Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Gilpin, William (1724-1804)

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GILPIN, WILLIAM (1724–1804), miscellaneous writer, was born on 4 June 1724 at Scaleby Castle, near Carlisle. He was the son of Captain John Bernard Gilpin and Matilda, daughter of George Langstaffe, and a collateral descendant of Bernard Gilpin [q. v.] Sawrey Gilpin [q. v.], the artist, was his younger brother. Gilpin went to school at Carlisle, and subsequently at St. Bees, and in 1740 matriculated at Queen's College, Oxford, where, as he says, he spent six or seven years under a system of teaching ‘no better than solemn trifling.’ He graduated B.A. in 1744, and was ordained in 1746 by Sir George Fleming, bishop of Carlisle, to the curacy of Irthington, of which parish his uncle, the Rev. James Farish, was vicar. He shortly afterwards returned to Oxford, and proceeded M.A. in 1748, but left the university owing 70l.; to meet the debt he wrote his ‘Life of Bernard Gilpin’ (London, 1753, 8vo), which has been several times reissued. The work is a useful biography. Gilpin then held a curacy for a short time in London, but soon afterwards took a school at Cheam, Surrey, from a James Sanxay, where he remained nearly thirty years. About this time he married his first cousin, Margaret, daughter of William Gilpin, such unions having been frequent in his family.

