William Roscoe and the Liverpool Athenaeum

By Hart, Linda | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

William Roscoe and the Liverpool Athenaeum


Hart, Linda, Contemporary Review


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. …

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