THE Liverpool Athenaeum was founded in 1797 by some of the city's wealthy merchants, making it one of the oldest private members clubs still in existence--and almost thirty years older than the Athenaeum Club in London. Liverpool's gentry were seeking tranquil yet elegant surroundings in which to escape from the hustle and bustle of this thriving port city on England's north-west coast. But they also had a more serious purpose--the exchange of ideas and information, both commercial and intellectual.
To raise funds for the venture a company was set up and shares were sold. As the document sent to potential subscribers said: 'It has often been a matter of surprise to many of the inhabitants of this place ... that in a town of such commercial and national importance as Liverpool, the conveniences and accommodation for the acquisition of knowledge, both local and general, both ancient and modern, should be so imperfect as they most confessedly are.' Five hundred shareholding Proprietors eventually subscribed, and the number remains the same today (each share being sold or bequeathed as the Proprietor wishes).
These men were children of the Enlightenment; establishing a library was a top priority. Today it must be one of the best privately-owned libraries in the United Kingdom. The collection, built up throughout the nineteenth century, includes many bequests made by notable antiquarians. The books, pamphlets, maps and charts dealing with local history are especially important, but there is much else.
On a recent visit, I ran my eyes along a shelf of rare books, and spotted Don Quixote illustrated by Gustave Dore (approximately four inches wide and fifteen inches high), a three-volume study of eighteenth-century English furniture, and A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte in four beautifully bound volumes (each one approximately two inches wide and twelve inches high).
As the library seldom buys new books, it comes as a shock to suddenly see one nestled among old and rare books from the nineteenth century. One shelf included Correspondence of Jonathan Swift in six volumes, Lord Chesterfield's letters in three volumes, Chesterfield's miscellaneous works in four volumes, and then--looking ostentatious with its bright blue illustrated dust jacket that even had photos on the spine--a volume of letters between Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh published in 1997.
Among the library's 60,000 volumes is the splendid Roscoe Collection. Within a few hours of arriving in Liverpool, I realised that it's hard to do anything seriously cultural in the city without coming across the name of William Roscoe (1753-1831). Or, as the American writer Washington Irving put italmost two hundred years ago, 'Wherever you go in Liverpool you perceive traces of his footsteps in all that is elegant and liberal.'
Roscoe has been described variously as a banker, lawyer, Radical politician, philanthropist, historian, poet, botanist, art collector and antiquarian. No one disputes that he was Liverpool's most eminent citizen, and it only touches the surface of his accomplishments to say that he was the principal founder of the Liverpool Athenaeum, the Liverpool Botanic Garden, the Liverpool School for the Blind and the Liverpool Royal Institution.
Roscoe was the self-educated son of a Liverpool innkeeper and market gardener. With private tutoring he learned Latin, Greek, French and Italian, and began pursuing his serious and life-long interest in art and literature. When Roscoe was only twenty years old, he and some friends founded the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Painting and Design. Soon afterwards, the society hosted England's first public exhibition of paintings outside London. But Roscoe also had to earn a living, and in his twenty-first year he qualified to practice law. He worked hard, but without much enjoyment, as an attorney for over two decades, while his ten children were growing up.
Roscoe had always been fascinated by the Renaissance, especially the development of the arts in fifteenth-century Florence. He embarked on ten years of research, in order to write a major study--the first biography in English--of Lorenzo de Medici. Published in 1796, The Life of Lorenzo de Medici won international acclaim, being reprinted in over a dozen editions and translated into several European languages.
By the start of the nineteenth century Roscoe retired from his law practice and became, in effect, a latter day Lorenzo--promoting the arts in Liverpool, expanding the volumes in his library, and collecting paintings and manuscripts. In addition to fine a collection of Renaissance books, he acquired many valuable paintings (mainly early Italian and Netherlandish). He had an interest in typography and printing techniques, and amassed a collection of books showing how these had developed over the centuries.
