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[Horace Smith]
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. IV.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 80  (June 1847)  137-43.
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No. IV.
Forsan et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.

Thomas Hill’s Cottage at Sydenham—Names of his most frequent Guests—Proposed Reminiscences of the Deceased, and passing Allusions to the Survivors—Notice of Hill—Sale of his scarce Books—His insatiable Curiosity—Is ridiculed on the Stage as Paul Pry, and in Hook’s Novel of “Gilbert Gurney” as Mr. Hull—Anecdote of Captain Morris and Mr. D’Israeli, sen.—Mystery of Hill’s Age—His Travels—His Death.

In my last paper, I briefly described the London residence of Thomas Hill, the Mæcenas of Queenhithe, where I first encountered George Colman the Younger. His large literary parties were always given at his Sydenham Tusculum, which, though close to the road-side, and making no pretensions to be “a cottage of gentility,” was roomy and comfortable enough within, spite of its low-pitched thick-beamed ceilings, and the varieties of level with which the builder had pleasantly diversified his floors. The garden at the back, much more useful than ornamental, afforded an agreeable ambulatory for his guests, when they did not fall into the pond in their anxiety to gather currants; an accident not always escaped. Pleasant and never to be forgotten were the many days that I passed beneath that hospitable roof, with associates whose varied talents and invariable hilarity might have justified us in despising the triteness of the quotation, when we compared our convivial symposia with the noctes cænaæue Deum.
O qui amplexus et gaudia quanta fuerunt!
when, on the summer afternoons, we mounted the little grassy ascent that overlooked the road, and joyfully hailed each new guest as he arrived, well aware that he brought with him an accession of merriment for the jovial dinner, and fresh facetiousness for the wit-winged night! Let it not be thought that I exaggerate the quality of the boon companions whom our Amphitryon delighted to assemble. If we had no philosophers who could make the world wiser, we had many a wit and wag who well knew how to make it merrier. Among those most frequently encountered at these jollifications, were
Campbell, the poet, then occupying a cottage in the village, and by no means the least hilarious of the party; Mathews, and sometimes his friend and brother comedian, Liston; Theodore Hook; Edward Dubois, at that time editor and main support of the Monthly Mirror; Leigh Hunt and his brother John; James and Horace Smith; John Taylor, the editor of the Sun newspaper; Horace Twiss; Baron Field; the present Sir George Rose; John Barnes, who subsequently became editor for many years of the Times newspaper; and a few others whom I need not specify, although some of them were “fellows of infinite jest and humour,” since they never emerged from the ranks of the illustrious obscure.

Cumberland, in his memoirs, referring to the many delightful literary parties he had enjoyed at the house of his friend, Dilly, the bookseller, has the following passage:—

138 A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.

“From Mr. Dilly’s hospitality I derive not only the recollection of pleasure past, but the enjoyment of happiness yet in my possession. Death has not struck so deeply into that circle, but that some are left whose names are dear to society, whom I have still to number among my living friends, to whom I can resort, and not find myself lost to their remembrance.”—To the memory of my kind-hearted and hospitable friend, Thomas Hill, I cordially dedicate a similar record of gratitude for pleasure past; and I, too, have reason to be thankful that I may still reckon, among my living friends, some of those with whom I first made acquaintance beneath his roof, though my lengthened life has necessarily abridged the list.

To those of the above-mentioned circle who are yet wayfarers upon earth, my references, from obvious motives of delicacy, will be slight and cursory; but they who have completed life’s journey are fair subjects for a Greybeard’s gossip. By being taken away from us, they have become our property; death has made them a common upon which all may de-pasture; nor shall that man be deemed a literary ghoul who avails himself of this privilege, rather to recall the memory of those whom he loved, than to prey on their remains. Some of the parties with whom I shall thus make free were writers whose works are around me, as I sit in that cheerful cemetery of minds which bears the name of my book-room. Their spirits, still as vital and as vigorous as ever, hover about me, and, oh! how pleasant, how soothing, how companionable are their hauntings! As I open one of their books, I seem to lift up the grave-stone of its buried author, and to conjure him intellectually back into my society. Reader! will you take a passing peep with me into one or two of these volumes, and listen to such reminiscences of their writers as may not yet have faded from an old man’s memory? I will endeavour to be as little garrulous as my weight of lustres will permit; and if I exceed in my claims upon your patience, you will not forget, I trust, that I am entitled to the superannuated allowance.

