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Sir Henry Taylor (1800-1886)

This article was written by Leslie Stephen and was published in 1898

Sir Henry Taylor, author of ‘Philip Van Artevelde,’ born on 18 October 1800 at Bishop-Middleham, Durham, was the third son of George Taylor (1772-1851). George Taylor was the younger son of a squire who had an estate of some seven hundred acres at Swinhoe-Bromford in the parish of Bamborough, Northumberland. The squire was under a cloud and the property encumbered, and George was brought up by an uncle, without definite prospects. On 23 April 1797 he married Eleanor Ashworth, daughter of an ironmonger at Durham, and settled on a farm at Bishop-Middleham. His wife died when Henry, her third son, was an infant in arms. George Taylor and his wife had literary tastes, and were ardent admirers of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. He is described by Southey as having the ‘better part of an antique Roman about him.’ He became a recluse after his wife's death, and divided his time between his books and the management of a farm at St. Helen's Auckland, Durham. He educated his boys himself. The two elder showed much promise and wrote poetry.

Henry was languid and apparently dull. In April 1814 he was entered as a midshipman in the navy. He made one voyage, but his health was feeble, and in December he was discharged and returned to his father's house. There he spent two years without regular education, but with the run of a good library, and in an harmonious and studious family. After the peace George Taylor gave up farming. His friend Charles Arbuthnot, then secretary to the treasury, obtained small appointments for the eldest son, George, and for Henry. They went to London in 1817 with the second brother, William, a medical student, and soon afterwards they all caught typhus fever. William and George died in a fortnight; Henry's place was abolished in 1820, and he returned to his father's house.

The father had in 1818 married Miss J. Mills, a lady of great intelligence and sweetness of character, though of rather melancholy temperament. They settled in an old border-tower at Witton-le-Wear, Durham, remote from all society. Henry Taylor began to make up for the defects of his education, read Latin, a little Greek, and a great deal of Italian, and sat up, indulging in poetical reveries and drinking more tea than was good for him. He wrote Byronic poems and an article upon Moore, which in 1822 was accepted for the ‘Quarterly Review’ by Gifford. Taylor's mind was also stimulated by the warm sympathy and approval of his stepmother and of Isabella Fenwick, the intimate friend of Wordsworth. In 1823, on a visit to the lakes, he made an acquaintance with Southey, which soon afterwards ripened into a warm friendship. Meanwhile Taylor had resolved to go to London to start ‘as a literary adventurer.’

On reaching town in October 1823, he found that Gifford had put in type another article, upon Lord John Russell, ‘clever and malapert’ like the former. Taylor had also contributed to the ‘London Magazine,’ and had an offer of the editorship. He had meanwhile been introduced to Dr. (afterwards Sir) Henry Holland. In January 1824 Holland was authorised to offer him a clerkship in the colonial department, beginning with £350 a year, soon to be increased to £600 and to rise ultimately to £900 Taylor's ‘Quarterly’ articles and a letter of approval from Gifford helped to justify an appointment which Holland, though related to friends of the elder Taylor, apparently advised on account of the impression made by the son's personal merits. The colonial office was in a state of confusion, and much occupied by business arising out of the slavery question. Taylor was at once in a position of responsibility, and in March wrote a confidential paper highly approved by his chief, Lord Bathurst. He not only had much influence at the office, but became known to many young men of promise. He was specially intimate with his colleague Thomas Hyde Villiers, brother of George (afterwards Earl of Clarendon), and with all the Villiers family. Through Villiers he became acquainted with Charles Austin, J. S. Mill, and the Benthamites, and made carefully prepared speeches in opposition to their views in the debating society described by J. S. Mill. He enlightened their minds too by inviting them to personal meetings with Wordsworth and Southey. Besides writing in the ‘Quarterly,’ he finished his tragedy, ‘Isaac Comnenus,’ in 1828. It was reviewed by Southey in the ‘Quarterly,’ but ‘the public would have nothing to say to it.’

