The Reptile Oculist
John Barrell on the trail of the mysterious John Taylor
John Taylor, the journalist, newspaper editor and poet, was born in 1757. His grandfather, the legendary ‘Chevalier’ Taylor, had been oculist to George II, and afterwards, so his grandson assures us, to ‘every crowned head in Europe’. He was as famous for his womanising as for his knowledge of ophthalmology, but most famous, perhaps, for his habit of prefacing every operation he performed with a long speech in praise of his own skill, composed in what he claimed was ‘the true Ciceronian’, with each main verb cunningly held back to the end of the sentence. According to Johnson, he was a remarkable instance of ‘how far impudence may carry ignorance’. Taylor himself – my John Taylor – later became oculist to George III, a job he shared with his brother. The post was unpaid and undemanding: though Taylor seems to have been a competent ophthalmologist in his twenties, by the time he received his royal appointment he had abandoned the discipline in favour of a career in journalism, and does not appear to have been called in to treat the long series of eye-problems, partly the effects of undiagnosed porphyria, which eventually left the king blind. He was fascinated by the stage, and in the 1780s became drama critic for the Morning Post. He cultivated the friendship of actors, dramatists, theatre managers, with extraordinary assiduity; indeed, over a period of more than forty years he seems to have known everyone: politicians, poets, novelists, painters, journalists, soldiers, clerics, even civil servants if they were sufficiently close to ministers to be worth knowing. During the 1790s, when the social networks in which Taylor moved were everywhere unpicked by political disagreements, Taylor, a known and convinced Tory and devotee of the prime minister, William Pitt, managed to remain on friendly terms with men such as William Godwin and the great satirical poet John Wolcot, ‘Peter Pindar’, whom Pitt’s government regarded as dangerously disloyal.
Friendship was his true vocation and chief talent, and he worked at it tirelessly. The great majority of his numerous poems – he described them, without false modesty, as ‘trifles’ – were puffing prologues and epilogues to plays by friends, or warmly complimentary verses about, or addressed to, the celebrities with whom he was or wished to be intimate. In the end he derived financial if not cultural capital from this lifelong habit of flattery. In 1827, badly short of money after many precarious years as a newspaper proprietor, Taylor published his collected poems. The edition was paid for by nearly four hundred subscribers. There were Tory grandees such as George Canning and Lords Eldon, Liverpool and Sidmouth. There were fellow poets such as Felicia Hemans, Tom Moore, Samuel Rogers, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey; artists of various kinds including the gifted amateur Sir George Beaumont, Francis Chantry, John Constable, Thomas Lawrence, James Northcote and John Soane; and from the theatre, Jack Bannister, George Colman the younger, various Kembles, the long-deified Mrs Siddons and very many more. There were peers of the realm, baronets, famous churchmen, a duchess. One hundred or so of these subscribers had been the subjects or recipients of Taylor’s poetic puffs, some many times over, and no doubt there would have been at least twice as many subscribers had so many of his early friends not predeceased him – though in some cases their posthumous dues were paid by surviving relations.
Tom Girtin wrote in 1958 of ‘the ubiquitous John Taylor’, but he could have had no idea how ubiquitous Taylor would turn out to be, as more and more came to be known about the 1790s. The story of his life in that decade, as it has emerged from recent historical research, is unbelievably complex and complicated, a story of espionage, bigamy, perjury and betrayal, all carried out by a man whose outward demeanour seems to have been remarkable mainly for its jocularity and blandness.
The most vivid description of Taylor’s character, at least as he was in the 1810s, is by the Scots-born journalist William Jerdan. ‘He was a very amusing companion, exceedingly facetious, full of anecdote, and endless in witticisms and puns,’ Jerdan claimed, but he was
a being of the artificial stage, not of the actual living world. He was acute, yet trifling; experienced, yet foolish; knowing in one sense, yet absurdly plotting as in a play; and looking for surprises and denouements, as if the game of life were a comedy or a farce. Over his passions he had no control, and though habitually good humoured, his recurrent phrensies were at once ludicrous and affecting.
Jerdan had become Taylor’s bitterest enemy and few people apart from him can ever have seen Taylor in a ‘passion’. Among his contemporaries there are hints, here and there, that his company, though delightful, was dispensable; that his flattery was too constant, his pursuit of friendship too assiduous, but only Jerdan seems to have had more than the odd bad word to say of him.
Jerdan also described Taylor’s appearance: ‘His features were of a form which resembled an animated death’s head, covered with thin muscles and skin; his body rather tapered from the haunch to the shoulder in the sugar loaf fashion; and below, his limbs were muscular and well built, as his casing in knee-breeches and silk stockings was properly calculated to display.’ A mixture of ugliness and vanity, it seems; but Taylor was made to look only slightly more prepossessing by his good friend the artist and architect George Dance, who drew him in profile in 1794 in what another friend, the painter Joseph Farington, described as ‘a very strong likeness’. Taylor is shown in profile, wearing his own hair arranged in a long pigtail and a curious frizzy headphone which covers his ear. He has a short concave forehead, a long straight nose, a round, prominent chin and a huge jowl shaded to look excessively meaty and anything but skull-like. But the face gives little away. His expression is that of a man who is as mildly vain as we all are when our picture is taken. Mostly, however, he has the air of a man who is concentrating hard on sitting still, which is as much as you can say of most portraits before the invention of fast film.
