Taylor, Isaac (1787-1865) (DNB00)

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TAYLOR, ISAAC (1787–1865), of Stanford Rivers, artist, author and inventor, eldest surviving son of Isaac Taylor of Ongar (1759–1829) [q. v.], was born at Lavenham, Suffolk, on 17 Aug. 1787, and shared the migrations of his family to Colchester and, at the close of 1810, to Ongar. In common with several other members of the family, he was trained to the profession of a draughtsman and engraver, and executed a number of designs for his father and for the books issued by his sister. He also executed some anatomical drawings of merit for a surgeon, and painted some excellent miniatures, one a pleasing and animated portrait of his sister Jane [q.v.], another of himself in 1817. Some of his designs, engraved by his own hand or that of his father for Boydell’s ‘Illustrations of Holy Writ’ (1820), exhibited an originality and power which excited the admiration of Rossetti, and led Alexander Gilchrist to compare them with some of the plates of William Blake (Life of Blake, 1863). But, although he showed a keen perception of artistic merit, he was never an engraver professionally, and, after a few years’ occupation as a designer of book illustrations, he turned to literature as his vocation.

From 1812 to 1816 the state of his health rendered it desirable for him to spend the winters in the west of England, and he spent most of this time at Ilfracombe and Marazion in the company of his sister, Jane Taylor [q. v.] About 1815 the accidental discovery of a copy of the works of Sulpicius Severus upon a London bookstall turned his attention to the problems presented by the corruptions of the Christian church, and led to the accumulation and study of an extensive library of patristic literature. The term ‘patristic’ appears to have been one of his numerous verbal inventions. Shortly afterwards the perusal of Bacon’s ‘De Augmentis’ excited his keen admiration for the inductive philosophy, and the combination of these two lines of study seemingly so incongruous, the Baconian and the patristic, forms the key to a great part of his intellectual life. In 1818 a great friend of the family, Josiah Conder [q. v.], then editor of the ‘Eclectic Review,’ persuaded Taylor to join the regular staff of that periodical, which already included Robert Hall (1764–1831) [q. v.], John Foster (1770–1843) [q. v.], and Olinthus Gilbert Gregory [q.v.] Four years after this appeared Taylor’s first independent literary venture, ‘The Elements of Thought’ (London, 1823, 8vo; 11th edit. 1867), first suggested apparently by his Baconian studies, and after wards recast as ‘The World of Mind’ (London, 1857, 8vo). This was followed in 1824 by a new translation of the ‘Characters of Theophrastus’ (by ‘Francis Howell,’ London, 8vo; the first edition still commands a good price, the second without the Greek text appeared in 1836). The translator added pictorial renderings of the characters drawn on the wood by himself. In 1825 there followed the ‘Memoirs, Correspondence, and Literary Remains of Jane Taylor’ (London, 1825, 2 vols. 12mo; 2nd edit. 1826; incorporated in ‘The Taylors of Ongar,’ 1867). In 1825 he settled at Stanford Rivers, about two miles from Ongar, in a rambling old-fashioned farmhouse, standing in a large garden and well fitted by its position and surroundings to form the retreat of a literary and meditative recluse. There he married, on 17 Aug. 1825, Elizabeth, second daughter of James Medland of Newington, the friend and correspondent of his sister Jane.

In the two succeeding years appeared ‘History of the Transmission of Ancient Books to Modern Times’ (London, 1827, 8vo) and ‘The Process of Historical Proof’ (London, 1828, 8vo; the two were remodelled as a single work, 1859, 8vo), in which he attempted to show grounds on which a rigorous criticism might accept literary documents like the Bible as a basis for historical study. Next appeared an expurgated translation of Herodotus (London, 1829, 8vo), the researches incidental to which seem to have suggested an anonymous romance, ‘The Temple of Melekartha’ (London, 1831, 8vo), dealing with the prehistoric migration of the Tyrians from the Persian Gulf to the Levant. In the heroine the author is said to have depicted his young wife. Anonymously, too, appeared in May 1829 his next work, ‘The Natural History of Enthusiasm (London, 8vo; Boston, 1830, 12mo; 10th edit. London, 1845), by which he is best remembered. It was a sort of historico-philosophical disquisition on the perversions of religious imagination, and was written with a freshness and vigour which gave it an instant vogue. Taylor developed the subject in his ‘Fanaticism’ (London, 1833, 8vo ; 7th edit. 1866) and ‘Spiritual Despotism’ (London, 1835, three editions). Three further volumes on scepticism, credulity, and the corruption of morals were included in the author’s large design of a ‘morbid anatomy of spurious religion,’ but these complementary volumes were never completed. Those that appeared were praised by Wilson in ‘Blackwood,’ and the last of the three with especial warmth by Sir James Stephen in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ (April, 1840).

In the meantime Taylor had published a more devotional volume entitled ‘Saturday Evening’ (London, 1832, 8vo; many editions in England and America). Subsequently he developed a part of that book into ‘The Physical Theory of Another Life’ (London, 1836, 12mo ; 6th edit. 1866), a work of pure speculation, anticipating a scheme of duties in a future world, adapted to the assumed expansion of our powers after death.

