The Strange Case of John Bampfylde

Roger Lonsdale

If John Bampfylde has any continuing public existence, it must be as the man on the right in this unusual double portrait by Joshua Reynolds. An interested enquirer might learn that Bampfylde was a minor poet of the later 18th century and, in the absence of much hard information, encounter what is scarcely more than a striking anecdote of frustrated love and subsequent insanity. To probe the few available facts about a man who vanished from sight in his mid-twenties is to discover that the Reynolds portrait, the poetry and the story of ill-fated love are inextricably woven together. Eventually, the young poet confronts us, as he did his embarrassed contemporaries, with disconcerting immediacy.

Bampfylde was born in 1754, into a long-established Devonshire family. Generations of judicious marriages had brought the Bampfyldes extensive property and political influence in the West Country. The poet’s overbearing father, Sir Richard, and his elder brother, Sir Charles, would between them represent Exeter or Devon in Parliament with little interruption between 1743 and 1812. John Bampfylde was educated by private tutors at the family home at Poltimore near Exeter, and later at Winchester. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in 1771 and a few months later appears in the admissions register at Lincoln’s Inn. He stayed for less than two years at Cambridge, and seems to have travelled for about a year on the Continent before returning to quality as a barrister at Lincoln’s Inn.

So far Bampfylde remains a shadowy figure, going through the motions of an education appropriate to a younger son of good family. Almost everything else hitherto known about him derives from the composer and author, William Jackson, a prominent figure in Exeter musical life. In a letter of 3 October 1799 Robert Southey sent Coleridge the unusual story he had recently heard from Jackson. At the age of 16 Bampfylde had gone to see the composer in Exeter, and had astonished him with his remarkable powers of improvisation on the harpsichord. Even after taking conventional music lessons, he retained this gift, which Jackson, a highly experienced musician, considered unique. In the mid-1770s Bampfylde decided to reject the legal career planned for him by his family and went to live in humble seclusion on a farm near Chudleigh. He began a series of sonnets about the picturesque valley of the River Teign, the farm, and his love of solitude. One sonnet, ‘On a Frightful Dream’, must seem ominous in retrospect. Another, addressed to his mentor William Jackson, evokes his ten-mile walks over the moors to Exeter, when he would often ‘come to town in winter before Jackson was up ... ungloved, open-breasted, with a pocket-full of music, and poems, to know how he liked them’.

It was probably after his father’s death in 1776 that his elder brother Charles, on becoming head of the family, decided that something should be done about John. In Jackson’s words: ‘His friends – plague on the word – his relatives, I mean, thought this was a sad life for a man of family, so they drove him to London.’ As Southey told Coleridge: ‘The tears ran down Jackson’s cheek when he told me the story ... “Poor fellow!” said Jackson, “there did not live a purer creature; and if they would have let him alone, he might have been alive now. In London his feelings having been forced out of their natural channel took a wrong direction, and he soon began to suffer the punishment of debauchery.” ’

Nothing precise has come to light about Bampfylde’s ‘debauchery’. His friend George Huddesford, who must have known everything about these London years, chose to enter the conspiracy of silence maintained by virtually everyone who encountered Bampfylde. Another Wykehamist, Huddesford had been briefly a fellow of New College, Oxford, before having to vacate his fellowship because of an impetuous marriage. In London, his ambitions turned to painting and he studied with Sir Joshua Reynolds. It was no doubt Huddesford who introduced Bampfylde to the painter and who in 1777 commissioned the double portrait in which they were both to appear. Reynolds’s characterisations of the wary, aggressive Huddesford and the dreamier, introspective Bampfylde in the portrait are revealing. Towards the end of 1778 the contrast took a literary form. Huddesford published Warley: A Satire, disconcertingly addressing this sometimes coarse mockery of the aristocratic, political and ecclesiastical establishment to Reynolds himself. It can hardly be coincidental that Warley included thinly veiled derision of Bampfylde’s brother Sir Charles and his extravagant wife.

Reynolds must have been no less disturbed a few weeks later by newspaper advertisements for Sixteen Sonnets by John Bampfylde, since they were emphatically dedicated to ‘Miss PALMER’. Mary Palmer, Sir Joshua’s niece, had been living more or less permanently with him since 1773 and became indispensable to her bachelor uncle, running his household and often acting as his amanuensis. Intelligent, handsome and lively, with musical and literary interests, Mary Palmer had come to obsess Bampfylde. Jackson told Southey in 1799 that the young poet had fallen ‘madly in love’ with her, and the cliché can be taken literally, since Mary Palmer was to be his ruin. Whatever she thought of Bampfylde, Reynolds himself was firmly opposed to the idea of her marrying a second son who had no clear plans about a career.