We can put together the story of Taylor’s life in the 1790s from hints offered by three historians: Lucyle Werkmeister in her two monumental studies of the London newspapers, The London Daily Press 1772-1792 (1963) and A Newspaper History of England 1792-1793 (1967); Clive Emsley, in his influential essay ‘The Home Office and its Sources of Information and Investigation 1791-1801’, in the English Historical Review for 1979; and Emily Lorraine de Montluzin in her study The Anti-Jacobins 1798-1800 (1988). At the very end of 1788 George III was still apparently mad, and the Prince of Wales was desperately hoping for an Act of Parliament that would establish him, over Pitt’s dead body, as regent. The Morning Post, a newspaper controlled by the government, published a paragraph hinting that the prince was secretly married to Mrs Fitzherbert, which of course he was. Because it was legally impossible for a prince married to a Catholic to become king, or, presumably, regent, the prince was desperate to prevent the Post revealing any more about his awkward secret. He threatened the conductor of the paper, John Benjafield, with prosecution; Benjafield responded by threatening more disclosures. The prince offered to buy Benjafield’s shares in the newspaper; Benjafield named an absurdly inflated price; the prince paid up. Overnight the Morning Post became an opposition newspaper, and Taylor was promoted from drama critic to editor, though with the politician and dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan managing the paper’s political department. This arrangement lasted for two years, until Sheridan, with whom Taylor, by his own account, was especially intimate, decided to position the Post further to the left, and fired his Tory friend.
Taylor was not unemployed for long. Early in 1791 he was offered and accepted an engagement as a Treasury writer, with a salary of three guineas a week, 50 per cent higher than he had earned on the Post. This salary was paid out of secret service funds and routed to Taylor indirectly through Thomas Harris, the loyalist proprietor of the Covent Garden Theatre. Taylor’s job was to write pro-government pamphlets and newspaper articles, though nothing he wrote in this capacity seems to have been identified. The 1790s was a great age of political pamphleteering, but Taylor appears to have written only one pamphlet, a contribution to the endless political bickering between Whig and Tory over the London theatres, and it came out a few months before he was entered on the Treasury payroll.
It was in the summer of 1792 that Taylor’s life began to get exciting. In early June he arrived in Edinburgh, on his majesty’s secret service, in time for the king’s birthday. By tradition this day had been celebrated in Scotland with carnivalesque disorder in the streets, and sometimes worse than that. This particular year, however, it was clear that something spectacular was being planned, involving serious rioting and the burning in effigy of Henry Dundas, the home secretary and unofficial ‘king’ of Scotland. On the afternoon of 5 June an effigy of Dundas was carried into George Square and set alight outside the house of his mother, Lady Arniston. Despite the intervention of troops, who were strongly resisted by the crowd, windows were broken in her house and in that of Robert Dundas, the lord advocate and Henry’s nephew. One rioter was shot by the soldiers, several injured. The crowd gathered again the next night, and attacked the house of the lord provost in St Andrew’s Square, breaking every window, ‘while the provost’s terrified wife and two daughters remained trapped inside’.
Only three men were ever charged with participating in these disturbances, of whom the first to be tried in the High Court of Justiciary was none other than John Taylor. He was charged with mobbing and rioting: the prosecution claimed that he had been the leader and instigator of the riot in St Andrew’s Square. Taylor’s defence, described by Werkmeister, was astonishing. He appears to have admitted inciting the riot, but pleaded not guilty on the grounds that he had been acting as an agent provocateur on the instructions of the government. He was acquitted. As Werkmeister points out, the instructions must have come from Henry Dundas himself, but what he had to gain from a riot which threatened his mother’s life and left her house carpeted in broken glass will never be understood. Of Taylor’s own motives, Werkmeister had no doubt: ‘He was loyal to the point of fanaticism: there was almost nothing he would not do for money.’
We hear little or nothing of Taylor over the ensuing eighteen months. In January 1793 the truest of blue newspapers, the True Briton, was founded, and Taylor became its theatre and art critic. There are records of his receiving secret service money up to Christmas 1792; thereafter, Werkmeister conjectures, he may have been paid from a different secret fund run by Dundas himself. Then in January 1794 he bumped into an acquaintance called Samuel Webb, a member of the London Corresponding Society, a popular reform society dedicated to achieving universal manhood suffrage. Webb was on his way to a general meeting of the society at the Globe Tavern in Craven Street, and invited Taylor along. He joined the LCS a few days later, becoming a member of one of the most active and numerous divisions, the second, whose members included the radical poet and lecturer John Thelwall. Though Taylor would later claim that he joined the society for ‘amusement’ and with no intention of becoming a spy or informer, he wrote reports for the government on every meeting he attended, including the very first one at the Globe.