In 1836 Taylor, yielding against his better judgment to the advice of friends, contested the chair of logic at Edinburgh University with Sir William Hamilton, and was narrowly beaten. Similar offers in the future failed to lure him from his retirement. The tranquil life at Stanford Rivers and the devotion of thought by Taylor, as of his father before him, to the subject of education (though he himself instructed his children only in religion) are reflected in his next book on ‘Home Education’ (London, 1838, 8vo; 7th edit. 1867), in which he insisted on the beneficial influence of a country life, the educational value of children’s pleasures, and the importance of favouring the natural rather than the stimulated growth of a child’s mental powers. In March 1841, in Hanover Square, Taylor delivered four lectures on ‘Spiritual Christianity’ (London, 8vo). Soon afterwards he was induced to complete and edit a translation of the ‘Jewish Wars’ of Josephus which had been prepared by Dr. Robert Traill. It appeared in two sumptuous quarto volumes (1847 and 1851), with illustrations engraved upon a new plan devised by Taylor; but the death of Traill on the eve of publication, and the vast expense involved in a work of such limited sale, brought a severe pecuniary loss upon the editor.

By his publication during 1839–40 of ‘Ancient Christianity and the Doctrines of the Oxford Tracts’ (in 8 parts, London, 8vo; 4th edit. 1844, 2 vols. 8vo), Taylor appeared for the first time as a controversialist, his contention being that the church of the fourth century (upon the primitive usages of which the Puseyites sought to graft the institutions of the Anglican church) had already matured a large crop of superstition and error. His view was warmly contested; but he now turned gladly from patristic dispute and philosophic disquisition to ecclesiastical biography, producing two able critical studies in ‘Loyola and Jesuitism in its Rudiments’ (London, 1849, 8vo; several editions) and ‘Wesley and Methodism’ (London, 1851, 8vo; 1863, 1865, and New York, 1852). These were followed by a more popular work on the Christian argument, entitled ‘The Restoration of Belief’ (London, 1855, 8vo; several American editions), in which he had recourse once more to his favourite form of anonymous publication. ‘Logic in Theology’ and ‘Ultimate Civilisation,’ two volumes of essays reprinted in part from the ‘Eclectic Review’ during 1859 and 1860, were followed in turn by ‘The Spirit of Hebrew Poetry’ (London, 1861 ; numerous editions), a volume of lectures, originally delivered at Edinburgh, abounding in suggestive and beautiful passages, and the most important of his later works. In addition to ‘Considerations on the Pentateuch’ (London, 1863, 8vo; two editions), in which he opposed the conclusions of Colenso, and a number of short memoirs upon religious personages for the ‘Imperial Dictionary of Biography,’ his only remaining work was ‘Personal Recollections’ (London, 1864, 8vo), a series of papers, in part autobiographical, which had appeared in ‘Good Words.’ He was granted a civil list pension of 200l. in 1862 in acknowledgment of his services to literature, and he died at Stanford Rivers three years later, on 28 June 1865.

He left surviving issue: Jane, who married, first, Dr. Harrison, and secondly, the Rev. S. D. Stubbs; (Canon) Isaac Taylor, the author of ‘Words and Places;’ Phœbe; James Medland Taylor, architect, born 1834; Rosa; Henry Taylor, architect and author, born in 1837; Catherine; Jessie, who married Thomas Wilson; and Euphemia—all born at Stanford Rivers.

Though he joined the Anglican communion at an early stage in his career, Taylor always remained on the best terms with his old friends among the dissenters. Some regarded him as the greatest English lay theologian since Coleridge, and many with greater justice as the successor in the vale of Ongar to associations of piety and lofty religious idealism such as hallowed Bemerton or Olney. He was certainly characterised by great learning, noble aims, and a deep personal piety, but most of his books have fallen into neglect. Sir James Stephen, in his remarkable essay upon ‘The Historian of Enthusiasm,’ thought that he detected the seeds of a decay of Taylor's influence in his ineradicable tendency to superfine writing and in the mutually destructive effect of so much teaching and so much eloquence; yet he concludes that Taylor's books exhibit a character both moral and intellectual, from the study of which the reader can hardly fail to rise a wiser and a better man.

Taylor was always much interested in mechanical devices and inventions, and he spent many hours in the workshop that he fitted up at Stanford Rivers. Early in life he invented a beer-tap (patented 20 Nov. 1824) which came into almost universal use, and in 1848 he brought to perfection a highly ingenious machine for engraving upon copper (pat. 12248, 21 Aug. 1848). The expenses and liabilities involved by this invention made it a disaster financially to the inventor; it was eventually applied on a large scale by a syndicate to engraving patterns upon copper cylinders for calico printing in Manchester. One of his recreations was the making of silhouettes. The fine profile of Edward Irving prefixed to Mrs. Oliphant's ‘Life of Irving’ is from his hand.

A portrait of Isaac Taylor of Stanford Rivers is the property of Henry Taylor of Tunbridge Wells, and a crayon portrait by his nephew, Josiah Gilbert, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

[Gent. Mag. 1865, ii. 387–8; The Taylors of Ongar, 1867, i. 61–76; Mrs. Gilbert's Autobiography; Stephen's Essays in Ecclesiastical Biography, 1868, pp. 585–633; Taylor's Personal Recollections, 1864; Crabb Robinson's Diary, ii. 212, 217–18; Illustrated London News, 12 Aug. 1865 (with portrait); Galton's Hereditary Genius; Macmillan's Mag. October 1865; English Cyclopædia; Imperial Dict. of Biography; Biograph, April 1881; Expositor, August 1885; Woodcroft's Alphabetical Index of Patentees, 1854, p. 558; Colles's Literature and the Pension List, p. 43; Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 19168, f. 196; notes kindly supplied by Henry Taylor, esq.]

T. S.