Richard Sharp, FRS, FSA (1759 – 30 March 1835), also known as “Conversation” Sharp, was a hat-maker, banker, merchant, poet, critic, British politician, but above all – doyen of the conversationalists.
Sharp was born in Newfoundland. His father, also Richard Sharp, came from a well-known family of merchants in Romsey, England, and in 1756 joined the British army as a nineteen-year-old Ensign in His Majesty’s 40th Regiment of Foot – a regiment which would later became known as the “illustrious 40th” after distinguishing itself during the Seven Years’ War against the French in North America (1756–1763). While garrisoned at St. John’s in Newfoundland, Ensign Richard Sharp met and fell in love with Elizabeth Adams, a citizen of St John’s, and they were married in 1759. Richard and Elizabeth’s first son was soon born and, though naming him ‘Richard,’ they could have had little idea when he grew up he would become variously known throughout 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’ Long before this time, and while the Lieutenant was still in North America fighting the war, his grandfather was establishing a highly successful firm of hat-makers on Fish Street Hill in the very heart of London. Thither, in about 1763, the wounded soldier and his family returned from Newfoundland and there he died a few years later at the age of twenty-eight. His grandfather had been a close friend of Isaac Watts, all the family being staunch Dissenters, so Richard was buried in the family vault within the Dissenters’ graveyard at Bunhill Fields (where his tomb-stone is still visible).
In 1769, the widow Elizabeth Sharp married Thomas Cable Davis, a partner in the hatter’s business, and they had further children, while it was not long before Richard Sharp, still in his teens, began to assume a major responsibility for the family business as evidence of his exceptional abilities.
…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.
Sharp thought seriously about joining the legal profession and he 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 later becoming Sir George Philips. Sharp made so much money as a merchant, and through his investments and banking connections, that he eventually left an incredible £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. Indeed, as a respected London critic, Sharp gave important 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
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:
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….
As a young man Sharp met Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke and dined regularly with Boswell. He was a close friend of the dramatist Richard Cumberland, 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 Sharp did and his accurate account of Kemble may still be read.
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 notorious Test Acts which so discriminated against them. In this latter connection Sharp issued a famous ‘Letter’ in support of repeal which may still be viewed within the British Library records. 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 (the Younger). The Committee produced prints showing the layout of a typical slave ship (Brookes (ship))and how cramped it was, 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 2metres 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.
Friends and Acquaintances
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.
Clubs and Politics
Sharp was a founder member of the intellectual ‘King of Clubs’ conversation club as well as a leading figure in founding the London Institution in 1806, a venue for popular education and a forerunner of London University. He belonged to a great many London Clubs and Societies, such as Brooks’s, the Athenaeum, the ‘Unincreasable,’ the ‘Eumelean’ and the ‘Clifford-street Debating Club.’ 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. During the period 1810-1812 Sharp was appointed Prime Warden of the Fishmongers’ Company in London and at different times 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.
End of Life
Sharp once 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.’ In the event his only publication was a slim volume of ‘Letters and Essays in Prose and Verse’ published shortly before his death.
Towards the end of his life Sharp liked to spend the winter months at his house in Torquay (Higher Terrace) where he was able to look out to sea and no doubt think fondly of his birthplace in Newfoundland. 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, we are told 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!
Richard ‘Conversation’ 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. Maria, as a teenager, knew Wordsworth’s daughter, Dora, very well and in later life she 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, who later became Undersecretary for Ireland. In the same year, Sharp died at Dorchester.
Richard Sharp’sexc eptional shrewdness and eloquence were frequently aimed at bringing about some tangible outcome or change, and nowhere was this more the case than with regard to the formation of the London Institution. One commentator is in no doubt that this man’s particular role was pivotal in the establishment of this important Institution when he 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.
As a pioneer and champion of adult education, Sharp’s initiative predates that of his better known contemporary, George Birkbeck, whose Mechanics’ Institutes only developed in Glasgow, London and elsewhere from the 1820s onwards. Like Sharp, Birkbeck was from a dissenter background and both were committed to making education more democratically available. Indeed, history would show that many of the founders of the London Institution would be those who joined with Thomas Campbell and Henry Brougham to found a new University for London incorporating Birkbeck’s Mechanics’ Institute as Birkbeck College.
At the very beginning of its life, Richard 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. Throughout his long period of office he was brought into contact with many leading artists, thinkers and men of science, and 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.
In 1828 Sharp’s only book Letters & Essays in Prose and Verse was published (Murray) which the Quarterly Review declared to be remarkable for “wisdom, wit, knowledge of the world and sound criticism.” Several editions, including an American copy, were published: Letters and essays in prose and verse. Carey & Hart. 1835.
Richard Sharp is a sadly forgotten personality of his age and his biography has surely been a glaring omission from any history of the period. This has recently been corrected by a scholarly volume, privately published as Conversation Sharp – The Biography of a London Gentleman, Richard Sharp (1759–1835), in Letters, Prose and Verse (2004), of which a copy is in many leading British Libraries.
A single, contemporary image of Sharp is known to exist, an excellent master drawing which is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.