he dedicated to him ‘The Calendar of Flora, Swedish and English, made in the year 1755,’ the latter at Stratton, where he had been staying with Marsham. To this was added a similar calendar compiled from Theophrastus, and in the preface Stillingfleet suggests the scheme alluded to by Gray, who wrote in 1761: ‘I have lately made an acquaintance with this philosopher [Stillingfleet], who lives in a garret in the winter, that he may support some near relations who depend upon him. He is always employed, consequently (according to my old maxim) always happy, always cheerful, and seems to me a worthy honest man. His present scheme is to send some persons, properly qualified, to reside a year or two in Attica, to make themselves acquainted with the climate, productions, and natural history of the country, that we may understand Aristotle, Theophrastus, &c., who have been heathen Greek to us for so many ages; and this he has got proposed to Lord Bute, no unlikely person to put it in execution, as he himself is a botanist’ (Mason, Memoirs … of Gray, iv. 70).
In 1761 Stillingfleet lost both his friends Robert Price and William Windham, the latter appointing him, in conjunction with Dr. Dampier and David Garrick, his executor, with the charge of his only son William Windham (1750–1812) [q. v.], afterwards the politician. This brought with it a slight addition to his income. In 1762 the second edition of the ‘Miscellaneous Tracts’ was published, with considerable enlargements, including ‘The Calendar of Flora’ and eleven plates to the ‘Observations on Grasses,’ drawn by Robert Price. Stillingfleet, who had tested several species of grasses in experimental plots at Foxley, in this work first proposed the English, or, as he termed them, ‘trivial’ names still used for our commoner species, and subsequently devoted several years to the collection of materials for a ‘General History of Husbandry.’ Towards this, six volumes of manuscript were found at his death, and published in the ‘Select Works.’
His last published work was the anonymous ‘Principles and Power of Harmony,’ an analysis of and commentary on Tartini's ‘Trattato di Musica’ (Padua, 1754), which Dr. Burney, though ignorant of its authorship, characterises as ‘an elegant, clear, and masterly performance’ (Present State of Music, iii. 131). This was published in the year of his death, which took place at his lodgings over a saddler's in Piccadilly on 15 Dec. 1771. He was buried in St. James's, Piccadilly, where his grand-nephew, Edward Hawke Locker, erected a tablet to his memory. The same modesty which caused him to write of himself with a small ‘i’ made him order all his papers to be burnt; but Pennant, in his ‘British Zoology’ (vol. iv. pref.) and in his ‘London’ (3rd ed. p. 138), alludes to his having made an exception of some notes sent to himself.
A portrait of Stillingfleet by Zoffany, formerly in the possession of Edward Hawke Locker [q. v.], was engraved in mezzotint by Valentine Green in 1782, this engraving being copied on a smaller scale in 1810 by James Basire for Nichols's ‘Literary Anecdotes’ (vol. ii.) and Coxe's ‘Life.’ Dr. Alexander Garden named the genus of euphorbiaceous plants Stillingia in his honour.
Of his works, the ‘Thoughts concerning Happiness,’ by Irenæus Krantzovius, London, 1738, 8vo, was reprinted in the ‘Repository’ (1790, vol. iii.), and was translated into French by H. A. Boulanger, as ‘Traité Mathématique sur le Bonheur,’ Paris, 1791. The ‘Essay on Conversation,’ in Dodsley's ‘Collection,’ London, 1748, was reprinted by Foulis, Glasgow, 1783, and in the ‘Select Works of Benjamin Stillingfleet,’ published by Coxe in 3 vols. in 1811. ‘Some Thoughts occasioned by the late Earthquakes: a Poem,’ London, 1750, which is very scarce, is also reprinted in the ‘Select Works.’ The ‘Miscellaneous Tracts’ went into a third edition in 1775, and a fourth in 1791, and are partly included in the ‘Select Works,’ the ‘Observations on Grasses’ being supplemented by Professor Thomas Martyn, and illustrated by sixteen plates by James Sowerby. ‘A Discourse concerning the Irritability of some Flowers: a new Discovery, translated from the Italian [of Count Giov. dal Colvolo],’ London, 1767, 8vo, is also in the ‘Select Works.’[Literary Life and Select Works of Benjamin Stillingfleet, by William Coxe, London, 1811, 3 vols. 8vo; Gent. Mag. 1776, xlvi. 162–4, and xlvii. 440; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes and Literary Illustrations; Fetis's Biographie des Musiciens; and the authorities above quoted.]