Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Farmer, Richard
FARMER, RICHARD, D.D. (1735–1797), master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, the descendant of a family long seated at Ratcliffe Culey, a hamlet in the parish of Sheepy, Leicestershire, was born at Leicester on 28 Aug. 1735. He was the second son of Richard Farmer, a rich maltster, by his wife Hannah, daughter of John Knibb. He was educated under the Rev. Gerrard Andrewes, in the free grammar school at Leicester, and about 1753 entered as a pensioner at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he graduated B.A. in 1757, and was a ‘senior optime.’ He successfully contested with Wanley Sawbridge for the silver cup given at Emmanuel College to the best graduate of that year. In 1760 he commenced M.A., and succeeded the Rev. Mr. Bickham as classical tutor of his college. For many years, while tutor, he served the curacy of Swavesey, a village about eight miles from Cambridge. Gunning relates that Farmer used to ride over to Swavesey on Sundays, and as soon as the services had been performed galloped back to college about six o'clock. After tea he put a night-cap on his head and dozed until it was time to attend the evening meeting in the parlour, where, under the soothing influence of a pipe, many an hour was whiled away in university or literary talk. At this time he formed an intimacy with Sir Thomas Hatton, bart., of Long Stanton, Cambridgeshire, and for some time aspired to the hand of his eldest daughter. The marriage was postponed on account of Farmer's want of means, and when after many years this objection was removed, he found on mature reflection that his habits of life were too deeply rooted to be changed with any chance of perfect happiness to either party. Such is George Dyer's version of the story; but Cole says: ‘Dr. Coleman told me, 3 May 1782, that he had it from sufficient authority, that Sir Thomas Hatton had refused his eldest daughter to Dr. Farmer, but upon what foundation he knew not. The lady is 27 or 28, and Dr. Farmer about 47 or 48. It will probably be a great mortification to both, as to every one it seemed that their regard for each other was reciprocal. Dr. Farmer's preferment is equal to 800l. per annum; and I guess the lady's fortune, there being six daughters and two sons, not very great’ (Addit. MS. 5869, f. 87 b).
On 19 May 1763 Farmer was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. In 1765 he was junior proctor of the university. He had already formed an extensive library and had acquired by his intimate acquaintance with English literature, especially the early dramatists, a considerable reputation as a scholar and an antiquary. When Dr. Johnson visited Cambridge in 1765 he had a ‘joyous meeting’ with Farmer at Emmanuel. A graphic account of the interview written by an eye-witness, B. N. Turner, of Denton, Lincolnshire, will be found in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for December 1818 (x. 388). The two scholars afterwards maintained a friendly correspondence on literary topics. Thus on one occasion Johnson requested Farmer to help Steevens in forming a catalogue of translations which Shakespeare might have seen, and on another he himself asked for information from the university registers respecting several Cambridge graduates noticed in the ‘Lives of the Poets.’
On 15 May 1766 Farmer issued from the university press proposals for printing the history of Leicester, written by Thomas Staveley, barrister-at-law, formerly of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He eventually abandoned this design, and returned the money which had been received from the subscribers to the projected work. Staveley's collections, together with those of the Rev. Samuel Carte, several original manuscripts, and some engraved plates, he presented to John Nichols, the historian of Leicestershire, who made use of them in the compilation of his great work (Nichols, Leicestershire, pref.; Gent. Mag. lxv. 185). Farmer found more congenial employment in the study of Shakespeare and his commentators. In 1767 he brought out the first edition of his only published work, an ‘Essay on the Learning of Shakspeare’ (Cambridge, 8vo), addressed to his friend and schoolfellow, Joseph Cradock of Gumley. A second edition of this valuable performance was called for the same year, in which there are ‘large additions.’ A third edition was printed at London in 1789, without any additions except a note at the end, accounting for his finally abandoning the intended publication of the antiquities of Leicester. A fourth edition appeared at London in 1821, 8vo. The essay is also given at large in Steevens's edition of Shakespeare 1793, in Reed's edition 1803, in Harris's edition 1812, and in Boswell's ‘Variorum,’ 1821. In this masterly little essay Farmer demonstrated that Shakespeare's knowledge of classical history was obtained at second hand through the medium of translations.
