Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Field, Edwin Wilkins

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FIELD, EDWIN WILKINS (1804–1871), law reformer and amateur artist, eldest son of William Field [q. v.], was born at Leam, near Warwick, on 12 Oct. 1804. He was educated at his father's school, and on 19 March 1821 was articled to the firm of Taylor & Roscoe, solicitors, of King's Bench Walk, Temple. For some years after coming to London he lived in the family of the junior partner, Robert Roscoe, to the influence of whose fine tastes he attributed ‘much of the pleasures’ of his subsequent life. Edgar Taylor (d 1839), the senior partner, was not only a solicitor of the first rank, but a remarkably accomplished scholar. At Michaelmas term, 1826, Field was admitted attorney and solicitor. He had thoughts of beginning business in Warwick, but remained in London on the advice of James Booth (1796–1880) [q. v.], joining his fellow-clerk, William Sharpe (1804–1870), to form the firm of Sharpe & Field, in Bread Street, Cheapside. Henry Ellwood was their first clerk. In 1835 Taylor, who was then alone, took Sharpe and Field into partnership with him. The office of the firm was long in Bedford Row, afterwards in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

In 1840 Field came forward as an advocate of chancery reform. His ‘Observations of a Solicitor’ attracted much attention. In 1841 two of his suggestions were carried out, by the abolition of the court of exchequer as a court of equity, and the appointment of two additional vice-chancellors. The energy with which he continued to press his views had much to do with the passing of the act of 1842, by which the ‘six clerks’ and ‘sworn clerks’ were abolished, and the path was opened for further improvements in the efficiency and economy of chancery proceedings. In 1844 Field was in communication with the board of trade on the subject of a winding-up act for joint-stock companies. The act of 1848 substantially embodied the proposals contained in a draft bill laid before the legal adviser of the board of trade on 27 April 1846, by Field and his friend Rigge, who had formerly been in his office. As early as 1846 Field took up the question of reform in the system of legal remuneration, advocating an ad valorem system, with the option of special contract. He had the support of Lord Langdale, then master of the rolls, and pressed the matter on various legal societies, giving evidence on the subject in July 1851 before a committee of the House of Lords. Lord Westbury's bill of 1865, on which Field was consulted, was not passed; but the act of 1870 gave effect to his views so far as regards the option of contract. In 1861 he was appointed on a royal commission to report on the accountant-general's department of the court of chancery. The acts of 1865 for the concentration of the law courts were largely promoted by his exertions. He was secretary to the royal commission appointed in that year to prepare a plan for the new courts, and declined any remuneration for his services.

As a unitarian dissenter, Field was naturally interested in the decisions (in the Hewley and other cases) which invalidated the title of unitarians to any trust property created before 1813, the date of their legal toleration. Field suggested the remedy of an act of parliament, and was the mainspring of the agitation which secured the passing of the Dissenters' Chapels Act in 1844; making the legal toleration of unitarian opinion retrospective; and, in the case of all dissenting trusts not in favour of specific doctrines, legalising the usage of twenty-five years. His co-religionists raised a sum of 530l. in acknowledgment of Field's unpaid services; he applied it towards the rebuilding of his father's meeting-house at Kenilworth. A further memorial of the passing of the act was the building of University Hall, Gordon Square (opened 16 Oct. 1849), towards which Field himself collected much money. In 1847 he was consulted by Robert Hibbert [q. v.] about a trust which he was proposing to create, with the aim of securing a higher culture in the ministry of his denomination. The provisions of the trust-deed (executed 19 July) were mainly due to Field's suggestions. He induced Hibbert to modify his original plan in favour of what has become practically an endowment for research, and has produced (since 1878) the annual series of Hibbert Lectures.

From 1857 Field exerted himself in procuring a measure for establishing artistic copyright. He worked hard for the act of 1862, though it did not do all he desired. In reply to the thanks of the Society of Arts, he wrote that no labour he could ever give would repay his obligations to art and artists.

Field's maxim was, ‘Have one horse, and one hobby.’ The beginning of his love for art he traced to a Warwickshire artist, William Ryder. Early in his professional life he introduced a drawing class at the Harp Alley school, and taught it once a week. Forced to rusticate at Ventnor by a broken leg, he spent a long vacation in sketching. From this period art was the perpetual joy of his busy life. He taught it to working men; cultivated it in the ‘conversation society’ founded at his residence, Squire's Mount, Hampstead; and pursued it in successive long vacations on the Thames, at Mill House, Cleve, near Goring, Oxfordshire. His original sketches fill many folios. He greatly assisted Henry Crabb Robinson in forming the Flaxman Gallery at University College, London. In 1862 he was a member of the committee of the fine art section of the International Exhibition. In 1868 he took a leading part in framing the scheme for the Slade School of Art (opened 1871) in connection with University College. Few things gratified him more than the token of regard presented to him in 1863 by his artist friends of the Old Water-colour Society, in the shape of a portfolio of their original drawings.

Field's character impressed even casual acquaintances, and accounted for the warmth and range of his friendships. All his ideals were high; and his pace and force were tremendous. His convictions were strong; equally strong was his love of independence in others. ‘Do you believe that heresy is the salt of the earth?’ was a characteristic question of his. A certain bluffness of manner expressed the rapidity of his mind, without veiling his robust goodness of heart.

His end was tragical. By the capsizing of a boat on 30 July 1871 he was drowned in the Thames, in company with Henry Ellwood, his old clerk, both good swimmers. Their strength had been exhausted in supporting another clerk, who could not swim, and was saved. On 4 Aug. he was buried at the Highgate cemetery, in a vault next to that of his friend Robinson. He was twice married: first, in 1830, to Mary, daughter of Sutton Sharpe, who died at Leamington in 1831, soon after the birth of her son Rogers, named after his great-uncle, the poet; secondly, in 1833, to Letitia, daughter of Robert Kinder, by whom he had seven children; his sons Basil and Allen followed the legal profession; Walter devoted himself to art.

Field's portrait, by Sir John Watson Gordon, was painted in 1858, subscribed for by a hundred of his former clerks and pupils; it has been engraved. An admirable likeness is presented in a river-piece by his son Walter, which has been reproduced by photography. Another is among the fresco-portraits in the dining hall of University Hall, Gordon Square. The best portrait of his mind is drawn by his own hand, in the letter to the ‘hundred clerks’ in 1858.

Sadler gives a list of nineteen of his publications, of which the following may be mentioned: 1. ‘Memoir of Edgar Taylor’ (reprinted for private circulation from ‘Legal Observer,’ 28 Sept. 1839). 2. ‘Observations of a Solicitor on Defects in the … System … of the Equity Courts’ (28 Feb.) 1840, 8vo. 3. ‘Observations of a Solicitor on … Liability Partnerships,’ &c., 1854, 8vo. 4. ‘Correspondence on the present relations between Great Britain and the United States,’ &c., Boston, Mass., 1862, 8vo (between Field and C. G. Loring).

[Sadler's Memorial Sketch, 1872; Murch's Memoir of R. Hibbert, 1874, p. 65 sq.; Clayden's Samuel Sharpe, 1883, p. 40; private information.]

A. G.