Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harris, James (1709-1780)

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HARRIS, JAMES (1709–1780), author of ‘Hermes,’ eldest son of James Harris of the Close of Salisbury, by his second wife, Lady Elizabeth Ashley Cooper, third daughter of the second and sister of the third Lord Shaftesbury, was born 20 July 1709. He was educated at the grammar school in the close, and entered Wadham College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner. He matriculated 16 July 1726, and afterwards read law at Lincoln's Inn without intending to practise. On his father's death he became independent, and settled in the family house in Salisbury Close. He studied the classics industriously, often rising, ‘especially during the winter,’ at four or five. He was an active magistrate for the county, living at Salisbury and his house at Durnford in the neighbourhood. Though a student and an author, he was sociable, and especially encouraged concerts and the annual musical festival at Salisbury. He adapted words to selections from Italian and German composers made in two volumes, by Joseph Corfe [q. v.], the Salisbury organist. In 1761 he entered the House of Commons (where, as John Townshend remarked, he would find neither of his favourite subjects, harmony or grammar) as member for Christchurch, which he continued to represent until his death. He was a follower of George Grenville. On 1 Jan. 1763 he became a lord of the admiralty, and on 16 April 1763 a lord of the treasury. He retired with Grenville in 1765. He was made secretary and comptroller to the queen in 1774, but held no other office. He died 22 Dec. 1780, and was buried in the north aisle of Salisbury Cathedral. He married in 1745 Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Clarke of Sandford, Bridgwater. Three (of five) children survived him, two daughters and James (1746–1820) [q. v.], afterwards first Earl of Malmesbury. The latter was his junior colleague in the representation of Christchurch (1770–4 and Sept.–Dec. 1780).

A conversation with Harris at the house of Sir Joshua Reynolds is reported by Boswell in 1778 (Boswell, iii. 256–8, ed. Hill). Johnson seems to have respected his scholarship, but called him (ib. p. 245) ‘a prig and a bad prig.’ An engraving from a portrait by Highmore is prefixed to the first volume of his works (1801), and one from ‘a model by Gosset’ to the second. A portrait of Harris by Romney is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Harris's books are dry and technical, but have a certain interest from his adherence to the Aristotelian philosophy during the period of Locke's supremacy. His works are: 1. Three treatises (on ‘Art,’ ‘Music, Painting, and Poetry,’ and ‘Happiness’), 1744; 5th edition, 1794. 2. ‘Hermes, or a Philosophical Inquiry concerning Universal Grammar,’ 1751; translated into French by Thurot in 1796 by order of the French Directory. 3. ‘Philosophical Arrangements,’ 1775. 4. ‘Philological Inquiries,’ 1781 (appendix of various pieces). His works were collected, with ‘Some Account of the Author,’ by his son, Lord Malmesbury, in 1801. ‘On Rise and Progress of Criticism, from Papers by J.H.,’ 1752, and ‘Spring: a Pastoral,’ represented at Drury Lane 22 Sept. 1762, are also attributed to him. He added some notes to Sarah Fielding's translation of Xenophon.

[Account as above; Malmesbury's Diaries, 1844, vol. i. pp. vi, vii; Nichols's Anecdotes, iii. 385 and elsewhere; Nichols's Illustrations, v. 345–6; Baker's Biog. Dram.]

L. S.