Richard Sharp (politician)

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"Conversation" Sharp
Born 1759
Newfoundland
Died 30 March 1835
Dorchester
Resting place
Bunhill Fields, London.
Education Rev. Dr Fell, Thaxted (private),
Inner Temple
Occupation hat maker, merchant, politician.
Known for Conversation, Criticism, Wit
Religion Dissenter (Unitarianism)
Children Maria Kinnaird (adopted)

Richard Sharp, FRS, FSA (1759 – 30 March 1835), also known as "Conversation" Sharp,[1] was a British hat-maker, banker, merchant, poet, critic, Member of Parliament, and conversationalist.

He was at various times known in London society as "Hatter Sharp", "Furrier Sharp", "Copenhagen Sharp" (after a famous speech that he gave as an MP castigating the British bombardment of Copenhagen) or, most famously of all, as "Conversation Sharp".[2]

Background and early life[edit]

Sharp's father, also Richard Sharp, came from a well-known family of merchants in Romsey, England, and in 1756 joined the British army as a 19-year-old Ensign in the 40th Regiment of Foot. While garrisoned at St. John's in Newfoundland, Ensign Richard Sharp met Elizabeth Adams, a citizen of St John's, and they were married in 1759: their first son, Richard, was born shortly afterwards. In about 1763 the family returned to the City of London (where Richard senior's father had established a successful firm of hat-makers on Fish Street Hill): Richard senior had been wounded, and died in 1765 at the age of 28. The family were staunch Dissenters, and he was buried in the family vault in Bunhill Fields burial ground.

In 1769, the widowed Elizabeth Sharp married Thomas Cable Davis, a partner in the hatter's business, and they had further children.

Until the age of 13 or 14, Richard Sharp was educated at Thaxted, Essex, by the Rev. John Fell, a Dissenting minister, and a friendship sprang up between the two which lasted until Fell's death. At the age of 24, Sharp wrote the "Preface" to Fell's book, An Essay towards an English Grammar (1784).

Adult life[edit]

Following his education in Essex, Sharp returned to the family home and business at Fish Street Hill to begin a 7-year apprenticeship to become a master hatter. In this role he excelled, not only rescuing the business from imminent commercial failure but gradually developing his exceptional erudition and powers of conversation in such a way as to enable him to rise from the humble ranks of hatter to reach celebrity status in several different spheres of life. A commentator described Sharp at about the age of 30 as:

already a figure in society, where his great conversational powers and his unbounded goodness of heart made him universally welcome. His judgement was trusted by all who knew him, and in later years statesmen went to him for counsel and advice. It would scarcely be too much to say that he was the most popular man in London society in his time.[3]

Sharp thought seriously about joining the legal profession and, was admitted to the Inner Temple on 24 January 1786. It seems however that his strict moral conscience could not be reconciled with the prospect of having to defend a guilty man, and in the end he was not called to the Bar. In 1798 he finally retired from the hatter's business and joined a firm of West India merchants run by his friend Samuel Boddington in Mark Lane, a third partner being Sir George Philips (later Sir George Philips). Sharp made so much money as a merchant, and through his investments and banking connections, that he eventually left £250,000 in his Will. He was once described as being "one of the most considerable merchants in London", and his acquired knowledge of the shipping business enabled him to give crucial support and advice to Samuel Coleridge in 1804 when the poet was about to leave England for health reasons. As a respected London critic, Sharp also gave assistance and encouragement to both Coleridge and Wordsworth, among many others, and although much of their correspondence with Sharp has been sold overseas, some may still be seen within the poets' collected works.

Powers as a conversationalist[edit]

Despite his modest roots, Richard Sharp's exceptional cleverness and powers of conversation gained him acceptance in the highest social circles and led to him acquiring his lasting sobriquet. Although he achieved distinction in many areas, he nevertheless seems to have made most impact upon people simply because of his basic human kindness and wisdom, as a few quotes from some of those who knew him well will illustrate:[4]

John William Ward, later Earl of Dudley, was not only a man of immense personal wealth but similarly renowned for being an extremely talented, quick-witted and humorous man with a tenacious memory. He described Richard Sharp as,

Hatter Sharp, alias Copenhagen Sharp, alias Conversation Sharp, he is my particular friend, and I cannot forbear adding in perfect seriousness one of the most thoroughly amiable, good-tempered, well-informed, sensible men that I have ever become acquainted with.

