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“The incidents of the last six months have occasioned me to neglect my father's widow, and I am fearful lest the kind little woman should be in distress. You delight in the charities of life. If money is advanced on my pictures, so that I can pay debts contracted for them here, and if as much as twelve pounds in addition be to be had from them, I entreat you to write, in my name, to the Rev. Mr G. Smith of Knotsford, in Cheshire, to state absence, distance, &c., as the reason of her not having heard sooner from me, and to say that on receiving a draft and line under her own hand, the said sum of twelve pounds shall be immediately paid, and annually continued as usual.
“Were a man to be made miserable by the sudden deprivation of conveniences to which he had long been accustomed, I should be sufficiently so; but you know either my heroism or my romance, for I am happy amidst cold, dirt, ignorance, selfishness, and a long et cetera. My dear Louisa is in excellent health, my kind-hearted and industrious Fanny is my active and very essential assistant, you do not forget me, Mr Marshal and others take pleasure in serving me,—and think you I can be miserable ?
“We shall soon stand still for St Leon.' Two vols. must appear at the Leipsic Easter Fair.
Several letters follow from which no extract need be made. They are one wail of distress at the sale of the precious pictures having realised next to nothing, and at the failure of a journal which was "to make England acquainted with the literary merit of the North," of which the sheets had been sent to Godwin and Marshal. The sale of this was under one hundred, instead of exceeding thousands, and the future publication was of course stopped. In regard to the pictures, it is simply wonderful that Holcroft, whether a judge of art or not, could have believed that the world was so rich in treasures as to enable him to gather at Hamburg pictures of great value, which he shipped to England in twenties and thirties at a time.
In calmer moments he speaks himself of "this picturedealing insanity of mine;" but at other times he persisted in buying whatever came in his way, in spite of the warnings of Opie the artist and Christie the dealer, both his friends, and both anxious to serve him.
Godwin's reply, after telling him his firm conviction that friends and auctioneers had done their best, proceeds with this very plain-spoken advice :
William Godwin to T. Holcroft.
[May 1800.) “... I most earnestly wish, as you hint in your last letter, that you
would come over and superintend the sale of these pictures yourself. I have a further and very strong reason for wishing it. If the consequence of your embarrassments should be your being thrown into prison, reflect on the difference between being a prisoner here and at Hamburg. Here you may be a prisoner in the rules of the King's Bench, or the Fleet, which is almost nominal imprisonment. You may see booksellers and other persons with whom you wish to transact business, with whom, I fear, you will never make advantageous engagements without being on the spot. There—I turn away with horror from the supposition—there, imprisonment would be little less than a sentence of death, and starvation to your family. Reflect seriously on this.
“I will take every care in my power respecting the pictures, which, I suppose, are now on their voyage to England. I will see Opie, I will see Gillies; I will, if possible, clear them at the Custom House, and lodge them in a place of safety, to wait your further orders. Beyond this I cannot go.
“And now, to dismiss this subject, I say firmly, “Stop! Think how much anguish, how many sleepless nights you are preparing for yourself. Your life—as much of it as is spent in this pursuit —will be one series of corroding expectation and continual dis. appointment. Indeed, it is madness; for what is madness but a constant calculation of feelings and a sentiment in mankind-the sentiment in this instance of bestowing a large price on your pictures—which is never realised. You give the greatest pain to all your friends here, who are anxious for your welfare. What can we think, when we see a catalogue of pictures, rated by you at so many thousand pounds, which no man here thinks will sell for as many hundreds ? You will go near in the sequel to make us as mad as yourself. ..."
T. Holcroft to William Godwin.
“ HAMBURG, May 27ih, 1800. “I cannot but suppose the letters I have written, from their tenor and the circumstances under which they were dictated, have been among the most disagreeable you have ever received. This will increase their number. On Friday evening, the 16th instant, as I was preparing to wash my feet, and had a half-pint vial of aqua fortis in my hand, after pouring in about a spoonful to the warm water—from which kind of bath my feet had found benefit --the vial suddenly burst in my hand, and the contents, partly flying up into my face, and the rest upon my hands, arms, and thighs, burned me in so dreadful a manner, that during two hours, till medical help could be procured, I was firmly persuaded my eyes had been destroyed. I thought I felt them run down my cheeks in water. The torture I suffered is indescribable. The places most burnt were my forehead, left eye and cheek, nose and chin, right hand and wrist, and the right thigh and knee; the forehead and wrist shockingly; though the left side was far from escaping. What degree of permanent injury may arise, I do not yet know; but it will be well if my eyes, especially the left, recover their former strength. In other respects, a few scars, I am told, are the only things to be feared, and these not of a hideous nature.