But before I betake myself to any of his guests, let me return to the hospitable Symposiarch of Sydenham. Tom Hill—for the world never gave him any less familiar appellation, had for many years pursued the pleasant life I have shadowed forth, when the Goddess of the Wheel, whose blindness is her only excuse, withdrew from him the light of her countenance, and his affairs became irretrievably embarrassed. Whether or not his literary avocations occasioned him to neglect those of the drysalter, and so Queenhithe threw off commercial allegiance to her Mæcenas, this deponent sayeth not; but deep and sincere were the regrets of his numerous acquaintance, more especially of those who so often received welcome invitations “to put their legs under his mahogany,” when it became known that he had been obliged to give up business, to sell his Tusculum as well as his Drysalterium, and even to part with that incontestable evidence of respectability—his gig! Not long, however, did our lamentations endure, for the subject of them, without engaging in any other pursuit, quickly arose like a Phœnix from his ashes, and settling himself in lodgings westward of Temple Bar, took up a new position as an independent “man about town.” How this pecuniary resuscitation was accomplished, nobody “happened to know,” except himself, and this formed a subject on which he kept his knowledge secret; although one addition to his ways and means fell within my own cognisance. During the whole progress of the Bibliomania which once raged
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.139
in England, with not less rabid intensity than the old Tulipomania in Holland; when the Archaica, the Heliconia, and the Roxburgh Club, were outbidding each other for old black letter works; and an otherwise enlightened nobleman was reported to have actually given 2500l. for a single volume;—when books, in short, which had only become scarce, because they were always worthless, were purchased upon the same principle as that costly and valueless coin, a Queen Anne’s farthing, Hill had been a constant collector of these printed curiosities, and not an injudicious one, so far at least as concerned their market price. Taste appreciates works of art; collectors appraise them; and this was Hill’s province. That he knew the contents of even a single volume in his own store, I very much doubt, and I have a strong suspicion that he lost nothing by his ignorance; but he could tell you pretty accurately how much each copy would bring at an auction, and how much it had brought at all previous sales. This was a species of information which he really did “happen to know,” and when boasting of his own matchless rarities, he was much more trustworthy than when extolling his unobtainable vin de Jurançon.

Anxious to embark in so lucrative a branch of business, the eminent firm of Longman and Co. applied to Hill for advice and assistance, offering to begin by the purchase of his whole collection, a proposition to which he did “willingly incline his ear.” He drew out accordingly a catalogue raisonné of his stores, affixing his price for each volume, to which no objection being made, the whole were despatched in three or four trunks to Paternoster-row, and he received in payment the acceptances of the firm for as many thousand pounds! Whether the Bibliomania had begun to wane, or the prices had been exorbitant, I know not, but the purchasers soon found grievous cause to repent their bargain, and as the friend of both parties, I was requested to make complaints to the vendor, and require some abatement of the charge, an application which he indignantly pooh, poohed! declaring that every volume was worth double the price he had received, and that they had volunteered, while he had never urged the purchase. The only reduction I could obtain was an extension in the term of payment, small compensation to the bibliopolists for their costly initiation into the mysteries of black letter rarities and unique copies.