When Roscoe was forced to sell his books and his art collection (due to the failure of a bank he had invested in), many of his friends and associates among Liverpool's Nonconformist Radical merchants clubbed together to buy them. They then donated the books to the Athenaeum--hence its Roscoe Collection--and the paintings to the Liverpool Royal Institution from where they eventually passed to Liverpool's superb Walker Art Gallery. There is a splendid portrait of Roscoe hanging prominently in the Walker. The portrait was painted between 1815 and 1817 by Sir Martin Archer Shee, showing Roscoe as a scholar surrounded by his books and manuscripts. (It can be viewed on the Walker's website.)
After his retirement Roscoe had more time for writing, and he produced a biography of Lorenzo's corpulent son Pope Leo X. This confirmed Roscoe's reputation as a serious historian, although the book was criticised by bothProtestants and Catholics. At the Athenaeum's library I was able to examine the original manuscript of volume I of The Life and Pontificate of Pope Leo X and compare it to the first printed edition of 1805. Roscoe also wrote a great deal of poetry, and had an instant best-seller with 'The Butterfly's Ball, and the Grasshopper's Feast' (1806). This children's poem about young Robert and his merry woodland companions is still read today. Roscoe was well ahead of his time in encouraging children to understand and enjoy the natural world.
Perhaps his most important legacy is the Liverpool Royal Institution, founded by Roscoe and his friends in 1817. The LRI sponsored a grammar school, developed a programme of adult education, provided a meeting place for educational organisations in the city, and also served as an informal meeting place for Liverpool's wealthy merchants--many of whom were its Proprietors, i.e. they had shares and took part in running the Institute. Roscoe was its first president. In his 1817 inaugural address 'On the Vicissitudes of Literature, Science and Arts, and Their Influence on the Present State of Society', he argued that the study of literature and fine arts are justified on grounds of their utility, their pleasure and the well-being of mankind. The Royal Institution eventually became University College which is today the University of Liverpool.
Somehow Roscoe found time to study and collect plants from around the world, which led to his founding another important civic institution--the Liverpool Botanic Garden. In a recent book recording its history, Jyll Bradley says that 'When William Roscoe originally founded Liverpool's first Botanic Garden 200 years ago, he gathered together rare and unique plants from across the globe to create a garden of great beauty and national importance'. With his passion for spreading knowledge, he wrote a major study on Monandrian Plants of the Order Scitamineae (arranged according to the system of Linnaeus) (1828) that is still important to botanists today.
Washington Irving (1783-1859), the American historian, biographer and man of letters, gives us a wonderful snapshot of Roscoe arriving at the Athenaeum (probably in 1817 or 1818 when Irving was living in England):
One of the first, places to which a stranger is taken in Liverpool is the Athenaeum. It is established on a liberal and judicious plan; it contains a good library, and spacious reading-room, and is the great literary resort of the place. Go there at what hour you may, you are sure to find it filled with grave-looking personages, deeply absorbed in the study of newspapers. As I was once visiting this haunt of the learned, my attention was attracted to a person just entering the room. He was advanced in life, tall, and of a form that might once have been commanding, but it was a little bowed by lime--perhaps by care. He had a noble Roman style of countenance; a head that would have pleased a painter; and ... his eye beamed with the fire of a poetic soul. I inquired his name, and was informed that it was ROSCOE. I drew back with an involuntary feeling of veneration. This, then, was an author of celebrity; this wasone of those men whose voices have gone forth to the ends of the earth; with whose mind I have communed even in the solitudes of America.
One of America's 'founding fathers' Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826. and president from 1801-09) also communed with William Roscoe. It happened this way. In 1803 Jefferson purchased a copy of Roscoe's life of Lorenzo de Medici. Roscoe might have learned about this from James Maury (1746-1840). the American consul in Liverpool from 1790 to 1829. Jefferson had known Maury since childhood, when he was a pupil of Maury's father and lived with the family for two years. As adults, Jefferson and Maury corresponded regularly. In 1805 Roscoe sent Jefferson a copy of his new book on Pope Leo X. With it he sent a letter (4 June 1805) praising 'those sentiments of enlightened toleration, liberal policy, & universal benevolence which have been ... energetically recommended and enforced in your public addresses to the great & increasing Nation over which you so deservedly preside'.
