Willett, Ralph (DNB00)

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WILLETT, RALPH (1719–1795), book-collector, was the elder son of Henry Willett of the island of St. Christopher, who married, about 1718, Elizabeth, eldest daughter of Colonel John Stanley of the island of Nevis. Dr. Andrew Willet [q. v.] belonged to the family. Their property in England was lost through adherence to the cause of Charles I, but their fortunes were repaired in the West India islands.

Ralph was born in 1719, and matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, on 23 June 1736, aged 17, but did not take a degree, and he was admitted student at Lincoln's Inn on 4 Jan. 1738–9. On his father's death in 1740 the estates in the West India islands came to him, and for the rest of his life he was able to gratify his taste for books and pictures. His town house was in Dean Street, Soho, and in 1751 he bought the estate of Merly in Great Canford, Dorset, where he began in 1752, and finished in 1760, a stately house, which soon proved insufficient for his collections. In 1772 he built two wings, that on the south-east being a library (adorned with fanciful designs in arabesques and frescoes) eighty-four feet long, twenty-three wide, and twenty-three high. A printed account of this room and a view of the house are in Hutchins's ‘Dorset’ (2nd edit. iii. 12); views and plans are also in Woolfe and Gandon's continuation of Campbell's ‘Vitruvius Britannicus.’

Willett's library was remarkably rich in early-printed books and in specimens of block-printing. Many works were on vellum, and all were in the finest condition. He possessed also an admirable collection of prints and drawings, while his pictures included several from the Orleans gallery and from Roman palaces. A description of the library was printed in octavo, in French and English, in 1776; it was reprinted by John Nichols, with twenty-five illustrations of the designs, in folio in 1785. A catalogue of the books in the library was distributed by Willett among his friends in 1790.

Willett was pricked as sheriff of Dorset in 1760. He was elected F.S.A. on 5 Dec. 1763, and F.R.S. on 21 June 1764. He died at Merly House without issue on 13 Jan. 1795, when the estate and the rest of his fortune passed by his will to his cousin, John Willett Adye, who took the name of Willett, and was M.P. for New Romney from 1796 to 1806. Ralph Willett was twice married. His first wife, Annabella Robinson, died on 10 Dec. 1779, aged 60; a tablet to her memory and that of her husband is on the south side of the chancel of Great Canford church. The second wife, whom he married by special license at his house in Dean Street on 15 May 1786, was Charlotte, daughter of Mr. Locke of Clerkenwell, and widow of Samuel Strutt, assistant clerk of the House of Lords. She died at Dean Street on 11 May 1815, aged 69, and was buried in the south cloister of Westminster Abbey.

Willett's pictures were sold by Peter Coxe & Co. on 31 May 1813 and two following days. His library was sold by Leigh & Sotheby on 6 Dec. 1813, and the sale occupied seventeen days. He had been a patron of Georg Dionysius Ehret [q. v.], who spent the summers of many years at Merly, its library containing ‘a copious collection of exotics’ by him. The botanical drawings were sold by Leigh & Sotheby on 20 and 21 Dec. A list of the prices realised at this sale, nineteen days in all, was published in 1814, the total being 13,508l. 4s. His books of prints passed under the hammer on 20 Feb. 1814. Henry Ralph Willett, a descendant of the inheritor of his property, who died in The Albany, London, in December 1857, collected coins and pictures, including twenty-six paintings and sketches by Hogarth.

‘Observations on the Origin of Printing,’ by Willett, were included in ‘Archæologia’ (viii. 239–50), and reprinted at Newcastle in 1819. As regards the birthplace of the craft, Willett decided in favour of Mainz. A second paper, ‘Memoir on the Origin of Printing,’ was included in the same collection (xi. 267–316), and was reprinted at Newcastle in 1818, and again in 1820. A third paper, ‘On British Naval Architecture,’ also appeared in pp. 154–199 of the eleventh volume of the ‘Archæologia.’

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Hutchins's Dorset, 2nd edit. iii. 14; Chester's Westminster Abbey Reg. p. 489; Lincoln's Inn Reg. i. 417; Gent. Mag. 1795, i. 169–70; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. viii. 2–8, 158; Mayo's Bibl. Dorset. pp. 124–6; Pulteney's Botany, ii. 288; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 337, 443, 520–1.]

W. P. C.