Within a few weeks Bampfylde had proposed to Mary Palmer and had been rejected. Two appointments with Bampfylde in Sir Joshua’s pocketbooks on 28 January and 8 February 1779 have always been connected with the joint portrait, but may well have concerned the poet’s courtship of Reynolds’s niece. In any case, Jackson was certain that Bampfylde’s rejection marked ‘the commencement of his madness’, adding that ‘on being refused admittance at Sir Joshua’s he broke the windows, and was taken to Newgate.’ Bampfylde did indeed appear before the Westminster magistrates on 6 March 1779 and was bound over to the Quarter Sessions to ‘answer what shall be objected against him by Sr Joshua Reynolds Knt’. What can now be added for the first time is an account of the events of the preceding night.

There is a painful irony in the fact that the poet’s mental anguish overcame what vestiges of self-control he still retained on one of the most grandiose of late Augustan musical and literary occasions. In February and March 1779 three much-publicised performances took place in London of an elaborate musical setting of Horace’s Carmen Seculare. This exemplary union of Classical literature and modern music was a long-cherished ambition of Giuseppi Baretti, the Italian writer and friend of Samuel Johnson, who had lived in London since 1751. After much thought, Baretti commissioned the music from François-André Danican Philidor, the French operatic composer (celebrated also for his prowess at chess). Philidor worked in Paris on what was to be his major choral work, advised by no less a figure than Diderot. Baretti translated Horace’s Latin with an equally distinguished assistant: Samuel Johnson supplied an ‘Epilogue’ to the libretto and identified with the whole undertaking with a loyal zeal, which must seem surprising, given his lack of interest in music.

Frequent newspaper advertisements invited ‘the learned and the elegant’ to the performances of the Carmen Seculare, ‘as to a new mode of pleasure, arising from the union of ancient poetry with modern music’. The first performance of Philidor’s elaborate setting for four soloists, chorus and orchestra took place on 26 February 1779, at the Free-Masons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. It was a triumphant success, according to newspaper reports. The nobility and the literati, including Johnson and Reynolds, had turned out in force to form ‘one of the most brilliant and numerous assemblages of persons of the first rank, distinction, and character, that ever met together on an occasion of public entertainment’. Philidor’s music was as ‘sublime’ as anything heard in England since the death of Handel.

The second performance of the Carmen Seculare took place at 7.45 on Friday 5 March, at Free-Masons’ Hall. Once again, ‘a very crowded and brilliant audience’ greeted the work with ‘the loudest and most universal applause’. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester headed the nobility in the audience, ‘most of the foreign Ambassadors and their ladies’ attended, and Johnson and Reynolds were once again prominent among the literati. On 10 March, however, the Public Advertiser reported that this glittering and triumphant occasion had been marred by the disturbing behaviour of a member of the audience.

During the Performance last Friday Evening of the Carmen Seculare, in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s-inn-fields, the Company were greatly alarmed by the irregular and violent Behaviour of Mr B—. It teems this Gentleman had conceived a violent Affection and Attachment for a Lady, whom he had the Misfortune of meeting accidentally at the above Concert, during which Representation the company were frequently disturbed by him.

  After the Concert was finished, he rudely forced his Company into the Room, where the Lady, her Sister, and her Uncle, with many other Friends had been invited to Supper, among whom was the Earl Of J—n. The Gentleman’s Behaviour was little less than the most violent Frenzy, in Defiance of civil Treatment, and every Argument that was made use of to desire his Retiring; he rudely opposed them, and in a most daring Manner remained to the Surprize and Confusion of the Party.

  At twelve o’Clock he was secured by the Constables, and was prevented from committing any farther Outrage: but, to the Alarm of the young Lady and her Family, at near two o’Clock on the Saturday Morning, he went to Leicester Square, and made a most terrible Knocking at her Door; but by an Alarm given to the Watchmen, he was secured and committed to the Round-house during the Remainder of the Morning, when he was examined by the sitting Magistrate in Titchfieldstreet; and after having given Bail for his Appearance, and Security for his good Behaviour, he was discharged.

  The melancholy Consequences which are likely to proceed from so frantic and extravagant Behaviour, are truly alarming; he had long loved the young Lady, and from her own Lips had received a Dental to his Offer of Marriage, which acting in Conjunction with his despairing Love for her, has driven him to a State bordering upon the most violent Insanity. These dreadful Alarms have sensibly affected the Lady, who uniting every Virtue that can adorn and dignify the Sex, with the most tender and delicate Frame, has given so severe a Shock to her, that she is at present very ill at her Uncle’s in Leicester-square.

When Bampfylde appeared in court on the morning after these painful events he was bound over on a recognisance of £20 by himself, £10 by George Huddesford and £10 by Josiah Millidge, the printer of the Sixteen Sonnets. The court advised Bampfylde ‘in the mean time to be upon his good behaviour’ to the King, ‘and all his Subjects, especially towards the said Sr Joshua Reynolds’.