So began a correspondence that lasted over many years. When Roscoe sent John Bradbury to the United States to collect plants for the Liverpool Botanic Garden he arrived with an introduction to Jefferson, and Maury later told Jefferson how grateful Roscoe was to Jefferson for helping Bradbury. On 28 February 1819 Roscoe wrote to Jefferson enclosing two of his publications: 'The discourse on the opening of the Liverpool Institution may serve to shew the efforts that we are making in a provincial town for the promotion of literature & science; & is intended to demonstrate that for the moral & intellectual improvement of mankind they must depend on their own exertions.' The second publication was Roscoe's Penal Jurisprudence and the Reformation of Criminals in which he argued for the importance of religious instruction.
On 27 December 1820 Jefferson apologised to Roscoe for the delay in replying, due to 'a long continuance of ill health'. Regarding Roscoe's ideas on penal jurisprudence, 'our states are trying them with more or less success: and the great light you have thrown on the subject will, I am sure, be useful to our experiment'. Roscoe's ideas on higher education were also of benefit to Jefferson:
Your Liverpool institution will also aid us in the organization of our new University, an establishment now in progress in this state, and to which my remaining days and faculties will be devoted. When ready for its Professors, we shall apply for them chiefly to your island. Were we content to remain stationary in science, we should lake them from among ourselves; but, desirous of advancing, we must seek them in countries already in advance: and identity of language points to our best resource. To furnish inducements, we provide for the Professors separate buildings in which themselves & their families may be handsomely and comfortably lodged, and to liberal salaries will be added lucrative perquisites. This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it. We are looking with wonder at what is passing among you.
Roscoe agreed with Jefferson about the importance of institutions that promote the 'illimitable freedom of the human mind'. (That phrase is still known by University of Virginia students today and emblazoned on some buildings.) But Roscoe would have had trouble understanding Jefferson the slave owner, for Roscoe was a committed campaigner against the slave trade. As early as 1777, in his first published poem (about Liverpool as a thriving port), Roscoe criticised Britons who enjoy 'all the sweets of Liberty' but deny it to others. This was virtually an attack on Liverpool's religious, political and commercial Establishment, and a bold stand to take as the town's prosperity depended on the many slave ships operating from the port. (The Gladstone family's wealth, to cite but one example, was built on the Liverpool slave trade.)
During the next three years Roscoe attacked the slave trade in both prose and poetry, and donated money to the London Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. He managed to get elected as an MP in 1806 (standing as an independent candidate), and was immensely pleased to vote for the 1807 Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the Colonies. On his return to Liverpool, opponents and slave traders greeted him by rioting in the streets, and he did not stand in the next election. But he continued to support the anti-slavery movement, and in 1824 he addressed the Liverpool Society for the Abolition of Slavery as its president. By the time Roscoe died he was such a well-known figure that an Ohio village renamed itself in his honour. William Roscoe remains the best example of those public-spirited citizens who made Britain's provincial cities such a force for culture and enlightenment in the nineteenth century.
Where are the William Roscoes of today? Will we ever see his likes again? Probably not, as the state now does almost everything for us. Whatever enthusiasm, energy and initiative that exceptional individuals possess can only be put to work on a small canvas.
David Steer, Roscoe entry in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, on the website of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society.
Donald Macnaughton, Roscoe entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.
William Roscoe. 'The Butterfly's Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast', Gentleman's Magazine, 1806. Available online, or as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg.
William Roscoe, On the Vicissitudes of Literature, Science and Arts, and Their Influence on the Present State of Society, Liverpool 1817. Available online.
William Roscoe, An Address Delivered Before the Proprietors of the Botanic Garden in Liverpool, Liverpool 1802. Available online.
The Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool 1994; see also Jyll Bradley, Mr Roscoe's Garden, Liverpool University Press 2008.
Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent 1820.…