This title doesn’t quite cover the ground. The subtitle, And of his Posterity in the Two Succeeding Generations, helps a bit, but in fact the story is carried down to the fourth generation by its author. William Gilpin was famous in his day for his writings on aesthetics, mostly entitled Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty…, many of which we have reissued.
In this work, he examines his own family and its place in the landscape of England, but he seems not to have intended it for publication. His manuscript was lent by his family to one William Jackson, F.S.A., who annotated and published it in 1879. The work is prefaced by a letter of Gilpin dated 7 July 1791 in which he states: ‘I have often thought it might be a great use in a family, to keep a record of some of ye most deserving persons, that have adorned it. … That ye remembrance therefore of some excellent persons of our family might not be lost to their posterity, but remain among them as examples, I have taken upon me to collect, & put together, ye following memoirs.’
The book is enhanced by an enormous family tree (available online under ‘Resources’ here), which goes back to 1206.
Gilpin had already published a life of his Elizabethan ancestor, Bernard Gilpin of Kentmere, Westmorland, a ‘pious and very respectable man’, who was much involved in the religious dissensions of the Protestant Reformation, and at one point was so convinced that he would go to the stake under Queen Mary that he instructed his servant to buy an appropriate outfit to be burnt in, but who in fact survived until 1584, when he succumbed to injuries received when colliding with a bull in Durham market.
However, William starts this account with Dr Richard Gilpin, great-nephew of Bernard, who studied medicine at Edinburgh (another one!), and then divinity. During the Civil War, his family, which tended towards non-conformity, sided with the Parliamentarians, and lost their property. Richard was ordained at this time, and in 1652/3 he was given the living of Greystoke in Cumberland, a wealthy parish whose royalist rector had been removed in 1650.
Able to save money in his new post, Richard was advised ‘to lay out the little fortune he had, on the purchase of Scaleby-castle in Cumberland’, former seat of the Musgrave family, which Cromwell’s troops had knocked about a bit. (William has a good line about Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, joint patrons of the ‘picturesque’ movement.) At the Restoration, he resigned his living on grounds of conscience, and hoped to support his wife and five children from the Scaleby estate.
‘The income of a poor outed minister, could not do much to improve it. What he could do however, without much expence he did. He made the house again habitable, and being of opinion, that planting was the least expensive & one of the most productive modes of improvement, he planted a great number of trees, around his old castle; which in after times gave it an air both of beauty, and of dignity.’
He did his best to serve (unofficially) the people of the area, using his medical experience to treat the poor, and opening the great hall of the castle as a chapel every Sunday. But he moved from Scaleby when the dissenting congregation of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (known more than a century later to Elizabeth Gaskell) asked him to be come their minister. ‘In a faithful discharge of his duty, among this grateful people, he spent the remainder of a long life, dying at the age of 74, in the year 1699’ (1700 in our terms, but then, the new year began on 25 March).
His eldest son William inherited Scaleby, where his mother lived until her death. William was destined for the law, but preferred a quieter life than his call to the bar would indicate, returning to act as a lawyer and land agent in Whitehaven. The ructions of 1715 saw William Gilpin, staunch anti-Stuart, responsible for raising and army to resist the Old Pretender. ‘But tho’ the gentlemen of the county could raise men [12,000 of them], they could not create soldiers … The sight of the enemy at once dispersed them. Mr Gilpin often used to talk of this even as one of the greatest mortifications he had ever met with …’
On his mother’s death, William returned to Scaleby, where he increased the size of the estate with judicious land purchases, and took an interest in antiquarianism (Scaleby of course being close to the Roman Wall) and art, while ‘I have often heard that visitors used to call the family at Scaleby-castle, the happiest & pleasantest family they had ever known.’ The idyll ended with William’s death in 1724, leaving his widow disconsolate: ‘A melancholy gloom hung over her: from which, tho’ she lived many years, she never recovered.’
Worse was to follow: William’s heir, another Richard, ‘dissipated, dispersed, mortgaged & finally was obliged to sell’. Just as Kentmere had been lost to the senior line of the family through mismanagement, so now was Scaleby, in only three generations. ‘I shall however say no more of Richard … he had a goodness of nature about him, which I shall draw as a skreen over his imperfections.’ So incompetence rather than vice, but none the less, Paradise was clearly lost to the Gilpin family.
One of the seven siblings of Richard (of whom pen-portraits of various lengths are given) was John Bernard, our William’s father. His son gives a fascinating account of his career as a soldier, his role during the ’45, his captaincy of the garrison at Carlisle, his later life as a landscape painter and keen fisherman, and his loving relationship with his wife of over fifty years, some of whose letters to him are reproduced.
The last section of the book is William’s account of his own life, written because he was aware that if his own son undertook the work, ‘filial affection wd. colour it too highly’. His self-deprecating – even self-mocking – narrative is written in the past tense and the third person. It covers his university education, his marriage to his orphaned cousin Margaret (who, unusually, foresaw the looming financial disaster and went out to earn her living as a governess), his own ordination, his direction of the school for boys at Cheam, and his later life as rector of Boldre in the New Forest. The schools he founded at Boldre were funded by what he refers to as his ‘amusements’ – that is, his writings on aesthetics, which are barely mentioned except as a way of earning money to secure the future of his schools.
Like his parents, William and his wife were married for over fifty years. He remained in good health – apart from a scare over dropsy, which was cured by digitalis – until just before his death in 1804; his wife survived him by three years. It is impossible to read the inscription on their grave in Boldre churchyard (reproduced in an endnote to the book) without thinking of George Eliot’s envoi to Middlemarch: ‘…and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs’.