In 1767 he took the degree of B.D., and on 8 July 1769 Dr. Terrick, bishop of London, appointed him one of the preachers at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall. When in London he usually resided at the house of Dr. Anthony Askew [q. v.], the eminent physician, in Queen Square, Bloomsbury. In 1775, on the death of Dr. Richardson, he was chosen master of Emmanuel College, Henry Hubbard, the senior fellow, having declined the post on account of age and infirmities. He now took the degree of D.D., and was very soon succeeded in the tutorship by Dr. William Bennet, afterwards bishop of Cloyne. He served the office of vice-chancellor of the university in 1775–6, and again in 1787–8. During his first term of office the university voted an address to the king, in support of the American policy of the government. One member of the Caput refused to give up the key of the place containing the university seal, whereupon Farmer is said to have forced open the door with a sledge-hammer—an exploit which his democratic biographers allege to have been the cause of all his subsequent preferments. On the death of Dr. Barnardiston, master of Corpus Christi College, he was (27 June 1778) unanimously elected principal librarian of the university. In April 1780 he was collated by Bishop Hurd to the prebend of Alrewas, and the chancellorship annexed, founded in the cathedral church of Lichfield. In March 1782 he was installed a canon in the ninth prebend of the church of Canterbury. After enjoying this prebend for several years he resigned it on being preferred by Mr. Pitt to a canonry residentiary and the prebend of Consumpta-per-Mare at St. Paul's, London, on 19 March 1788. The latter years of his life were pretty equally divided between Emmanuel College and the residentiary house in Amen Corner. His residence in London was favourable to his love of literary society, and for many years he was a member of different clubs composed of men of letters, by whom he was much esteemed. Among these societies were the Eumélean Club at Blenheim Tavern, Bond Street, of which Dr. John Ash was president, the Unincreasable Club, Queen's Head, Holborn, of which Isaac Reed was president, and the Literary Club, founded by Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Farmer twice declined a bishopric that was offered to him by Mr. Pitt as a reward for the tory principles which he strove to propagate in his college and in the whole university. In 1796 he was admitted ad eundem at Oxford.
He died, after a long and painful illness, at the lodge of Emmanuel College, on 8 Sept. 1797, and was buried in the chapel. A monument was erected to his memory in the cloisters, inscribed with a Latin epitaph composed by Dr. Parr.
A portrait of him was engraved by J. Jones from a painting by Romney.
When a young man he wrote some ‘Directions for Studying the English History,’ which have been printed in the ‘European Magazine’ for 1791 and in Seward's ‘Biographiana;’ but his only work of any importance is the ‘Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare.’ Invincible indolence prevented him from achieving other literary triumphs. He was content to be the hero of a coterie, and to reign supreme in a college combination-room amid the delights of the pipe and the bottle. To his ease or his disappointment in love may be attributed a want of attention to his personal appearance, and to the usual forms of behaviour belonging to his station. In the company of strangers the eccentricity of his appearance caused him sometimes to be taken for a person half crazed. There were three things, it was said, which he loved above all others, namely, old port, old clothes, and old books; and three things which nobody could persuade him to do, namely, to rise in the morning, to go to bed at night, and to settle an account. In his own college he was adored, and in the university he exercised for many years more influence than any other individual. His friend Isaac Reed remarks that ‘as the master of his college he was easy and accessible, cultivating the friendship of the fellows and inferior members by every mark of kindness and attention; and this conduct was rewarded in the manner he most wished, by the harmony which prevailed in the society, and by an entire exemption from those feuds and animosities which too often tore to pieces and disgraced other colleges. In his office of residentiary of St. Paul's, if he was not the first mover, he was certainly the most strenuous advocate for promoting the art of sculpture, by the introduction of statuary into the metropolitan cathedral: and many of the regulations on the subject were suggested by him, and adopted in consequence of his recommendation.’
His library, which was particularly rich in scarce tracts and old English literature, was sold in London in 1798. The catalogue extends to 379 pages, and the separate books number 8,155. The library is supposed to have cost him less than 500l. It sold for 2,210l., independently of his pictures.
A scurrilous pamphlet, entitled ‘The Battle between Dr. Farmer and Peter Musgrave, the Cambridge Taylor, in Hudibrastic verse,’ appeared at London in 1792, 8vo. Several printed books with manuscript notes by Farmer are preserved in the British Museum.[Memoir by George Dyer in Annual Necrology for 1797–8, p. 390; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 618; Boswell's Johnson; Bromley's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, p. 360; Cole's MS. 54, pp. 32, 33; Dibdin's Bibliomania (1811), p. 565; European Mag. xxxvii. 116; Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, 3873, 3874; Gent. Mag. vol. lxvii. pt. ii. pp. 545, 805, 888, 1068, vol. lxviii. pt. i. p. 517, pt. ii. p. 720; Georgian Era, iii. 553; Gleig's Supplement to third edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, i. 641; Le Neve's Fasti (Hardy), i. 58, 586, ii. 382, iii. 611, 630, 702; Literary Memoirs of Living Authors, i. 183; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn), pp. 780, 2317; Marshall's Cat. of Five Hundred Celebrated Authors; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iv. 379, 407, 428, 2nd ser. x. 41; Seward's Biographiana, ii. 578–98; Shuckburgh's Essay on Farmer, printed with the Life of Laurence Chaderton, 1884; Smith's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, p. 55.]