Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wood, Robert (1717?-1771)
WOOD, ROBERT (1717?–1771), traveller and politician, was born at Riverstown Castle, near Trim, co. Meath, about 1717. He is said to have been educated at Oxford, but his name is not in Foster's ‘Alumni Oxonienses.’ According to Horace Walpole, he was ‘originally a travelling tutor and an excellent classic scholar,’ and he certainly when a young man travelled through parts of eastern Europe. In May 1742 he journeyed in a Venetian vessel from Venice to Corfu, and in the same year he passed from Mitylene to Scio in the Chatham. On 5 Feb. 1743 he sailed from Latakia in Syria to Damietta in Egypt.
About 1749 Wood agreed to revisit Greece in the company of John Bouverie and James Dawkins, both graduates of Oxford, with whom he had travelled in France and Italy, and they arranged that Borra, an Italian artist, should accompany them as ‘architect and draughtsman.’ They passed the winter of 1749-50 together at Rome—where Bouverie had in many visits acquired an extensive knowledge of art and architecture—then went to Naples, and in the spring embarked in the ship sent to them from London. On 25 July 1750 they anchored under the Sigean promontory, and went on shore at the mouth of the Scamander, Bouverie died on 8 Sept, 1750, and was buried at Smyrna (Foster, Alumni Oxon.), but the expedition subsequently took in ‘most of the islands of the archipelago, part of Greece in Europe, the Asiatic and European coasts of the Hellespont, Propontis, and Bosphorus as far as the Black Sea, most of the inland ports of Asia Minor, Syria, Phœnicia, Palestine, and Egypt.’ The survivors came to Athens about May 1751, and found Revett and Stuart busy in studying and making drawings of its antiquities. These artists received much encouragement and assistance, while in that city, from Dawkins and Wood, who also gave material help to the publication of the first volume of ‘The Antiquities of Athens.’ From 14 to 27 March 1751 Dawkins and Wood were at Palmyra, and on 1 April they reached Balbec.
Wood published in 1753 ‘The Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tedmor in the Desart,’ which was described by Horace Walpole as a noble book, with prints finely engraved and an admirable dissertation (Letters, ed. Cunningham, ii. 364). French translations of it were published in 1753, 1819, and 1829. In 1757 Wood brought out a corresponding volume on ‘The Ruins of Balbec, otherwise Heliopolis in Cœlosyria,’ This was translated into French (1757), and the Abbé Barthélemy gave an account of both works in the ‘Journal des Savants’ (afterwards included in his ‘Œuvres Diverses’). ‘These beautiful editions of Balbec and Palmyra’ were again eulogised by Horace Walpole in the preface to his ‘Anecdotes of Painting’ as ‘standards of writing.’ A new edition of both Palmyra and Balbec was issued by Pickering in 1827, in one folio volume, priced at six guineas. S. Salome of Cheltenham published in 1830 a volume of ‘Palmyrene Inscriptions taken from Wood's “Ruins of Palmyra and Balbec,” transcribed into the Ancient Hebrew Characters and translated into English.’ Louis Francois Cassas, in his ‘Voyage pittoresque de la Syrie’ (1799), pays Wood's ‘Palmyra’ a high compliment.
About 1753 Wood accompanied the young Duke of Bridgewater as his travelling companion on the grand tour through France and Italy, and during their stay at Rome his portrait, now in the Bridgewater Gallery, No. 121, was painted by Mengs (Gray and Mason, ed. Mitford, pp. 100, 132, 497), and afterwards engraved by Tomkins in the ‘Marquis of Stafford's Collection.’ He was elected a member of the Society of Dilettanti on 1 May 1763, and received from Richard Chandler (1738-1810) [q. v.] very handsome praise in tha ‘Marmora Oxoniensia’ (1763, preface p. v). Wood in return recommended Chandler to be the leader of the party sent by that society to explore ‘the ancient state of the countries’ in eastern Europe and in Asia Minor, and drew up the instructions under which Chandler, Revett, and Pars acted on their mission from June 1764 to September 1766. He also wrote the ‘address to the reader’ in the first volume of ‘Ionian Antiquities,’ which was published by the Society of Dilettanti in 1769 for Chandler and his associates (Chandler, Travels, 1825, vol. i. pp. vi-xxiv).
Wood became under-secretary of state in 1756, and held office under Pitt and his successors until September 1763. In September 1757 Gray wrote of him as ‘Mr. Wood, Mr. Pitt's Wood’ (Works, ed. Gosse, ii. 331); and Ralph, in his ‘Case of Authors Stated’ (1762, p. 37), refers to him as ‘distinguish'd by Mr. Secretary Pitt, as a writer by accident, not profession, and as already secur'd against any reverse of fortune by the gratitude and generosity of former friends.’ ‘His taste and ingenuity,’ says Horace Walpole, recommended him to Pitt, but their association, through Pitt's haughtiness and Wood's pride, did not last long. Two letters which he wrote to Pitt in September 1763 are in the ‘Chatham Correspondence’ (ii. 246-52), and they were evidently written to re-establish friendly relations. Through the influence of the Duke of Bridgewater, for whom he acted in parliament (Cavendish, Debates, i. 500-504), Wood sat from the general election of March 1761 until his death for the pocketborough of Brackley in Northamptonshire. In December 1762 he was busied with the preliminaries of the treaty of Paris. The anecdote of his visit to the dying Carteret upon that occasion, when Carteret cited the speech of Sarpedon (Iliad, xii. 322-8), is well known. It is said by Matthew Arnold to exhibit ‘the English aristocracy at its very height of culture, lofty spirit, and greatness’ (On Translating Homer, pp. 16-18; the authority for the anecdote is Wood's Essay on the Genius of Homer, 1769, p. ii n.)
