Hill, Sir John

, an English writer, and most extraordinary character, was the son of a Mr. Theophilus Hill, a clergyman of Peterborough or Spalding, and born about the year 1716. He was bred an apothecary, and set up in St. Martin’s-lane, Westminster; but marrying early, and without a fortune on either side, he was obliged to look round for other resources than his profession. Having, therefore, in his apprenticeship, attended the botanical lectures which are periodically given under the patronage of the apothecary’s company, and being possessed of quick natural parts, he soon made himself acquainted with the theoretical as well as practical parts of botany; after which, being recommended to the duke of Richmond and lord Petre, he was by them employed in the inspection and arrangement of their botanic gardens. Assisted by the liberality of these noblemen, he executed a scheme of travelling over several part* of this kingdom, to gather some of the most rare and uncommon plants, accounts of which he afterwards published by subscription. But, after great researches, and the exertion of uncommon industry, which he possessed in a peculiar degree, this undertaking turned out by no means adequate either to his merits or expectations.

The stage next presented itself, as a soil in which genius might stand a chance of flourishing; but this plan proved likewise abortive; and, after two or three unsuccessful attempts at the Haymarket and Covent-garden, he was obliged to apply again to his botanical inquiries, and his business as an apothecary. In the course of these pursuits, he was introduced to the acquaintance of Martin Folkes and Henry Baker, esqrs. both of the Royal Society, and through them to the literary world; where he was received and entertained on every occasion with much candour and friendly warmth, being considered by them as a young man of " great natural and acquired knowledge, struggling against the tide of misfortune, and in this view pitied and encouraged.

At length, about 1746 (at which time he had the trifling appointment of apothecary to one or two regiments in the Savoy) he translated from the Greek a small tract of Theophrastus, “On Gems,” which he published by subscription; and this, being well executed, procured him friends, reputation, and money. Encouraged by this success engaged in works of greater extent and importance. The | first he undertook was “A General Natural History” three vols. folio. He next engaged, in conjunction with George Lewis Scott, esq. for a “Supplement to Chambers’ s Dictionary.” At the same time he undertook the “British Magazine;” and when engaged in these and a number of other works, some of which seemed to require a man’s whole attention, he carried on a daily essay under the title of “Inspector.” Notwithstanding all this employment, he was a constant attendant upon every place of public amusement; where he collected, by wholesale, a great variety of private intrigue, and personal scandal, which he as freely retailed again to the public in his “Inspectors” and “Magazines.” It would make a folio, instead of an article in this work, were we to trace Dr. Hill (for he had now obtained a diploma from the college of St. Andrew’s, in Scotland) through all his various pursuits in life. Let it suffice to say, that from this successful period he commenced a man of fashion, kept his equipage, dressed, went into all polite companies, and in every respect claimed the character of a man of bon ton. His writings supported him in all this for a time; and, notwithstanding the graver part of them were only compilations, and the lighter part such as could produce no great copy-money, yet there is no doubt that he made, for several years, a considerable income.

