Thomson, George (1757-1851) (DNB00)

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THOMSON, GEORGE (1757–1851), collector of Scottish music, son of Robert Thomson, schoolmaster, was born at Limekilns, Fifeshire, on 4 March 1757. His family removed to Banff, and afterwards to Edinburgh, where he was apprenticed to the law. In 1780, through the influence of John Home, author of ‘Douglas,’ he entered the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Manufactures in Scotland as junior clerk. Soon afterwards he became principal clerk, and retained that post till his retirement in 1839. In 1840 he removed to London, but returned to Edinburgh in 1845. In 1847 his friends presented him with a silver vase, when his character and work were praised by Lord Cockburn. He died at Leith on 18 Feb. 1851, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. In 1781 he married a daughter of Lieutenant Miller, of the 50th regiment, by whom he had two sons and six daughters. One daughter, Georgina, became the wife of George Hogarth [q. v.], whose daughter Catherine was the wife of Charles Dickens. His wife was buried at Kensal Green in 1841, ‘on the spot next to that which belongs to Charles Dickens, esq.’ (cf. Forster, Dickens, i. 264).

Thomson was an enthusiastic amateur musician. He was one of the directors of the first Edinburgh musical festival (1815). He played the violin, and took an active part in the Edinburgh St. Cecilia concerts of his day. It was from hearing Tenducci's rendering of Scottish songs at these concerts that he conceived the idea of making a collection of national airs. In the end he issued three separate (folio) collections: the Scottish in 6 vols. (1793–1841); the Welsh in 3 vols. (1809–1814); and the Irish in 2 vols. (1814–1816). A royal octavo edition in 6 vols., made up from all three collections, was published in 1822. Thomson's plan in regard to the music was original and bold. Before his time there were no introductory or concluding symphonies to the airs he collected, and the accompaniments were indicated by the uncertain system of ‘figured bass.’ He resolved to supply both deficiencies, and had his symphonies and accompaniments written in turn by Pleyel, Kozeluch, Haydn, Beethoven, Weber, Hummel, and Bishop, to whom he paid large sums. It was at his instigation that Bishop set Burns's ‘Jolly Beggars.’ He found many of the old airs associated with objectionable words, and with the view of procuring new words he corresponded with Burns, Scott, Hogg, Moore, Byron, Campbell, Joanna Baillie, and others. Burns began to write for him in 1792, and continued till his death in 1796, the collections from first to last containing about 120 of his songs. Thomson was attacked by Professor Wilson and others for his pecuniary treatment of Burns, but there is clearly no ground for the charge (cf. Hadden, pp. 134–151). His correspondence with Burns was printed by Currie, and is found in several editions of the poet; that with Scott and the rest is given by Hadden from the originals in the hands of his descendants. The originals of the Burns letters were purchased by Lord Dalhousie in 1852 for 260 guineas. In 1802 Thomson edited the poems of Mrs. Anne Grant of Laggan [q. v.]; and in 1807 published under the pseudonym of ‘Civis’ a ‘Statement and Review of a recent Decision of the Judge of Police in Edinburgh, authorising his Officers to make Domiciliary Visits in Private to stop Dancing.’ This pamphlet arose out of an attempt to prevent dancing in Thomson's own house. Carlyle (Reminiscences) describes him as ‘a clean-brushed commonplace old gentleman, in a scratch wig.’ His portrait, painted by Raeburn, is at Dunbeath Castle, Caithness. Another portrait, by W. S. Watson, is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

David Thomson (d. 1815), a brother, was a landscape-painter and an amateur musician. He edited a collection of ‘The Melodies of different Nations,’ and a collection of Mozart's songs, set to verses of his own. Joanna Baillie speaks of ‘his worth and his various talents.’ Keith Thomson, a half-brother (d. 1855), was a leading teacher of music at Inverness. Paton Thomson, the engraver (cf. Redgrave), was probably a relative.

[J. Cuthbert Hadden's George Thomson, the friend of Burns: his Life and Correspondence (1898); Chambers's Traditions of Edinburgh and Land of Burns; Hogg's Instructor, vi. 408, new ser.; Caledonian Mercury, 4 March 1847; Rogers's Book of Burns (Grampian Club), ii. 275; Grove's Dict. of Music; Reg. of Dunfermline; information from descendants.]

J. C. H.