Bisset, James (1762?-1832) (DNB00)

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BISSET, JAMES (1762?–1832), artist, publisher, and writer of verse, was born in the city of Perth about 1762. He received his early education at a dame’s school, where the fee for him and his sister together was a penny a week, with ‘a peat for firing every Monday morning during winter.' His love of art and literature received its first impulse from the perusal of several copies of the ‘Gentleman’s Magazine’ and some old books with prints, the whole being purchased in early childhood at an old bookstall for a dollar given him by General Elliot, then on a visit to Perth. From his ninth year he began regularly to take in the magazine by the help of pocket-money supplied by an indulgent uncle. At the age of fifteen he became an artist's apprentice at Birmingham. In the ‘Birmingham Directory ’ of 1785 his name appears as miniature painter, Newmarket, and in that of 1797 as fancy painter, New Street. In the latter premises he established a museum and shop for the sale of curiosities. He was also a coiner of medals, and was permitted to use the designation ‘medallist to his majesty.' On the title-page of one of his books he advertises medallions of their majesties and of several leading statesmen, and a medal commemorating the death and victory of Nelson. He had great facility in composing amusing and grandiloquent verses on the topics of the day so as to hit the popular fancy, and, while he obtained a considerable profit from their sale, they served to attract customers to his ‘museum’ and to advertise his medals. Among his earlier volumes of verse were ‘The Orphan Boy,' ‘Flights of Fancy,’ ‘Theatrum Oceani,’ ‘Songs of Peace,’ 1802, and ‘The Patriotic Clarion, or Britain's Call to Glory original Songs written on the threatened Invasion,’ 1803. The last was dedicated by permission to the Duke of York, and the presentation copy to George III with Bisset’s inscription is in the British Museum. The work, however, by which he will be longest remembered, and one quite unique in its kind, is his ‘Poetic Survey round Birmingham, with a Brief Description of the different Curiosities and Manufactures of the place, accompanied with a magnificent Directory, with the names and professions, &c. superbly engraved in emblematic plates.’ 1800. From the preface we learn that the charge for engraving single addresses in a general plate in the Directory was ten shillings and sixpence, and for half a plate ten guineas, and that various designs were inserted at one and two guineas each. ‘Thus,’ it is added with amusing naïveté, ‘every gentleman had an opportunity of having his address-inserted in the work at whatever price he pleased; and by paying for the engraving it has enabled the author to lay a magnificent work before the public for only five shillings, which otherwise would cost nearly fifty.’ A second edition of the Directory appeared in 1808, with several additional plates, but without ‘The Poetic Survey.' In 1804 he published ‘Critical Essays on the Dramatic Essays of the Young Roscius.’ In 1813 he removed to Leamington, where he had opened a museum, newsroom, and picture gallery in the preceding year. A ‘Picturesque Guide to Leamington,’ enlivened by stray scraps of verse, was published by him in 1814; ‘Variorum, or Momentary and Miscellaneous Effusions,’ 1823; and ‘Comic Strictures on Birmingham's Fine Arts and Conversaziones, by an Old Townsman,’ 1829. His verses also appeared occasionally in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’ He boasted that he had sold over 100,000 of his different works, and that many had reached the fifteenth and sixteenth editions. He died on 17 Aug, 1832, and was buried at Leamington, where a monument was erected by his friends to his memory. By his enterprise and public spirit he secured himself an honourable place in the annals both of Birmingham and Leamington. Widely known from his superficial eccentricities, he won general esteem by his amiability and good humour, while his social gifts rendered him highly popular among his own friends. In Birmingham he belonged to the Minerva Club, consisting of twelve members, nicknamed ‘The Apostles,’ whose meetings at the Leicester Arms to discuss political subjects may be regarded as the small beginnings of the political gatherings for which Birmingham is now so famous. A picture of the members was painted by Eckstein, a Prussian artist, to which Bisset, as the oldest surviving member, fell heir. Bisset’s collection of ictures, which included several celebrated paintings, as well as some pieces by himself, were sold by auction after his death.

[Gent. Mag. cii. pt. ii, pp. 648-50; Langford’s Century of Birmingham Life, ii. 118-22; Dent's Old and New Birmingham, pp. 212-13. 289-92.]

T. F. H.