Even before his embarrassment, if I mistake not, Hill had given up the Monthly Mirror, which had never been remunerative. In this periodical originally appeared the poetical imitations by James and Horace Smith, entitled “Horace in London,” which, after the brilliant success of the “Rejected Addresses,” were collected and published in a single volume. Our ex-Mæcenas of Queenhithe, who had never been married, finally took chambers in James-street, Adelphi, wherein he resided till his death. With these humble third-floor apartments his establishment was commensurate, being usually limited to a forbidding old Urganda, occasionally aided by a nondescript boy. Here he practised a rigorous economy, little in accordance with his previous hospitality, however it might be adapted to his present limited means. Around the fireplace hung the portraits of his intimate friend Dubois, of Theodore Hook, of James Smith, and of Charles Mathews. The rest of the four walls, from ceiling to floor, as well as the table in the centre, were completely hidden by books, and his bed-room presented the same appearance, his couch being additionally enclosed in a lofty circumvallation of volumes piled up from the carpet. He was now, as I have said, an idle man about town, perpetually haunt-
140A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
ing the great thoroughfares, and from the marked peculiarity of his appearance becoming as well known to the public, by sight at least, as the statue at Charing-cross. He had long assisted
Mr. Perry, then proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, in making selections for his rare library at Tavistock House, particularly in the department of the old facetiæ, in addition to which office he now became a regular caterer, or jackall, for the newspaper, picking up such anecdotes, tittle-tattle, and gossip as his almost universal acquaintance, his freedom of a theatrical club, and a matchless skill and perseverance in prying, enabled him to scrape together. If he were paid for this duty he certainly deserved his salary, for he brought both genius and industry to the performance of his task. Never did a man take such pains to undermine, overreach, and circumvent the victim from whom he wished to extort information of any sort. With a face of the blandest bonhommie he would run up and congratulate you on the actual occurrence of any event which he suspected to be impending; ho would quote pretended paragraphs in the public papers, or confide to you some fabrication, of which he happened to know the truth, that he might hear what you said about it; and if he could not turn either of your flanks by oblique modes of attack, and all sorts of detective artifices, he would ask you a dozen questions, point blank, browbeating you with a blustering “Pooh, pooh!” and a declaration that he happened to know better, when you protested your inability to give him any information. Most signally did he illustrate the wisdom of Horace’sPercontatorem fugito, nam garrulus idem est,” beware of an inquisitive man, since he is sure to be a gossip, for his tittle-tattle, not always as harmless as it was meant to be, sometimes compromised his best friends; while he occasionally annoyed them and violated social confidence, by publishing their casual communications in the columns of the Morning Chronicle. As a Quidnunc he had the very first intelligence of events that had never happened, and as a retailer of anecdotes he might justly have piqued himself upon the matter-of-fact-like circumstantiality of his inventions.

A character and personal appearance so marked by idiosyncrasy, and forming so fine a subject for ridicule and malicious pleasantry, were not likely to be overlooked by the waggish writers who had opportunities of observing them. George Colman’s threat of immortalising him as “the literary drysalter,” had never been realised; but in his later phase of insatiable inquisitiveness, in his mania for peeping, prying, and peering into every body’s affairs, Poole took his likeness to the life, and giving him to the stage and to the public as “Paul Pry,” occasioned him “to wake one morning and find himself famous,” or rather notorious. In prints and paintings, in mugs and jugs, in innumerable stalls, windows, and mantel-pieces, the chubby little man with his umbrella obtained an almost ubiquitous publicity; while crowded audiences seemed never weary of hailing his appearance on the stage. The likeness was unmistakeable, and though Hill affected not to recognise it, he saw it, felt it, and never forgave the artist who had thrust upon him such an unenviable celebrity.

Another and more favourable portraiture, by Theodore Hook, has introduced him to the world, in the second and third volumes of “Gilbert Gurney,” under the slightly varied appellation of Hull. This is a presentment of his earlier Sydenham life, freely exposing his foibles, but giving him credit for the good qualities that he really possessed, and even
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.141
going so far, in extenuation of his hyperbolical statements, as to maintain that most of them had some sort of foundation—rather an equivocal defence. That he was the undoubted original of this representation
Hill was quite willing to admit; and, indeed, I think he felt rather flattered by the interest it excited among his friends.

