Vansittart, Robert (DNB00)

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VANSITTART, ROBERT (1728–1789), regius professor of civil law at Oxford University, born on 28 Dec. 1728 in London at Great Ormond Street, was the second son of Arthur van Sittart of Shottesbrook, Berkshire, by his wife Martha, eldest daughter of Sir John Stonhouse, bart., of Radley, Berkshire, comptroller of the household to Queen Anne. Henry Vansittart [q. v.], governor of Bengal, was his younger brother.

Robert was educated at Reading and at Winchester. He matriculated from Trinity College, Oxford, on 3 April 1745, was elected a fellow of All Souls' College, and graduated B.C.L. in 1751 and D.C.L. in 1757. In 1753 he was called to the bar by the society of the Inner Temple. On 17 May 1760 he was nominated high steward of Monmouth, in 1763 recorder of Maidenhead, in 1764 recorder of Newbury, and in 1770 recorder of Windsor. In 1767 he was appointed by the crown regius professor of civil law in the university of Oxford, a post which he held till his death. For some years previous to his appointment he performed the duties of public orator for his predecessor, Robert Jenner.

Vansittart was on intimate terms with the painters George Knapton and Hogarth, as well as with the poets Paul Whitehead and Cowper. In Italy he met Goethe, who named a character in one of his comedies after him. He was a friend of Dr. Johnson, who regarded him with much affection, and who was invited to visit India with him by his brother Henry. In 1759, in a festive moment, Dr. Johnson, while on a visit to Oxford, proposed that they should scale the walls of All Souls' together. On another occasion, while Vansittart was edifying Boswell with a lengthy story of a flea, Johnson burst in with ‘It is a pity, sir, that you have not seen a lion; for a flea has taken you such a time that a lion must have served you for a twelve-month.’

Vansittart, who was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 4 June 1767, amused his leisure with antiquarian studies. In the year of his election he edited ‘Certain Ancient Tracts concerning the Management of Landed Property’ (London, 8vo), which consisted of reprints of Gentian Hervet's translation of ‘Xenophon's Treatise of the Householde,’ 1534; Sir Anthony Fitzherbert's ‘Boke of Husbandry,’ 1534; and Sir Anthony Fitzherbert's ‘Surveyinge,’ 1539.

Vansittart was a man of licentious and debauched habits, and, like his brother Henry, was a member of the ‘Franciscans of Medmenham,’ otherwise known as the ‘Hell-fire Club.’ To this society he presented with great pomp a baboon sent from India by Henry, to which Sir Francis Dashwood was accustomed to administer the eucharist at their meetings. Vansittart died at Oxford, unmarried, on 31 Jan. 1789, and was buried in a vault in the chapel of All Souls' College. In person he was tall and very thin, and the members of the Oxford bar gave the name of ‘Counsellor Van’ to a sharp-pointed rock on the river Wye from a fancied resemblance (see Bloomfield, Banks of Wye, 1823, p. 23).

Two portraits of Vansittart exist: one by Hogarth representing him as a young man, with a kerchief in the colours of the ‘Franciscans,’ wound in turban fashion over the head, embroidered with the motto ‘Love and Friendship;’ the other, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, depicting him in later life. Both were formerly in the Shottesbrook collection.

[Manuscript memoir kindly furnished by Mr. C. N. Vansittart; Vansittart Papers; Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. Hill, i. 348, ii. 194, v. 460; Piozzi Letters, i. 191, 197; Letters of Samuel Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, i. 389; Hill's Johnsonian Miscellanies, ii. 380–1; St. James's Chronicle, 17 Sept. 1768; Autobiography of Mrs. Piozzi, i. 143–4; Boswelliana, p. 270; Leslie and Taylor's Life and Times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, ii. 27, 28; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Gent. Mag. 1789, i. 182.]

E. I. C.