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.” ’

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