Having made allusion in this article to the proprietor of the Morning Chronicle, I must be indulged in a little episode. The reader was forewarned that I should be discursive, and unless I snatch a reminiscence ere it flies, “the Cynthia of the minute” will be gone for ever. Ever welcome did I find an invitation to Tavistock House, for there was I sure to meet persons of eminence in art or literature; the entertainments were of the most luxurious description, and no one could better discharge the duties of the convivial board than Mr. Perry, whose inexhaustible fund of information and anecdote was not rendered less piquant by his broad Scotch accent and high voice. One day he had assembled a large dinner party, having on his left hand Captain Morris, of lyrical celebrity, once the boon companion, compotator, and Bacchanalian minstrel of the Prince of Wales, but recently estranged from him because his royal highness had unceremoniously discarded all his old Whig friends, and had thrown himself into the arms of the Tory party. Expatiating upon the long intimacy, almost amounting to domiciliation, which he had enjoyed at Carlton House, where a bed-room was set apart for his use when their revels, as often happened, absorbed the greater portion of the night, and perchance had disqualified him from seeking his own home: the captain stated that Big Sam, the scarlet-cloaked Janitor in Pall-mall, had been, ordered to admit him at all hours, so that he had liberty to run about the whole house “like a kitten;” adding, that the prince would often send for him before he rose in the morning, that he might sit by his bed-side and chat with him about the occurrences of the day, discuss the plan of some approaching entertainment, or settle the guests who were to form the next private symposium. “And now,” he continued, “I never cross the threshold of Carlton House, and his royal highness and myself are as much estranged as if we had never been acquainted.”

“And why have you thus become alienated from the prince?” inquired Mr. D’Israeli, senior, who sat on the same side, though at the further end of the table.

“Because, sir, I would not give up the political principles of my whole life.”

With a strange simplicity, or inadvertence, for he could hardly have weighed his words, the same inquirer quietly resumed.

“And what, upon such an occasion, prevented your giving up your principles?”

I saw the colour instantly rush into the cheeks of the captain, who jumped up, and fixed his flashing eyes upon his questioner, as he angrily and loudly exclaimed—

“Take off your spectacles, sir, that I may see the face of the man who dares to ask me such a question.”

Fully did I expect some fresh and instant illustration of the “Quarrels and Calamities of Authors;” but our host, urging that the words had been inconsiderately spoken, that no offence could possibly have been intended, succeeded in pacifying the fuming poet, whose geniality, however, was not fully restored, until the offender had quitted the party, when he was
142A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
easily persuaded to sing some of his own beautiful lyrics. This he did with as much gusto as if he had been a young, instead of an old, man, elevating his glass, for his odes were generally Bacchanalian, and tossing off its contents in a single gulp, at the end of every stanza, after which a recently written comic canticle, in ridicule of the Americans, wound up his vocal performances with universal applause.

Reference having been made to the fine health he enjoyed, he remarked, “Why, it may well seem wonderful, for I believe few men in England have led so hard a life as myself; but I attribute it mainly to a rule which I have rigorously observed for many years—that of always apportioning the exercise of the following day to the excess of the previous night. For this purpose I had a sort of scale, never walking less than ten miles for three bottles, so that you may guess what a rare pedestrian I have been!”

Whether the cessation of intimacy with the royal Porcus de grege Epicuri contracted his potations, and so expanded his life, I know not; but certain it is that he attained a patriarchal age, and repenting his loose companionship, and drunken orgies at Carlton House, became exceedingly devout. In this mood, I have been told, that he made atonement for the Fescennine verses, into which his youthful muse had been betrayed, by composing pious songs, which he sang after dinner, emptying his glass as he did so, from the force of habit, so that his convivial gestures and devout words presented a strange mixture of the Bacchanalian and the spiritual, the sinner and the saint!