One is left wondering how successfully Bampfylde maintained ‘good behaviour’ in the weeks that followed. There is no reference in the Public Advertiser’s report to the breaking of Sir Joshua’s windows, the one vivid detail in William Jackson’s brief (but secondhand) account of these events, and it is not impossible that this happened on another occasion. That trouble did continue is suggested by a letter from the Countess of Upper Ossory to George Selwyn on 17 April 1779, some seven weeks after Bampfylde’s appearance in court. After describing various scandals and cases of disastrous and violent love, she related that ‘Sir Joshua Reynolds has a niece who is troubled with one of these passionate admirers, to whom she has refused her hand and her door. He came a few days since to Sir Joshua’s, and, on being answered in the negative, he desired the footman to tell her to take care, for he was determined to ravish her (pardon the word), whenever he met her.’ This could be garbled gossip, or reliable evidence that in mid-April (‘a few days since’) Bampfylde was still ignoring the warnings of the law and insanely pursuing a terrified Mary Palmer.

At about this time, having heard what had happened, William Jackson arrived in London and sought out his friend’s mother. According to the account recorded by Southey, Lady Bampfylde

said she knew little of him; she had got him out of Newgate; he was in some beggarly place. ‘Where?’ In King Street, Holborn, she believed, but did not know the number. Away went Jackson, and knocked at every door till he found the right. It was a miserable place. The woman of the house was one of the worst class of women in London. She knew B. had no money, and that he had been there three days without food. Jackson found him with the levity of derangement; his shirt-collar black and ragged – his beard of two months’ growth. He [sent out for food], said he was come to breakfast, and turned to a harpsichord in the room, literally, he said, to let B. gorge himself without being noticed. He took him away, gave his mother a severe lecture, and left him in decent lodgings and with a decent allowance, earnestly begging him to write. He never wrote. The next news was his confinement, and Jackson never saw him more. Almost the last time they met, he showed him several poems; among others a ballad on the murder of David Rizzio. ‘Such a balled!’ said J. He came to J. to dinner, and was asked for copies. ‘I burnt them,’ was the reply; ‘you did not seem to like them, and I wrote them to please you, so I burnt them.’

In July 1779 William Enfield in the Monthly Review at last got around to brief but favourable comment on the Sixteen Sonnets: ‘These short but successful excursions of the Muse will be acceptable to such as can relish the simple beauties of poetic imagery.’ By then Bampfylde may already have been installed in the ‘private madhouse’ in Sloane Street where he would spend the rest of his life, indifferent to praise or blame. He was 24.

Nothing further is heard about Bampfylde until the 1790s. Mary Palmer inherited Sir Joshua’s considerable fortune on his death in 1792 and a few months later married the 70-year-old Earl of Inchiquin, In the same year seven of Bampfylde’s poems (some previously unpublished) appeared in an anthology of Poems, Chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall. Richard Polwhele, the editor, briefly regretted that ‘the early promises of an amiable and accomplished mind were frustrated by a cruel, and, it is to be feared, an irrecoverable disorder.’ ‘Bampfylde did, however, briefly recover his sanity before his death at the age of 43 in 1797. As Jackson told Southey two years later:

His senses returned, but he was dying in a consumption. He was urged by his apothecary to leave the house in Sloane Street, where he was well treated, and go into Devonshire. ‘Your Devonshire friends will be very glad to see you.’ He immediately hid his face. ‘No, sir,’ said he, ‘they who knew me what I was, shall never see me what I am.’

Moved by the news of his friend’s death, the elderly Jackson planned an edition of his verse, which would have included unpublished material. Although a manuscript deriving from it has survived, the edition did not appear, and what Jackson knew of Bampfylde’s unhappy life would presumably have died with him in 1803 had it not been for Southey and Coleridge. Living at Nether Stowey, Coleridge seems to have met Jackson and on 30 September 1799 wrote urgently to Southey, who was visiting Exeter: ‘Do not forget to procure from old Jackson a copy of poor Bamfield’s Sonnets & Poems – he will at least lend them to you to copy out.’ Southey’s letter of 3 October reports the narrative of Bampfylde which has been cited. Coleridge replied: ‘It is superfluous to say how much your account of Bampfylde interested me – Predisposition to Madness gave him a cast of originality – and he had a species of Taste which only Genius could give.’

Coleridge evidently lost interest, but Southey did enough to ensure that the outlines of Bampfylde’s story and some of his poems were remembered well into the 19th century. In the present century such reputation as he ever enjoyed has faded. He did not appear in David Nichol Smith’s Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse in 1926 and his brief entry in the Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature in 1939 was deleted in the revised edition of 1971. I included four of his sonnets in my New Oxford Book of 18th-Century Verse in 1984 only because I could hear in them what was a distinctive voice in the context of the 1770s, however muted by time it may have become. Further knowledge of his unhappy story confuses one’s judgment. We take gloomy satisfaction in yet another case of literary madness in that supposedly most ‘rational’ of centuries. And it becomes hard to read John Bampfylde’s descriptions of a happy village evening, or of his cottage garden, or of the pleasant melancholy of a wet summer’s day, without remembering what was to come: the cries of anguish which would alarm and embarrass Reynolds, Johnson and the rest of the fashionable literary and musical world one evening in March 1779.