Under a general warrant and the orders of Lord Halifax, Wood seized on 30 April 1763 the papers of John Wilkes. He was then Lord Egremont's secretary, but Weston, on whom the duty devolved as Lord Halifax's assistant, declined the task on account of age and infirmity. An action for trespass was thereupon brought by Wilkes against Wood on 6 Dec. 1763, and a verdict was obtained for 1,000l. (State Trials, xix. 1153-76). He afterwards became, through Bridgewater's action, a member of the Bedford party. ‘His general behaviour was decent as became his dependent situation, but his nature was hot and veering to despotic’ (Walpole, George III, ed. Barker, i. 289). From 20 Jan. 1768 he was under-secretary to Lord Weymouth in the northern department, and on 21 Oct. in the same year he followed that peer to the southern department, remaining under him in that position until December 1770. Wood managed the entire business of the office, was very violent against Wilkes, and defended the ministry in the House of Commons ‘with heat and sharpness.’ In 1769 and 1770 he was suspected of stockfobbing and of intriguing, under the belief that a war with Spain was unavoidable and that Chatham would be called to office (ib. iii. 97, 133, 143, iv. 2, 123-4). It was suggested in December 1769 that Lord Gower might be lord-lieutenant of Ireland, with Wood as his secretary, whereupon the Irish gentlemen made many objections ‘to his mean birth and his public and private character’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. p. 191). After a ‘very short indisposition’ he died at his house at Putney on 9 Sept. 1771 in his fifty-fifth year. This house was that in which Gibbon was born, and Wood had purchased it from the elder Gibbon.
Wood was buried on 15 Sept. in a new vault in the west part of the new burial-ground near the Upper Richmond Road. A superb monument of white marble, with an epitaph by Horace Walpole, was erected by his widow, Ann Wood, and it commemorates the death of their son, Thomas Wood, on 25 Aug. 1772, in his ninth year. His library was sold in 1772. Besides the work by Mengs, a portrait of him by Hamilton was engraved by Hall.
Wood was drawn aside into politics before he had time to finish his classical labours. His chief object in his eastern voyages was to read ‘the Iliad and Odyssey in the countries where Achilles fought, where Ulysses travelled, and where Homer sung.’ He communicated the rough sketch of his later work to Dawkins, who died very late in 1757 or early in 1758, but it was not finished for several years later Seven copies of it were printed in 1767 with the title ‘A Comparative View of the Antient and present State of the Troade. To which is prefixed an Essay on the Original Genius of Homer.’ But the impression in the Grenville Library contains only the essay on Homer. An enlarged and anonymous edition of this part came out in 1769 as ‘An Essay on the Original Genius of Homer,’ and the whole scheme was edited by Jacob Bryant in 1775 as ‘An Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, with a Comparative View of the Ancient and present State of the Troade.’ This contained views by Borra of ‘Ancient Troas’ and of ‘Ancient Ruins near Troy,’ and other engravings by Pars. It was pirated at Dublin in 1776, and reissued in 1824.
Wood's work was translated into French, German, Italian, and Spanish, the French version of 1777 being by Demeunier. Chevalier in his ‘Descriptions of the Plain of Troy,’ which was published with notes by Professor Andrew Dalzel in 1791, asserts that Wood was ‘quite bewildered in the Troad,’ and after an examination of Wood's map condemns his account as ‘converting the whole into a mass of confusion’ (pp. 56, 75-81). Gibbon, in a note to chapter xvii. of the ‘Decline and Fall,’ while borrowing a remark from Wood, censures him as ‘an author who in general seems to have disappointed the expectation of the public as a critic and still more as a traveller,’ but this is in marked contrast to his reference (in chap. li. note) to ‘the magnificent descriptions and drawings of Dawkins and Wood, who have transported into England the ruins of Palmyra and Baalbec’ The lengthened examination of the ‘Essay on Homer’ in Thomas Howes's ‘Critical Observations on Books’ (i. 1-79) sums up the inquiry with the remark that ‘he indulged too much to the suggestions of his own genius.’ But it interested Goethe in his younger days and developed his powers.
Letters from Wood are printed in Mr. Gillespie Smyth's ‘Sir R.M. Keith’ (i.69-70) and the ‘Mure Papers at Caldwell’ (Maitland Club, ii. pt. i. pp. 153-4,179). He left behind him several manuscripts not sufficiently arranged for publication. Several letters from him are among the Newcastle manuscripts at the British Museum and in Egerton MS. 2697.
[Gent. Mag. 1771, p. 426; Nichols's Lit. Anecdotes, iii. 81-6, 619, viii. 426-7, 614, ix. 144-5; Lysons's Environs, i. 420-1; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. ii. 137-8; Ballantyne's Lord Carteret, pp. 363-5; Hist. Notices of Dilettanti Soc. pp. 37-9, 120; Cast's Dilettanti Soc. pp. 60-110, 260; Chatham Corresp. i. 432; Grenville Papers, ii. 137, 262, iii. 94-5; Walpole's George III, ed. Barker, i. 219, 264, 288-9, iv. 157, 163, 229; Mure Papers at Caldwell, vol. ii. pt i. pp. 191, 239, vol. ii. pt. ii. p. 58.]