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This article was written byWilliam Prideaux Courtney and was published in 1897
Richard Sharp, known as ‘Conversation Sharp,’ the son of an English officer, was born in the British garrison at Newfoundland in 1759. He adopted a commercial life, and for many years was a partner in the West India house of Boddington, Sharp, & Phillips in Fish Street Hill, London. Afterwards he was a member of the firm of Richard Sharp & Co., hat manufacturers, at the same address, and in 1806 was described as of Mark Lane. In business he amassed a considerable fortune.
Through life Sharp took a keen interest in politics and in literature. In his early years he knew Johnson and Burke. His friendship with Rogers began in the spring of 1792, and in the following July they made a tour together in the south of England. They became the ‘closest and most intimate friends.’ He made the acquaintance of Sir James Mackintosh about 1788 at a meeting of the Society for obtaining Constitutional Information. Mackintosh said that Sharp was the best critic he had ever known, and discussed metaphysics with him for hours in the chambers of Rogers in the Temple. In the winter of 1791-2 Sharp co-operated with the leading members of the whig party in forming a society for obtaining a reform of parliament, which was known as ‘Friends of the People.’ He was a man of many clubs and societies, both literary and political. As a friend of Isaac Reed, he belonged to the Unincreasable Club in Holborn, of which Reed was president, and he joined the Eumelean Club at the Blenheim tavern in Bond Street. He was one of the original members of the Literary Society founded in 1806. He also attended, with Canning and Mackintosh, a debating society held at the Clifford Street coffee-house at the corner of Bond Street, and when the King of Clubs was instituted by ‘Bobus’ Smith about 1801 at the Crown and Anchor tavern in the Strand, three of the earliest members were Erskine, Curran, and Sharp. He was elected F.S.A. on 19 April 1787, and F.R.S. on 12 June 1806.
From 1806 to 1812 Sharp sat in parliament as a consistent whig for the pocket borough of Castle Rising in Norfolk. At a by-election in March 1816 he was returned for the Irish constituency of Portarlington, and he was re-elected at the general election in 1818, but resigned early in 1819, and his friend David Ricardo took his place. He was returned for Ilchester at the general election of 1826, but by an order of the House of Commons on 22 February 1827 his name was erased from the list and the seat given to another. For a time he was a member of the finance committee, and a high compliment was paid to him by Henry Bankes for his services; but his name was not included in the renewed committee of June 1807. He was also a member of Horner's bullion committee. His chief speech was made on 21 March 1808 in introducing a motion condemning the expedition to Copenhagen, but this success was not followed up by later speeches. He was, however, on the testimony of Samuel Rogers, ‘very active in the background.’
Sharp, when in London, lived in Park Lane, and in the country his ‘cottage-home’ was at Fredley Farm in Mickleham, near Dorking. At these houses he gathered around him the chief persons of the day, and he knew their characters so well that he could hit them off in a moment. His conversational talents gave him his nickname. Some notes of his talk are given in the ‘Merivale Family Memorials,’ and Henry Mill said in 1840, ‘it was a fine thing for me to hear Conversation Sharp and my father [James Mill] converse’. A list of the visitors at Fredley between 1797 and 1835 is given in ‘Maria Drummond,’. They included Horner, Grattan, and Sydney Smith, who was so often there that he was dubbed ‘the bishop of Mickleham.’ Sharp was very friendly with Tom Moore, and was very kind to Macaulay at his entrance into life. Hallam introduces him as ‘my late friend, Richard Sharp, whose good taste is well known’. He was a friend of John Horne Tooke, and a familiar guest at Holland House. In the autumn of 1816 Sharp, while on the lake of Geneva, visited Byron, who preserved some of his anecdotes.
Sharp often travelled on the continent, particularly in France, Switzerland, and Italy, and he was a frequent visitor to the English lakes, where he made the acquaintance of their poets. Wordsworth used to say that Sharp knew Italy better than any one he ever met. In the spring of 1804 he entertained Coleridge very generously in London. His health began to decline about 1832; he spent the winter of 1834-5 at Torquay. He died unmarried at Dorchester, while on the journey to London, on 30 March 1835. His ward and adopted child, Maria Kinnaird, married Thomas Drummond (1797-1840). She inherited the bulk of Sharp's property, including the estate at Fredley and a house at Hyde Park Gardens, in which was the Reynolds portrait of Dr. Johnson, that had been bought at the Thrale sale in 1816. Mrs. Drummond died at Fredley on 15 January 1891.
In 1828 Sharp issued to his friends an anonymous volume of ‘Epistles in Verse,’ which were composed abroad between 1816 and 1823. They were reproduced, with the addition of an ‘Epistle to Lord Holland, Windermere, 1829,’ in his volume of ‘Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse’. These were noticed in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and were pronounced remarkable ‘for wisdom, wit, knowledge of the world, and sound criticism.’ He had contributed in 1784 a preface to the ‘Essay towards an English Grammar,’ by his old schoolmaster, John Fell (1735-1797), and a paper by him, ‘On the Nature and Utility of Eloquence,’ was read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester on 2 November 1787, and printed in its ‘Memoirs’. A ‘Letter to the Public Meeting of the Friends to the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts from a Lay Dissenter, 1790,’ is attributed to him.
Sharp at one time contemplated writing a history of the establishment of American independence, a scheme which was encouraged by his intimate friend, John Adams, afterwards president of the United States. Sharp assisted in the ‘Memoirs of Mackintosh.’ Numerous letters to him are in that work, and Mr. Clayden's volumes on Samuel Rogers.
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