Francis Horner, an original contributor to the Edinburgh Review and a barrister before he turned to politics, met Sharp when he came to London:

This morning spent with Sharp has forced me to attempt again a journal. He is a very extraordinary man; I have seen so much of him lately that I determine every day to see more of him, as much as I possibly can. His great subject is criticism, upon which he always appears to me original and profound; what I have not frequently observed in combination, he is both subtle and feeling. Next to literature, the powers of his understanding, at once ingenious and plain, show themselves in the judgement of characters; he has seen much of the great men of the last generation and he appears to have seen them well. In this particular his conversation is highly interesting; from his talent of painting by incidents and minute ordinary features, he almost carries you back to the society of those great personages and makes you live for a moment in their presence.

Horner later wrote to Lady Mackintosh in 1805 in the same admiring tones, complaining that he simply could not get enough of Sharp's company and telling her: "Sharp I respect and love more and more every day; he has every day new talents and new virtues to show". Her husband, Sir James Mackintosh, was one of the few people that Sharp felt able to discuss metaphysics with and he expressed the opinion that Richard Sharp had made a greater influence on his thinking than almost any other person. In Byron's opinion Sharp was one of those who had "lived much with the best – Fox, Horne Tooke, Windham, Fitzpatrick and all the agitators of other times and tongues"; while Macaulay was similarly impressed by Sharp when he commented in a letter to his sister before leaving for India:

the other day I had a long talk with Sharp about everything and everybody – metaphysics, poetry, politics, scenery and paintings. One thing I have observed in Sharp which is quite peculiar to him among Town wits and diners-out – he never talks scandal. If he can say nothing good of a man he holds his tongue. I do not of course mean that in confidential communications about politics he does not speak freely of public men, but about the follies of individuals I do not believe that – as much as I have talked with him – I ever heard him utter one word. I passed three or four hours very agreeably in his company.[5]

As a young man Sharp met Samuel Johnson[6][7] and Edmund Burke[7] and dined regularly with Boswell. He was a close friend of the dramatist Richard Cumberland,[8] of Mrs Siddons, and of John Henderson the actor. The latter once asked Sharp to report on the acting ability of an up-and-coming rival, John Kemble, which he did.[9]

Friends and acquaintances[edit]

Sharp's reputation as a critic increased when his close friend, Samuel Rogers, began to emerge as the most eminent and popular poet of that period (his poem "To a Friend" being dedicated to Sharp) and both visited Wordsworth in the Lakes and gave him important 'city' support before this new, naturalistic style of poetry became truly fashionable. The Rogers family in Newington Green was a well known one in Dissenting circles, and the names of Joseph Priestley, Samuel Parr, Richard Price, Rev. John Fell, Kippis and Towers were eminently familiar to both men. Apart from a common interest in Unitarianism, both Sharp and Rogers became well known for their good taste at a time when "taste" was one of the most vital commodities that an aspiring young man could acquire. Rogers' home in St James's Place was visited by almost every famous person in London and he was a guest of royalty. Both men were habitues at the fashionable Whig salon, Holland House, and considerable correspondence between Sharp and Lord and Lady Holland has survived to this day. When Sharp moved to his house in Park Lane he acquired portraits painted by Reynolds of Johnson, Burke and of Reynolds himself as symbols of those things that he most cherished – language, oratory and art. At his cottage retreat, in Mickleham, Surrey, he received politicians, artists, scientists and some of the cleverest minds of the day including people from abroad such as the intriguing but formidable Mme de Staël. Guests were recorded and included such names as Henry Hallam, Thomas Colley Grattan, Sydney Smith John Stuart Mill, James Mill, Basil Hall, Dugald Stewart, Horne Tooke, Lord Jeffrey, Archbishop Whately, Walter Scott, Tom Moore, George Crabbe, Michael Faraday, Charles Babbage, Richard Porson, Maria Edgeworth, Francis Chantrey, and Sir Thomas Lawrence.[10]

