Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Garnett, Richard
GARNETT, RICHARD (1835–1906), man of letters and keeper of printed books at the British Museum, born in Beacon Street, Lichfield, on 27 Feb. 1835, was elder son of Richard Garnett [q. v.] by his wife Rayne, daughter of John Wreaks of Sheffield. His uncles Jeremiah Garnett and Thomas Garnett (1799–1878) are, like his father, noticed separately. Three years after his birth his father removed with his family to London on becoming assistant keeper of printed books at the British Museum. Richard was chiefly educated at home, but he spent some time at the Rev. C. M. Marcus's small private school in Caroline Street, Bedford Square, where his companions included Sir John Everett Millais [q. v. Suppl. I], Edward Hayes Plumptre [q. v.], and William Jackson Brodribb [q. v. Suppl. II]. He was also for a term at the end of 1850 at Whalley grammar school. Garnett showed exceptional intellectual precocity as a boy. He inherited his father's faculty for acquiring languages, and before he was fourteen he had read for his own amusement the whole of the 'Poetæ Scenici Græci,' Diodoras Siculus's History, the works of Boiardo, Ariosto, and Tasso, and the stories of Tieck and Hoffmann. All his life he studied not only the classics but the literature of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. His interest in current affairs was at the same time singularly active in youth, and he assimilated with avidity details of home and foreign politics and records of sport.
After his father's death in Sept. 1850 he declined, from a confirmed if somewhat precocious distrust of the educational efficiency of both Oxford and Cambridge, his kinsfolks' proposal that he should prepare for one of the universities. In the autumn of 1851, through the good offices of Anthony Panizzi [q. v.], his father's colleague at the British Museum, he became an assistant in the library there. With the British Museum he was closely identified for the greater part of his career. His first employment was in copying titles for the catalogue, but he was soon engaged in the more responsible task of revising the titles. Panizzi quickly recognised his ability, and entrusted him with the duty of classifying fresh acquisitions and placing them on the shelves. Panizzi won his whole-hearted admiration, and he set himself to carry on the traditions which Panizzi initiated at the museum. After devoting twenty years to subordinate labour at the museum, he was made in 1875 assistant keeper of printed books and superintendent of the reading-room. In spite of his shy and nervous manner he at once won golden opinions by the courteous readiness with which he placed his multifarious stores of knowledge at the disposal of readers. He was soon engaged on a heavy piece of work which added materially to the usefulness of the library to the public. In 1881 the printing of the general catalogue of books which had been suspended since 1841 was resumed. The superintendence of the enterprise fell to Garnett. He devoted immense energy to this great undertaking. In order to concentrate his energies upon it, he in 1884 retired from the reading-room, and was mainly occupied in editing the catalogue until 1890. In that year he was appointed keeper of printed books, and the catalogue was completed by other hands.
In 1882 Garnett was an unsuccessful candidate for the librarianship of the Bodleian library, Oxford, but his promotion to the headship of his department at the British Museum fully satisfied his ambitions. Many important additions were made to the library under his rule. 'A Description of Three Hundred Notable Books' (which he purchased for the museum during his term of office) was privately printed in 1899 in honour of his services on his retirement, and proves the catholicity and soundness of his judgment. He was keenly alive to the need of providing room for future accessions to the library, and in 1887 introduced 'the sliding press,' which greatly economised the space at his disposal. In 1899, a year before he attained the regulation age for retirement, he resigned his post, owing to his wife's failing health, after forty-eight years' service at the museum. Bishop Creighton called him 'the ideal librarian'—a title which was well justified by his width of literary knowledge and his zealous desire to adapt the national library to all reasonable public requirements. Although he was not a scientific bibliographer, he was interested in the purely professional side of his work, and won the regard of his fellow-librarians. In 1892-3 he was president of the Library Association of the United Kingdom, to whose 'Transactions' he frequently contributed. He edited a series of 'Library Manuals' and was president of the Bibliographical Society in 1895-7. From early days Garnett devoted his leisure to literature, and during his career at the museum steadily won a general reputation as a man of letters. After his retirement from the museum his pen was exceptionally busy, and his literary work was in unceasing demand until his death. In letters addressed between 1851 and 1864 to his younger brother, W. J. Garnett, who was then in Australia, he described his first literary endeavours as well as the varied experiences of his bachelor days in London. These letters, which have not been published, are now in the British Museum (Add. MS. 37489). Setting out with poetic ambitions which he never wholly abandoned, he published anonymously in 1858 his first volume, 'Primula; a Book of Lyrics.' This reappeared under his own name with additions next year as 'Io in Egypt, and other Poems,' and was thoroughly revised for a third issue in 1893. There followed 'Poems from the German' (1862); 'Idylls and Epigrams, chiefly from the Greek Anthology' (1869; republished as 'A Chaplet from the Greek Anthology,' 1892); 'Iphigenia in Delphi ' (1891); 'One Hundred and Twenty-four Sonnets from Dante, Petrarch, and Camoens' (1896); 'The Queen and other Poems' (1901); a dramatic jeu d'esprit in blank verse called 'William Shakespeare, Pedagogue and Poacher' (1904); and finally 'De flagello myrteo' (1905; new edit. 1906), a collection (in prose form but of poetic temper) of three hundred and sixty rather subtle 'thoughts and fancies on love.' Garnett's verse displays a cultured, even fastidious, taste and much metrical facility, but much of it is a graceful and melodious echo of wide reading rather than original imaginative effort. The thought at times strikes a cynical note. Probably his most valuable poetic work was done in translation.
