Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Slezer, John

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Date of death 1717 in the ODNB.

SLEZER, JOHN (d. 1714), author of ‘Theatrum Scotiæ’ and captain of artillery, was a native of Holland, and was during his early years attached in a military capacity to the house of Orange. He settled in Scotland in 1669, and, through his proficiency as a draughtsman, became acquainted with several of the nobility. At a later date (1708) he described himself as ‘a foreigner who had been honoured by the patronage of Charles II and the Duke of York.’ Through the influence of his patrons he was appointed a lieutenant of artillery, and was entrusted specially with the practical superintendence of the ordnance. But about 1678 he turned aside from his professional duties ‘to make a book of the figures, and draughts, and frontispiece in Talyduce [taille-douce, the French term for copper-plate etching] of all the King's Castles, Pallaces, towns, and other notable places in the kingdom belonging to private subjects.’ He travelled through Scotland, and the design ultimately resulted in the publication of Slezer's ‘Theatrum Scotiæ.’ On 19 April 1678 ‘John Slezer, Ingineir to His Maj., was admitted burgess, gratis,’ by the corporation of Dundee, and he prepared two views of the town. About the same time Slezer, when passing by Glamis Castle, the seat of Patrick Lyon, first earl of Strathmore [q. v.], expressed to the owner a wish to sketch it. Lord Strathmore, as he states in his ‘Book of Record,’ received the suggestion with enthusiasm, and gave Slezer ‘liberall money, because I was loath that he should doe it at his owne charge, and that I knew the cuts and ingravings would stand him money.’ The progress of the ‘Theatrum Scotiæ’ was temporarily interrupted in 1680, when the master of the ordnance, John Drummond of Lundin, brother of the Earl of Perth, sent Slezer, by Charles II's directions, to Holland for the purpose of having new guns cast for Scotland, and also that he might bring experienced gunners or ‘fireworkers’ thither. Many interesting letters, written by Slezer to John Drummond while employed on this mission, between March and November 1681, are preserved at Blair-Drummond. In one of his letters Slezer expressed the hope that his claim on the treasury for his expenses had been paid; ‘for I suspect,’ he adds, ‘my wife will be as scairce of siller as myself.’ His wife's name was Jean Straiton, and she was doubtless a native of Dundee.

Before November 1688 Slezer had been advanced to the rank of captain. He was then in command of the artillery train, and was ordered to proceed against the supporters of the Prince of Orange. In March 1689 he was appointed by the Scots parliament to ‘draw together the canoniers and artillery;’ but as he at first refused to take the oath of fidelity to the committee of estates, he was forbidden to return to Edinburgh Castle until he had done so. He must have complied with this condition, and his earlier connection with the house of Orange enabled him to procure a commission from William III as ‘captain of the Artillery Company and surveyor of Magazines,’ which was dated Kensington, 11 Jan. 1689–90. Slezer visited the court and renewed his acquaintance with the king (cf. a letter, dated March 1690, from William III to the Earl of Melville, secretary of state for Scotland).

William III, like his two predecessors, expressed admiration for the project of the ‘Theatrum Scotiæ,’ and Slezer now devoted himself to the completion of that work. The first volume was published by royal authority in 1693, and contained fifty-seven views of palaces, abbeys, and castles of the Scottish nobility. The letterpress which accompanied this edition was written in Latin by Sir Robert Sibbald [q. v.], but Slezer procured an English translation for the second edition which appeared in 1710, without Sir Robert's consent, and a breach between them was the result. Though the book was esteemed of national interest, its sale failed to cover the expenses of production. In 1695 Slezer exhibited a specimen to the Scottish parliament, petitioning them to aid him in issuing two further volumes, the sketches for which were then ready. Parliament resorted to a curious expedient in order to find the money required by Slezer. A special tax of 16s. Scots was imposed on his behalf, conjointly with John Adair [q. v.], the hydrographer, upon every ton of goods exported in foreign ships from Scotland, and of 4s. Scots per ton upon every Scottish ship above twelve tons burden exporting merchandise. This tax was to continue for five years. While the act was in force Slezer received, by his own account, 530l. sterling; but when it lapsed in 1698, it was only renewed after serious limitations had been adopted. The first portion of the tax was thenceforth to be devoted to the support of ‘His Majesty's frigates;’ handsome salaries were provided for the officials who administered the act, and Slezer and Adair were to be paid ‘out of the superplus.’ Under this new arrangement Slezer received little or no emolument; his military pay had fallen into arrear, and his pecuniary embarrassments rapidly increased. In 1705 he again petitioned parliament, stating that he was then 650l. sterling out of pocket. In 1708 he declared that he ought to have obtained 1,130l. from the Tonnage Act, but he ‘had never receaved the value of a single sixpence.’ His whole claim then amounted to 2,347l. sterling, part of this sum being for clothing which he had ordered for his artillerymen, for he could not ‘suffer them to go naked.’ His claim was never fully met, and on more than one occasion he was forced to take refuge from his creditors in the sanctuary of Holyrood. His death took place on 24 June 1714. His eldest son, who was a master-gunner, died in 1699; but Slezer's widow and his second son Charles pursued the government with their claims, and obtained various payments up till 1723, though the whole sum was never fully paid.

It is as designer of the ‘Theatrum Scotiæ’—a work of artistic, topographical, and historical value—that Slezer will be remembered. It passed through seven editions, which are dated respectively 1693, 1710, 1718, 1719, 1797, 1814, and 1874. Some of these editions are very rare. The edition of 1710 contained many sketches that were not included in the 1693 volume; but so carelessly was it edited that several of the places were misnamed on the pictures. Some of the sketches must have been drawn in 1678—more than thirty years before—and Slezer failed to identify them accurately. Dr. Jamieson wrote an incomplete sketch of Slezer for the edition of 1874. In a volume of ‘Delices de la Bretagne et l'Irlande,’ published at Leyden in 1708, the Scottish views are reduced facsimiles of Slezer's pictures.

[Millar's Roll of Eminent Burgesses of Dundee, p. 203; Glamis Book of Record (Scot. Hist. Soc.), pp. 42, 150; Theatrum Scotiæ, ed. 1874, pref.; Dalton's Artillery Company in Scotland (Proc. of Royal Artillery Institution, 1895); Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. pt. i. pp. 132–5, 11th Rep. App. vii. p. 25; Acts of Parl. of Scot. ix. 492; Nicolson's Scot. Hist. Library, p. 27.]

A. H. M.