He at once set to work upon dramatising the story of Philip Van Artevelde. A proposal that he should accept a better position, which would have absorbed him in politics, came to nothing, and he fell back without regret upon literature. Meanwhile the slavery question was finding employment for him in the office. The policy of the government was that of ‘melioration,’ that is, of reforming without at once abolishing the slave laws. Taylor feared that immediate emancipation would lead to bloodshed, and devised schemes for bringing about the change gradually. The plan was altered in consequence of ministerial changes and the accession to office of Lord Stanley, who began by taking the matter into his own hands. Taylor was brought into close connection, during these discussions, with Sir James Stephen, who afterwards became his superior in the office, and was always a warm friend. Though the measure finally adopted embodied their views, Taylor at the time resented Stanley's conduct to Stephen and himself. A claim which he made about the same time for increased remuneration was not admitted; and he stated his intention of no longer sacrificing his literary occupations to working overtime at the office. No permanent ill-feeling was left, however, and after Stanley's resignation he continued to play an important part at the colonial office. Hyde Villiers had died in 1832, and the old circle of Austin and Mill was broken up. Taylor meanwhile became intimate with his colleague Frederick Elliot, and with other members of the family, especially Frederick's brother Charles (afterwards Admiral), described as ‘Earl Athulf’ in ‘Edwin the Fair.’ He published in 1840 a defence of Charles Elliot's proceedings in China, which had a great effect, converted the Duke of Wellington, and was translated into German; and addressed Elliot himself in an ode called ‘Heroism in the Shade’.

Frederick Elliot was the only friend who was confident of the success of ‘Philip Van Artevelde,’ which, after six years' preparation, appeared in June 1834. Murray, in spite of Lockhart's recommendation, refused to publish a successor to ‘Isaac Comnenus,’ and Moxon agreed to publish it only at Taylor's risk. The play, however, helped by a review from Lockhart in the ‘Quarterly,’ made a great success. Lansdowne House and Holland House opened their doors to the author, and Taylor became exposed to ‘social snares.’ From them he was saved, as he declares, ‘by that gracious gift, inaptitude to please.’ He found Lansdowne House too literary, and withdrew from Holland House because he could not speak well of the hostess, and thought it unfair to accept her hospitality. He had too much self-respect to be an amenable ‘lion,’ and he gave some offence, he thinks, by a collection of essays called ‘The Statesman.’ His ironical exposition of the arts of succeeding was taken for serious Machiavellism; and the book, which was read in proofs by Mr. Gladstone and Spedding, was never widely popular, though it has been much admired by good judges as a kind of appendix to Bacon. Archbishop Whately imitated it in an anonymous book called ‘The Bishop’.

Taylor had made acquaintance with Thomas Spring-Rice, afterwards Lord Monteagle, who came to the colonial office in 1834. In 1836 Taylor made an offer of marriage to Spring-Rice's daughter, Theodosia Alice, then in her eighteenth year. An engagement followed, after some hesitation on the part of the father, and was broken off upon religious grounds in 1838, Taylor's orthodoxy not being quite up to the mark. His health suffered, and he sought distraction in composing another play. Taylor rather avoided than sought offers of a higher position, and refused the government of Upper Canada, offered to him by Lord Glenelg in 1835. His energetic colleague James Stephen was ready to take work off his hands; and he obtained additional relief, and with it a lifelong friendship, by the appointment of James Spedding to a position in the office. He had to take a more active part when the difficulties caused by the apprenticeship system called for action. Taylor, in some elaborate papers, strongly recommended that the West Indian assemblies should be abolished and crown councils substituted. The measure was mutilated and finally shelved; and the mischief continued which culminated in the Jamaica outbreak of 1865. The events of that period, when he strongly approved of Governor Eyre's action, confirmed his opinion of the error of the previous irresolution.