“Now to business.
“Fanny has been reading parts of “Fischer's Travels in Russia” to me during my Jobation. I suppose Job had been burnt with aqua fortis, since I hear so much of his patience; and my opinion is still very favourable. It is a work to which I am
willing to attach my name, though not to all translations, e.g., • Mirabeau's Berlin Memoires de Voltaire, ecrits par lui même,' &c.
“Perhaps it is impatience which is astonished, not reason, that you had heard nothing of the arrival of my pictures. My situation is so painful, that, damnable as the burning of aqua fortis is, I feel as if I could better endure it than this state of mind in which my moral character remains for a time degraded. .
The Same to the Same.
“ALTONA, June 3rd, im Pflockschen Hause, bei Hamburg. ... The first volume of the translation of St Leon' appeared at the Leipsic fair ; but the number subscribed for was not quite a hundred copies, which the bookseller considers as rather unfavourable. You, however, can sustain no loss.”
The Same to the Same.
“ALTONA, June 13th, 1800. “Though the attacks I have lately received of body and mind have been extraordinary, yet surely I am not mad. Or if I were, it cannot be that I am surrounded by none but madmen. I have not depended merely upon my own judgment in the pictures I have sent to London. I consulted a variety of persons, and, among others. the best artists and judges I could find, two of whom I may certainly affirm are competent to the task of giving an opinion. . . I tremble lest the impressions under which Messrs Opie and Birch may have gone to examine the pictures should have led them to decline interference, and even suffer pictures which cost here between four and five hundred pounds to be sold at the Custom House to pay the duties. Surely this cannot have happened. I believe there is a plain way of proceeding. Christie is not the only auctioneer. Cox and Burrel are, or very lately were, men of enterprize. Phillips might do the business profitably, and he would undertake it with eagerness. ...
“ It is needless to add anything to impress you with a deep
feeling of my present situation. I refer you to my former letters. It is not a prison, it is disgrace, that I dread, and which, I own, I want the fortitude to meet with any degree of apathy. I therefore request you to proceed with the earnestness and expedition you have hitherto used, and to let me know the result as soon as possible; for if it should be that no man will advance money on these pictures, I must then try whether I have not a friend on earth who will on my own credit and for my own sake entrust me with such a sum till it can be repaid by the produce of my brain. I am proceeding with the ‘Abbe de L'Epée.' "The Lawyer'shall likewise be altered and sent. I have written to Robinson, as you are doubtless informed by a note addressed to you and enclosed in his letter” [which contained proposals for a German-English Dictionary], "and I am in treaty with a German bookseller on the same subject. Were I a thousand pounds in debt at this moment, allow me only two years, and I have no doubt it would be paid. The fact, however, is, that unfortunate as my affairs have been, and gloomy as appearances are, I have pictures in my possession, unless sold at the Custom House, which, exclusive of duties, have cost me about six hundred pounds; I have 'The Lawyer,' which certainly will not take me a month to alter ; I have the piece I am now employed upon, that will be finished in less than three weeks; and you have the trifle, which, if accepted, has a chance of concurring to raise supplies.
“The burns in my wrist and forehead reached almost to the bone and skull; consequently they are yet far from cured. The pain of them continues to be considerable, though such as may be supported with entire calmness. It was the accident of having my spectacles on that saved my eyes, and I feel rather as if I had obtained a blessing, than suffered agony and injury.
“We are all well, these burns of mine excepted, and the boy grows finely. No enquiries of mine can excite you to say a word of any being whom I love and esteem, not even of your children. I know you have enough to do with my damned affairs : however, notwithstanding their ill turn, you cannot but receive the applauses of your own heart, as you do most fervently of mine.
“ T. HOLCROFT.”