But the disposition of Dr. Hill was greatly changed with his circumstances: from being humble and diffident, he had become vain and self-sufficient. There appeared in him a pride, which was perpetually claiming a more than ordinary homage, and a vindictive spirit, which could never forgive the refusal of it. Hence his writings abounded with attacks on the understandings, morals, or peculiarities of others, descending, even to personal abuse and scurrility. This licence of his pen engaged him frequently in disputes and quarrels; and an Irish gentleman of the name of Browne, supposed to be ridiculed in an “Inspector,” proceeded so far as to cane him in the public gardens at Ranelagh. He had a paper war with Woodward the comedian was engaged with Henry Fielding in the affair of Elizabeth Canning and concerned in a contest with the Royal Society, Of this, the origin and progress has been thus detailed by one who had every opportunity of knowing the circumstances. When Mr. Hill had started all at once as before related, from a state of indigence and distress, to taste the comforts of very considerable emoluments from | his labour, giddy with success, and elated beyond bounds with the warm sunshine of prosperity, he seemed to be seized with a kind of infatuation. Vanity took entire possession of his bosom, and banished from thence every consideration but of self. His conversation turned on little else, and even his very writings were tainted with perpetual details of every little occurrence that happened to him. His raillery, both in company and in his writings, frequently turned on those who closely attached themselves to philosophical investigations, especially in the branches of natural philosophy. The common -place wit of abusing the medal-scraper, the butterfly-hunter, the cockle-shell-merchant, &c. now appeared in some of his Magazines and Inspectors, and in two or three places he even indulged some distant glances of satire at the Royal Society. Notwithstanding which, however, when the Supplement to “Chambers’s Dictionary” was nearly finished, the proprietors of that work, very sensible of the weight of an F. R. S. annexed to the author’s name, were very desirous that Dr. Hill should have this addition as well as Mr. Scott, his colleague in the work. In consequence of this design, Dr. Hill procured Mr. Scott to propose him for election into that honourable body; but the doctor’s conduct for some time past having been such as had rendered him the object of contempt to some, of disgust to others, and of ridicule to almost all the rest of his former grave and philosophical acquaintances, he now stood but a very indifferent chance for carrying an election, where an opposition pf one third was sufficient to reject the candidate; and as. the failing in that attempt might have done our author more essential prejudice than the succeeding in it could even have brought him advantage, the late ingenious and worthy president, Martin Folkes, esq. whose remembrance must ever live in the highest estimation with all who ever had the honour of knowing him, notwithstanding that Dr. Hill had given him personal occasion of offence against him, yet with the utmost generosity and candour, advised Mr. Scott to dissuade his friend, for his own sake, against a design which there appeared so little probability of his succeeding in. This advice, however, Dr. Hill, instead of considering in the generous light it was meant, misinterpreted into a prejudiced opposition against his interest, am would have persisted in his intention even in despite of it, had net his being unable to obtain the subscription o | requisite number of members to his recommendation^ obliged him to lay it aside, from a conviction that he could not expect to carry an election in a body composed of three hundred members, of which he could not prevail on three to set their names to the barely recommending him as a candidate. Thus disappointed, his vanity piqued, and his pride lowered, no relief was left him but railing and scurrility, for which purpose, declaring open war with the society in general, he first published a pamphlet entitled *' A Dissertation on Royal Societies,“in a letter from a Sclavonian nobleman in London to his friend in Sclavonia; which, besides the most ill-mannered and unjust abuse on the whole learned body he had been just aiming, in vain, to become a member of, is interlarded with the grossest personal scurrility on the characters of Mr. Folkes and Mr. Henry Baker, two gentlemen to whom Dr. Hill had formerly been under the greatest obligations, and whose respective reputations in both the moral and literary world had long been too firmly established for the weak efforts of a disappointed scribbler to shake or undermine. Not contented with this, he proceeded to compile together a large quarto volume entitledA Review of the Works of the Royal Society,“in which, by the most unfair quotations, mutilations, and misrepresentations, numbers of the papers read in that illustrious assembly, and published under the title of the” Philosophical Transactions,“are endeavoured to be rendered ridiculous. This work is ushered into the world with a most abusive and infamous dedication to Martin Folkes, esq. against whom and the afore-mentioned Mr. Henry Baker the weight of this furious attack was chiefly aimed but the whole recoiled upon himself; and by such personal abuse, malignant altercation, proud and insolent behaviour, together with the slovenliness and inaccuracy of careless and hasty productions, he wrote himself out of repute both with booksellers and the town; and, after some time, sunk in the estimation of the public nearly as fast as he had risen. He found, however, as usual, resources in his own invention. He applied himself to the preparation of certain simple medicines namely,” the Essence of Water-dock; Tincture of Valerian Pectoral Balsam of Honey and Tincture of Bardana.“The well-known simplicity of these preparations led the public to judge favourably of their effects; they had a rapid sale, and once more enabled the doctor to live in splendour. | Soon after the publication of the first of these medicines, he obtained the patronage of the earl of Bute; under which he published a very pompous and voluminous botanical work, entitledA System of Botany;“but is said to have been a very considerable loser by this speculation. His botanical works, however, had a favourable influence in promoting the science in general. To wind up the whole of so extraordinary a life, having a year or two before his death presented an elegant set of his botanical works to the king of Sweden, that monarch invested him with one of the orders of his court, that of Vasa, in consequence of which he assumed the title of Sir John. He died Nov. 22, 1775, of the gout, which he professed to cure others. As to his literary character, and the rank of merit in which his writings ought to stand, Hill’s greatest enemies could not deny that he was master of considerable abilities, and an amazing quickness of parts. The rapidity of his pen was ever astonishing, and he has been known to receive within one year, no less than 1500l. for the works of his own single hand; which, as he was never in such estimation as to be entitled to any extraordinary price for his copies, is, we believe, at least three times as much as ever was made by any one writer in the same period of time. But, had he written much less, his works would probably have been much more read. The vast variety of subjects he handled, certainly required such a fund of universal knowledge, and such a boundless genius, as were never perhaps known to centre in any one man; and it is not therefore to be wondered, if, in regard to some he appears very inaccurate, in some very superficial, and in others altogether inadequate to the task he had undertaken. His works on philosophical subjects seemed most likely to have procured him fame, had he allowed himself time to digest the knowledge he possessed, or preserved that regard to veracity which the relation of scientific facts so rigidly demands. His novels, of which he has written many, such as” The History of Mr. Lovell,“(in which he had endeavoured to persuade the world he had given the detail of his own life),” The Adventures of a Creole,“” The Life of Lady Frail,“&c. have, in some parts of them, incidents not disagreeably related, but the most of them are merely narratives of private intrigues, containing throughout the grossest calumnies, and endeavouring to blacken and undermine the private characters of many worthy persons. | In his” Essays,“which are by much the best of hia writings, there is, in general, a liveliness of imagination, and adroitness in the manner of extending, perhaps some very trivial thought, which at first may by many be mistaken for wit; but, on a nearer examination, will be found to lose much of its value. A continued use of smart short periods, bold assertions, and bolder egotisms, produces a transient effect, but seldom tempts the spectator to take a second glance. The utmost that can be said of Hill is, that he had talents, but that, in general, he either greatly nisapplied them, or most miserably hackneyed them for profit. As a dramatic writer he stands in no estimation^ nor has he been known in that view by any thing but three very insignificant pieces: namely, 1.Orpheus,“an opera, 1740. 2.” The Critical Minute,“a farce, published in 1754, but not acted, 3.” The Rout," a farce, 1754*. A large volume might be written on the life and! adventures of this extraordinary man, as affording a complete history of literary quackery, every branch of which he pursued with a greater contempt for character than perhaps any man in our time. 1


Gent. Mag. see Index. Biog. Dram. Davies’s Life of Garriek. Dilly’s Repository. -D’Israeli’s Quarrels, vol. II, &c. &e.