Politics[edit]

By the late 1780s Sharp was at the hub of the Dissenter movement in London at a crucial period in history when Revolution was in the air and when young intellectual Whigs such as he fell under natural suspicion. (See Richard Price and the Revolution Controversy.) He belonged to the Society for Constitutional Information and helped, with other leading Whigs, to establish the Friends of the People society. At about the same time he became one of the Dissenters' "Deputies" – it being the custom for each dissenting congregation within ten miles of London to be represented by two such deputies and their common aim being to overturn the Test Acts which so discriminated against them.[11] In this latter connection Sharp issued a famous "Letter" in support of repeal.[12]

In 1787 the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed and Thomas Clarkson records that Richard Sharp was elected onto this famous Committee along with David Hartley.[13] The Committee produced prints showing the cramped layout on a typical slave ship (the Brookes), which had a profound effect on all who saw it, significantly helping to change public opinion regarding the slave trade. The print showed each slave being allocated less than 2 metres height and .5-metre width for a lengthy sea voyage that could last for 6 months or more, such figures being calculated on the assumption that there were about 400 slaves on a ship when in fact it was known that there were sometimes more than 600.

At different times Sharp represented the Whig party as a dissenting Member of Parliament for Castle Rising from 1806 to 1812, Portarlington from 1816 to 1819 and Ilchester from 1826 to 1827. In the House of Commons he often sat next to his friend, Samuel Whitbread, and supported his move for popular education.

Clubs and societies[edit]

Sharp was a founder member of the intellectual "King of Clubs" conversation club;[14] and a member of many other London clubs and societies, including Brooks's, the Athenaeum, the Unincreasable, the Eumelean,[15] and the Clifford Street Club.[16] An early member of the Literary Society, in 1787 he became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and in 1806 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, his application for the latter being supported by such names as Charles Burney Jnr, James Watt and Humphry Davy. From 1810 to 1812 he was Prime Warden of the Fishmongers' Company.

London Institution[edit]

Sharp's shrewdness and eloquence were frequently aimed at bringing about some tangible outcome or change, and he was a leading figure in the foundation of the London Institution, an establishment for popular education, in 1806.[4] One commentator wrote that it was "chiefly owing to his influences and exertions that the London Institute [sic] for the improvement of Science and Literature has been established".[17] At its foundation, Sharp was a member of the Institution's Temporary Management Committee and he remained a Manager for most of his life. In 1810 he served as their chairman, resigning from this position on 10 September 1812, and for the years 1827 and 1831 he was Vice-President. As his interest in education grew he supported Whitbread's move for a proper system of state education as well as Henry Brougham's drive for a fully-fledged city University.

Sharp's initiative predates that of his better known contemporary, George Birkbeck (also from a dissenter background), whose Mechanics' Institutes only developed in Glasgow, London and elsewhere from the 1820s onwards. Many of the founders of the London Institution later joined with Thomas Campbell and Brougham to found a new University of London.

Final years and death[edit]

Towards the end of his life Sharp liked to spend the winter months at his house in Torquay (Higher Terrace). He had suffered all his life with a cough and a bad chest and Torquay was noted for both its health-giving air and Italianate landscape, but in 1834 the winter was particularly severe and as Sharp succumbed he resolved that he would die in his beloved London. He set off for the city with his family and servants but only got as far as Dorchester before expiring at the coaching inn there. Fearful that a nephew might obtain and subvert his will, it is said that 70-year-old George Philips, in a final act of kindness, set off on his horse "Canon", and rode through the night as fast as he could to ensure that this did not occur.[18]

Personal life[edit]

Sharp never married, but in about 1812 he adopted an infant, Maria Kinnaird, who had been orphaned by a catastrophic volcano eruption in the West Indies.[19] Maria, as a teenager, knew William Wordsworth's daughter, Dora, very well and later led an interesting and colourful life in London society. Macaulay and Romilly (son of Samuel Romilly) were among many eligible young men who were said to be enamoured of Maria, but in 1835 she married Thomas Drummond, later became Under-Secretary for Ireland.