At Cheam Gilpin showed himself an educational reformer considerably in advance of his time. For corporal punishment he substituted a system of fines and imprisonment, with due provision for exercise, imposed by a jury of boys. The fines were spent on the school library, on fives-courts, and other improvements, and on a dole of bread to the poor. He encouraged a love of gardening and habits of business among his pupils, and ‘thought it of much more use to’ them ‘to study their own language with accuracy than a dead one.’ Among his pupils, who averaged eighty in number, were Addington (Lord Sidmouth), the first Lord Redesdale, and his brother, Colonel William Mitford, the historian. During his long summer vacations Gilpin undertook those sketching tours by the publication of which he afterwards became so well known. Thus in 1769 and 1773 he visited Cambridge, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex; in 1770 and 1782 the Wye and South Wales; in 1774 the coasts of Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent; and in 1776 Cumberland, Westmoreland, and the Scotch highlands. In 1755 the ‘Life of Bernard Gilpin’ was followed by that of Latimer, and in 1765 by those of Wycliffe, Cobham, Huss, Jerome of Prague, and Zisca, all of which have passed through several editions. In 1768 Gilpin published ‘An Essay on Prints,’ the fifth edition of which appeared in 1802. In 1777 he was presented by William Mitford to the vicarage of Boldre in the New Forest, his home for the remainder of his life. He refused another living owing to his dislike to pluralities, and all his work was henceforward devoted to the good of his parish. He lived upon his income of 600l. a year, and, so as not to deprive his children of his savings, devoted the ‘profits of his amusements,’ i.e. of his literary and artistic work, to parochial improvements. He promoted the establishment of a new poor-house, of which he wrote an account printed by his friend, Edward Forster of Walthamstow, for the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor; and he built and endowed a parish school with a house for the master. In 1779 he published ‘Lectures on the Church Catechism,’ originally prepared for his school-pupils. This work was repeatedly reprinted; and Bishop Barrington gave him the prebend of Beaminster Secunda in Salisbury Cathedral in recognition of its merits. In 1782 he published his ‘Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales … relative chiefly to picturesque beauty, made in the summer of the years 1770 and 1782,’ the first of a series of five works with similar titles, and illustrated by aquatint drawings, which created, as has been truly said (Gent. Mag. vol. lxxiv. (1804) pt. i. pp. 388–9), ‘a new class of travels,’ though they also exposed the author to the satire of William Combe's ‘Dr. Syntax.’ The style of the writings has been characterised (loc. cit.) as ‘too poetic … but full of ingenious reflections, and free from exaggeration … truthful and warm, but free from false vague enthusiasm.’ His drawings are described by Michael Tyson (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 643) as ‘rather studies for landscape-painters than portraits of particular places.’ Some skill in drawing seems to have been hereditary in his family, his father being a skilful draughtsman, and Benjamin West being one of his cousins. The work on the Wye and South Wales went into five editions before 1800, in which year it was issued in French at Breslau. In 1789 it was followed by two volumes on his tour ‘in the mountains and lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland,’ which was reissued in 1792, and of which both French and German editions were issued, with better aquatints than those of the original, at Breslau in 1800. In the same year appeared two volumes on the highlands of Scotland, which were equally successful. In 1790 he published another religious educational work, an ‘Exposition of the New Testament,’ which became as popular as his ‘Lectures on the Catechism;’ and in the same year appeared one of his best-known works, ‘Remarks on Forest Scenery and other Woodland Views (relating chiefly to picturesque beauty), illustrated in the scenes of the New Forest.’ For this work his brother Sawrey etched a set of drawings. About this time he printed a ‘Funeral Sermon and Life of William Baker,’ a parish impostor who entirely deceived the simple-minded vicar; and imaginary ‘Lives of John Trueman and Richard Atkins, for the use of servants'-halls, farmhouses, and cottages.’ In 1784 he had followed up his series of biographies of reformers by one of Cranmer. When about seventy-one he was attacked by dropsy, and, though mainly cured by the use of digitalis, was no longer able to serve his extensive parish without help, and therefore secured the assistance of the Rev. Richard Warner [q. v.] as curate. From Warner's ‘Literary Recollections’ we gather much of our information about Gilpin's later years. Unable to preach, he issued in 1799 and 1800 two volumes of ‘Sermons to a Country Congregation; and Hints for Sermons,’ a third volume of which appeared in 1803, and a fourth, posthumously, in 1805. In continuation of his works on landscape he published in 1792 three essays, on picturesque beauty, on picturesque travel, and on sketching landscapes, with a poem on landscape painting; and, in 1798, ‘Picturesque Remarks on the Western Parts of England and the Isle of Wight.’ He then collected together all his original drawings and had them sold by auction, by which means he was enabled to endow with 1,200l. the school he had built at Boldre, while a further sale after his death realised nearly 1,600l. Among minor works issued during his lifetime were ‘Three Dialogues on the amusements of Clergymen’ (1796); ‘Moral Contrasts; or the Power of Religion …’ (1798); and an edition of C. D'Oyley's ‘Life of Our Blessed Saviour’ (1801). He vested all his unpublished works in trustees for the benefit of the school, in accordance with which bequest there appeared ‘A Clergyman's Legacy to his Parishioners,’ 1804; ‘Observations on the Coasts of Hampshire, Sussex, and Kent, with two Essays on the … Mode in which the Author executed his own Drawings,’ 1804; the fourth volume, and a new edition, of his sermons, 1805; ‘Dialogues on Various Subjects,’ 1807; and ‘Observations on … Cambridge, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Essex,’ 1809.

Gilpin died on 5 April 1804 at his house at Vicar's Hill, Boldre, and is buried in the churchyard of his parish. His wife survived him for three years. Of his four children two daughters, both named Margaret, died in infancy; John Bernard married and settled in Massachusetts, and William graduated at Oxford in 1778, succeeded his father in the Cheam school about the same time, and died rector of Pulverbatch, Shropshire, in 1848 at the age of ninety-one. In 1791 Gilpin had written for his grandchildren ‘Memoirs of Dr. Richard Gilpin of Scaleby Castle in Cumberland and of his Posterity in the two succeeding Generations,’ which remained in manuscript until 1879, when it was issued by the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian Society, with an account of the author by himself, written in 1801, and a full pedigree of the family. This has been the source of much of our information. Some ‘Original Letters from William Gilpin’ were published by R. Warner in 1817. There is an engraved portrait of Gilpin by G. Clinch, from a painting by H. Walton.

[Gent. Mag. vol. lxxiv. (1804) pt. i. pp. 388–9; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 639, ii. 253, viii. 643, 657; Nichols's Lit. Illustr. i. 778; Biog. Univers. xvii. 388; and the works above mentioned.]

G. S. B.