But to return to Tom Hill. Such as I have described it, continued to be his Paul Pry life in his book-wilderness of the Adelphi, until the time of his death, nearly up to which period his plump, crimson, pæony face, and rotund figure, underwent no perceptible alteration, nor was there any diminution of his usual good spirits and superabundant energy. Instinct, with the vitality of an immortal curiosity, he remained as young and alert as ever, always prepared to sound, probe, and interrogate whomsoever he might encounter. So inveterate had this habit become, that on giving a penny to a street-sweeper he would stop, perhaps in the middle of a perilous crossing, to ask his name and address, having ascertained which important facts he would hurry on, and remark to his companion, “Well, now, that’s information.”

At last the pale summoner, who knocks alike at the door of the cottage and the palace (the Latin original is too hackneyed for quotation), found Ins way to the book-groaning third-floor in the Adelphi, and it was announced that poor Tom Hill was dead! The statement was not universally believed, for he had lived so long that many thought it had become, like his inquisitiveness, a habit which he could not shake off. For the last half century at least, his real age had been a mystery, and a subject of incessant discussion among his friends, none of whom could coax or cajole him out of the smallest admission that might throw light upon the subject.

The father of the late Charles Mathews, when a young man and a bookseller in the Strand, had remembered Hill coming to the shop, looking just the same as he did thirty years afterwards; adding, that his father knew still older people who had made a similar remark! There was so little of Mr. D’Israeli’s mosaic Arab in his appearance, he was so thoroughly John Bullish, that the suggestion of his being, perchance, the Wandering Jew, was deemed untenable. James Smith once said to him,

A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 143

“The fact is, Hill, that the register of your birth was destroyed in the great fire of London, and you take advantage of that accident to conceal your real age.”

But Hook went much further, by suggesting that he might originally have been one of the little Hills recorded as skipping in the Psalms. No counter-statement, that might at least reduce him to the level of Jenkins or old Parr, was ever made by the ruddy patriarch. Perhaps he did not know his real age—at all events, he never told it; nor could others supply the information which he himself would not or could not furnish, for the Mæcenas of Queenhithe not being “atavis edite regibus,” like his namesake of Rome, there were no known relations, dead or living, who could throw any light upon this chronological mystery. It has been stated, on what authority I know not, that he was only eighty-three when he died.

Incredible as it may sound, our original Paul Pry must have undergone a nearly unquestioning existence of several weeks’ duration, for though he was literally a mono-linguist, not speaking a word of any language but his own, he once travelled as far as Naples, unaccompanied by any other interpreters than his own energy and perseverance. When asked, after his return, what had enabled him to make his way through France without difficulty, he answered,

“Francs and fingers! I had only to hold up a piece of money and point, and the whole country and every thing it contained instantly became mine. Talk French, indeed! pooh, pooh! I know better—don’t tell me; if I had chosen to learn, in six weeks I would have undertaken to speak the language ten times better than the natives; yes, sir, fifty times, a hundred times better. But I would not pay them the compliment. I hate French.”

Nor did Latin names find much favour with him, for in alluding to his excursions from Naples, he would talk of his visits to the buried city of Pompey-ey-i-i, laying a vehement emphasis on the last two vowels, and sympathetically enlarging his eyes as if they were so many incontestible proofs of his assertion.

Whatever might have been the doubts as to his birth, there could be none as to his death, and I can answer for one individual—doubtless there were many more, by whom that announcement was received with unfeigned regret. To the foibles of Tom Hill none could be blind; they were too glaring; his importunate cross-questioning, and the indiscreet gossiping which sometimes compromised himself and others, combined with his blustering manner, tended, in his latter life, to prevent any great increase in the circle of his acquaintance; but no one could deny that he was a kind-hearted, friendly man, ever ready to do a good service, and still social in his disposition, though his narrow circumstances would not allow him to renew the hospitalities of his earlier years. Great was my pleasure, in my infrequent visits to the metropolis, when I found my old friend in his lofty book lair, and could not only be placed au courant as to all the tittle-tattle of the passing day, but could conjure up, through the sympathy of our memories, the years that had long rolled away, and recall the deceased or surviving friends who had helped to wing the hours in our numerous merry meetings at Sydenham.

Of these associates my next paper will still further indulge in the remembrance.