Published work[edit]

Sharp's only book was Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse (1834).[20] The Quarterly Review described it as remarkable for "wisdom, wit, knowledge of the world and sound criticism". Several editions were published, including an American edition.[21]

Sharp considered writing a history of American independence and wrote to his friends, John Adams and John Quincy Adams about this and other matters. He also considered writing a tourist's guide to Europe after becoming so familiar with continental travel that he was once called "the Thomas Cook of his day".[2] None of these projects came to fruition, however.

Portrait[edit]

A single contemporary image of Sharp is known to exist: a drawing in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Journal of Sir Walter Scott, Sir Walter Scott, 1890, entry for 29 August 1826
  2. ^ a b Hills, Hon. Mrs Eustace, "Conversation Sharp and his Friends", MS Bodleian Library.
  3. ^ Clayden P. W. The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887), p. 280.
  4. ^ a b Knapman 2003.
  5. ^ Trevelyan, G.O., The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1978), vol. 1, pp. 303–4.
  6. ^ Hester Thrale's 'Anecdotes': ref 1782, http://www.thrale.com/anecdotes_late_samuel_johnson_hester_lynch_thrale_part_4
  7. ^ a b Darwin, Emma (1915). Litchfield, H. E., ed. A Century of Family Letters, 1792–1896 1.. London: John Murray. pp. 21n, 23, 24, 40, 45, 46. Retrieved 18 July 2008. 
  8. ^ The Memoirs of Richard Cumberland (1856), pp. 318–319. See also http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=82xHAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA473&lpg=PA473&dq=cumberland+to+richard+sharpe&source=bl&ots=t8jK0ZuhYw&sig=1tcu3OLEWICJZc3tgFVv7dLGkEA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=hGrlUZCfDKOJ0AXYjYCYBw&ved=0CE4Q6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=cumberland%20to%20richard%20sharpe&f=false
  9. ^ "Letter to John Henderson" in Sharp's Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse (1834).
  10. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Sharp, Richard". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  11. ^ See MS Records of the Deputies of the Dissenters, Guildhall, London.
  12. ^ Sharp, Richard, Letter to the Friends of the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, British Library.
  13. ^ Clarkson, Thomas, The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishments of the Abolition of the Slave Trade by the British Parliament (reprint 2006), p. 228.
  14. ^ Timbs, John (1872). Clubs and Club Life in London. London. pp. 141–22. 
  15. ^ Nichols, John (1812). Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century 2. London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley. p. 638. 
  16. ^ Timbs, John (1866). Club Life of London with Anecdotes of the Clubs, Coffee-Houses and Taverns of the Metropolis During the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries 1. London: Richard Bentley. p. 169. 
  17. ^ Wilson, J. Biographical Index of the current House of Commons, 1808, p.133
  18. ^ Autobiography of Sir George Philips, MS Warwickshire Record Office.
  19. ^ Paul, C. Kegan, Maria Drummond – A Sketch (1891)
  20. ^ Sharp, Richard (1834). Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse. London. 
  21. ^ Sharp, Richard (1835). Letters and essays in Prose and Verse. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Knapman, David (2003). Conversation Sharp: the biography of a London Gentleman, Richard Sharp (1759–1835) in letters, prose and verse. Dorchester: Dorset Press. 
  • Knapman, David (2006) [2004]. "Sharp, Richard [called Conversation Sharp] (1759–1835)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/25217.  (subscription required)

External links[edit]

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Bagot-Chester
Peter Isaac Thellusson
Member of Parliament for Castle Rising
18061812
With: Charles Bagot-Chester 1806–1807
Charles Bagot 1807–1808
Fulk Greville Howard 1808–1812
Succeeded by
Augustus Cavendish-Bradshaw
Fulk Greville Howard
Preceded by
Arthur Shakespeare
Member of Parliament for Portarlington
1816–1819
Succeeded by
David Ricardo
Preceded by
Sir Isaac Coffin
Stephen Lushington
Member of Parliament for Ilchester
1826–1827
With: John Williams
Succeeded by
Lord Huntingtower
Felix Thomas Tollemache