Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Baker, David Erskine

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

BAKER, DAVID ERSKINE (1730–1767), writer on the drama, a son of Henry Baker, F.R.S. [q. v.], by his wife, the youngest daughter of Daniel Defoe, was born in London, in the parish of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, on 30 Jan. 1730, and named after his godfather, the Earl of Buchan. As he showed early a taste for mathematics, the Duke of Montague, master of the ordnance, placed him in the drawing room of the Tower, to qualify him for the duties of a royal engineer. It appears from one of his father's letters in 1747 to Dr. Doddridge that the boy was unremitting in his studies. 'At twelve years old,' says his father, 'he had translated the whole twenty-four books of "Telemachus" from the French; before he was fifteen he translated from the Italian, and published, a treatise on physic of Dr. Cocchi of Florence concerning the diet and doctrines of Pythagoras, and last year, before he was seventeen, he likewise published a treatise of Sir Isaac Newton's "Metaphysics" compared with those of Dr. Leibnitz, from the French of M. Voltaire. He is a pretty good master of the Latin and understands some Greeks is reckoned no bad arithmetician for his years, and knows a great deal of natural history, both from reading and observation. so that by the grace of God I hope he will become a virtuous and useful man.' Communications from David Erskine Baker were printed in the 'Transactions of the Royal Society,' xliii. 540, xliv. 529, xlv. 598, xlvi. 467, xlviii. 564. But the father's hopes of a scientific career for his son were not to be fulfilled. Having married the daughter of a Mr. Clendon, a clerical empiric, the young man joined a company of strolling actors. In 1764 he published his useful and fairly accurate 'Companion to the Play House,' in two duodecimo volumes. A revised edition, under the title of 'Biographia Dramatica,' appeared in 1782, edited by Isaac Reed. In the second edition Baker's name is given among the list of dramatic authors, and we are told that 'being adopted by an uncle who was a silk throwster in Spital Fields, he succeeded him in his business; but wanting the prudence and attention which are necessary to secure success in trade he soon failed.' Stephen Jones, the editor of the third edition (1812), says that he died in obscurity at Edinburgh about 1770. In 'Notes and Queries,' 2nd ser. xii. 129 he is stated to have died about 1780, and the authority given is Harding's 'Biographical Mirror;' but in that book there is no mention at all of Baker. Nichols (Literary Anecdotes, v. 277) fixes 16 Feb. 1767 as the date of his death.

In compiling his 'Companion to the Play House' Baker was largely indebted to his predecessor Langbaine. He adds but little information concerning the early dramatists. but his work is a useful book of reference for the history of the stage during the first half of the eighteenth century. He is the author of a small dramatic piece, 'The Muse of Ossian,' 1763, and from the Italian he translated a comedy in two acts, 'The Maid the Mistress' (La Serva Padrona) which was acted at Edinburgh in 1763. and printed in the same year. It is improbable that he was (as stated in the British Museum Catalogue) the 'Mr. Baker' who, in 1745, wrote a preface to the translation of the 'Continuation of Don Quixote;' for he was then but fifteen years of age, and we may be sure that this instance of his son's precocity would have been mentioned by Henry Baker in the letter to Doddridge.

[Diary and Correspondence of Doddridge, v. 29; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, v. 274. 276, 277; Biographia Dramatica. 1782, 1812; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 94; Watt's Bibl. Brit.; British Museum Catalogue.]

A. H. B.