In 1839 the engagement to Miss Spring-Rice was happily revived, and his marriage on 17 October was a beginning of unbroken domestic happiness. It brought to him also the intimate friendship of his wife's cousin, Mr. Aubrey de Vere. He finished his play, ‘Edwin the Fair,’ which was published in 1842, and succeeded fairly, though not so fully as its predecessor. Directly afterwards his health broke down, and he had to pass the winter of 1843-4 in Italy, whither he was accompanied by Mr. Aubrey de Vere. Upon returning in 1844 he settled at Mortlake. He was well known to leading men of letters, of whom — especially of Rogers and Carlyle — he has given interesting notices in his ‘Autobiography.’ From this time, however, he made only occasional appearances in London society. In 1847 he refused an offer of succeeding James Stephen as secretary in the colonial office. He was deterred partly by a scruple of delicacy, because he had advised Stephen to retire, and partly by doubts as to his own health and reluctance to sacrificing ‘the life poetic’ to business. ‘Philip Van Artevelde’ was put on the stage by Macready in 1847, and withdrawn after six nights. Taylor took the want of success with great composure. He afterwards wrote two plays, ‘The Virgin Widow’ (1849) and ‘St. Clement's Eve’ (1862), of which the last was the most successful; but his official labours occupied most of his strength. In 1859 he had a severe attack of spasmodic asthma. He was unable to attend at the office, and offered his resignation. His services, however, were too valuable to be lost, and an arrangement was made by which he was allowed to retain his office while doing his work at home. Some increase of salary was made, and he was to be responsible to the secretary of state alone. Sir Frederic Rogers (afterwards Lord Blachford), the under-secretary of state, became a most intimate friend.

In 1869 Taylor was made K.C.M.G., when the order was first extended to the colonial service generally. In the same year he published a letter to Mr. Gladstone entitled ‘Crime Considered.’ In consequence of his suggestions a criminal code was prepared for the crown colonies by Mr. (afterwards Mr. Justice) R. S. Wright. It was finished in 1875, but has never been passed into law. Taylor finally retired from his office in 1872.

In 1853 he had settled in a house, built from his wife's designs, at Sheen; and from 1861 he had spent the summer months at Bournemouth, and there bought a house, to which he ultimately retired. He was surrounded by an affectionate family. His father had continued to live at Witton, except during a short period in 1832, when he acted as secretary to the commission whose report led to the poor law of 1834. He died on 8 January 1851. The father's wife, whom Taylor had regarded as a mother, died on 12 April 1853, aged 83; and his old friend, Miss Fenwick, in 1856. His eldest son (b. 1845), who, in spite of weak health, had shown great promise, died on 16 May 1870. His home, as Mr Aubrey de Vere says, was ‘pre-eminently a happy one.’ His wife, a woman of great social charm, was entirely devoted to him. At Bournemouth he was not far from Freshwater, where he occasionally stayed with his friends Charles Hay and Julia Margaret Cameron. There, too, he frequently met his old friend Tennyson, at whose house he met Garibaldi. Younger men of letters, among others R. L. Stevenson, also made his acquaintance there; and his older friendships with Spedding, Mr. de Vere, and others never grew cold. He died on 27 March 1886. Lady Taylor died on 1 January 1891. A son and three daughters survived them.

‘Philip Van Artevelde’ is the work by which Taylor has obtained a permanent place in literature. Like other plays of the period, it was modelled upon the Elizabethan drama, but was not intended, and is little adapted for, the stage. It has, however, great interest as a thoughtful psychological study. The style is marked by great dignity and refinement, and gives the reflections upon life of a mind possessing at once great poetical sensibility and close familiarity with the actual working of society. One lyric — ‘Said tongue of neither maid nor wife’ — has become famous. Taylor was a warm admirer of Wordsworth and Southey, and belonged to their school, with such differences as distinguish the dweller in Downing Street from the recluse of the Lakes. His prose essays are full of fine reflections, and their delicate style shows the refined man of the world in the good sense of the phrase. Taylor was a man of singularly impressive appearance.

Taylor's works are: 1. ‘Isaac Comnenus,’ 1827. 2. ‘Philip Van Artevelde,’ 1834; 6th ed. 1852; new edition, 1872. 3. ‘The Statesman,’ 1836. 4. ‘Edwin the Fair,’ 1842; 2nd ed. 1845; other editions, 1852 and 1875. 5. ‘The Eve of the Conquest, and other Poems,’ 1847. 6. ‘Notes from Life,’ 1847; 4th ed. 1854. 7. ‘Notes from Books,’ 1849. 8. ‘The Virgin Widow,’ 1850. 9. ‘St. Clement's Eve,’ 1862. A collective edition of Taylor's plays and poems appeared in 1863, and a collective edition of his ‘Works’ in 1877-8, 5 vols.

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