In prose Garnett's labours were extensive and unusually versatile. He was from early manhood a voluminous contributor to periodicals. At the outset he wrote for the 'Literary Gazette' when owned by Lovell Reeve, and for the 'Examiner.' Subsequently he regularly wrote on German literature for the 'Saturday Review.' Articles from his pen appeared from time to time in 'Macmillan's Magazine,' in 'Temple Bar,' and 'Fraser's Magazine.' At a later period he wrote critical introductions to innumerable popular reprints of standard books, and he diversified literary criticisms with many excursions into biography. In the 'Great Writers' series he published monographs on 'Milton' (1887), on 'Carlyle,' which was drastically reduced before publication (1887), and on 'Emerson' (1888). To this Dictionary and to the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' he supplied very many memoirs. He had no great powers of research and was prone to rely for his facts on his retentive memory, but his biographical work was invariably that of a tasteful, discriminating, and well-informed compiler. His range of biographical interest extended far beyond men of letters, and his biographies include those of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, the colonial pioneer (1898), and of William Johnson Fox, the social reformer (published posthumously and completed by Garnett's son Edward in 1910).
Garnett's most important publications were the volumes entitled 'Relics of Shelley' (1862) and 'The Twilight of the Gods' (1903). The former was a small collection of unpublished verse by the poet, which Garnett discovered among the poet's MSS. and notebooks, which had belonged to Shelley's widow, and passed on her death in 1851 to his son. Sir Percy Shelley. With Shelley he had many affinities. His good fortune in discovering the poet's unknown work gave great satisfaction to Sir Percy and to his wife, Lady Shelley. Garnett became their intimate friend, and they attested their regard for him by presenting him with Shelley's notebooka. These fetched 3000l. at the sale of Garnett's library after his death. Lady Shelley pressed on Garnett the task of preparing the full life of her father-in-law, but other engagements compelled him to yield the labour to Prof. Edward Dowden. Garnett's 'The Twilight of the Gods' is a series of semi-classical or oriental apologues of pleasantly cynical flavour in the vein of Lucian. The book came out in 1888, and attracted no attention, though the earl of Lytton, then English ambassador at Paris, promptly recognised in a long letter to the author the fascination of its imaginative power and dry humour. A reprint in 1903 was welcomed by a large audience and established Garnett's reputation as a resourceful worker in fiction and a shrewd observer of human nature.
Among Garnett's later works were a useful 'History of Italian Literature' (1897), and he joined Mr. Edmund Gosse in compiling an 'Illustrated Record of English Literature' (in 4 vols.); vols. i. and ii. were from Garnett's pen (1903).
Garnett cherished a genuine and somewhat mystical sense of religion which combined hostility to priestcraft and dogma with a modified belief in astrology. He explained his position in an article in the 'University Magazine' (1880), published under the pseudonym of A. G. Trent, which was re-issued independently in 1893 as 'The Soul and the Stars'; it was translated into German in 1894. Garnett maintained that astrology was 'a physical science just as much as geology,' but he gave no credit to its alleged potency as a fortune-telling agent.
In 1883 the University of Edinburgh conferred on Garnett the honorary degree of LL.D., and he was made C.B. in 1895. He died at his house, 27 Tanza Road, Hampstead, on 13 April 1906, and was buried in Highgate cemetery. The chief part of his library was sold at Sotheby's on 6 Dec. 1906.
Garnett married in 1863 Olivia Namey (d. 1903), daughter of Edward Singleton, co. Clare, and had issue three sons and three daughters. His second son, Edward (b. 1868), is well known as an author and dramatist.
On his retiring from the museum in 1899 Garnett's friends presented him with his portrait by the Hon. John Collier. The portrait belongs to Garnett's eldest son, Robert. A photogravure of it is prefixed to 'Three Hundred Notable Books' (1899). A better painting by Miss E. M. Heath is in the possession of Garnett's son Edward. A bust by (Sir) George Frampton, R.A., was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899. A caricature by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1895.
Besides the works enumerated, Garnett was author of 'Shelley and Lord Beaconsfield' (privately printed, 1887); 'The Age of Dryden,' a literary handbook (1895); 'William Blake, Painter and Poet' ('Portfolio' monograph, 1895); 'Essays in Librarianship and Bibliography' (1899); 'Essays of an ex-Librarian' (1901). He also laboriously compiled from the voluminous MS. collections, chiefly dealing with Shropshire, of John Wood Warter [q. v.] 'An Old Shropshire Oak' (vols. i. and ii. 1886; vols. iii. and iv. 1891), and he lent his name as editor to 'The Litemational Library of Famous Literature,' a popular anthology on a large scale, which an American publishing syndicate circulated in England in 1901.
[Notes kindly supplied by Garnett's brother, Mr. W. J. Garnett; H. Cordier, Le docteur Richard Garnett, 1906; The Times, 14 April 1906; Athenæum, 21 April 1906; personal knowledge.]