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Farmer, Richardfree

  • Arthur Sherbo

Richard Farmer (1735–1797)

by George Romney, 1777–84

by permission of the Master, Fellows, and Scholars of Emmanuel College in the University of Cambridge

Farmer, Richard (1735–1797), literary scholar and college head, the second son of Richard Farmer, woolman and maltster, and his wife, Hannah (1712–1808), daughter of John Knibb, was born at Leicester on 15 May 1735. He received his early education at the free grammar school in Leicester under the tutelage of the Revd Gerrard Andrewes, a classical scholar. It was Andrewes and John Simmonds, vicar of the church of St Mary de Castro, who most influenced the young Farmer in his love of books, especially of black-letter literature. On 12 April 1753 Farmer was admitted a pensioner of Emmanuel College, Cambridge; he graduated BA in 1757 and MA in 1760, the same year that he was elected a fellow of the college. As an undergraduate Farmer was not undistinguished, and he enjoyed three college scholarships. Although he did not try his hand at verse after the MA, he was asked to contribute a poem to a collection celebrating the laying of a stone for the new university library in 1755, and there is evidence in the Cambridge University Library of other versifying efforts, the chief of which is a blank-verse tragedy in three acts titled 'Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy', in which he played the duke's brother; the rest of the dramatis personae, selected by him, were fellow undergraduates. He also contributed a sonnet to a collection of poems on the death of George II. It is well that he changed to prose in later life.

Farmer was ordained in Ely on 15 February 1761 and became a BD in 1767. On 19 May 1763 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, almost surely because it was known that he was gathering materials for the history of his native Leicester, a work he never finished. He gave his materials to John Nichols, who acknowledged his help in his history of Leicestershire, and returned all the subscription money he received. Much later, on 1 March 1791, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Despite a curacy of some fifteen years in Swavesey, a village some 8 miles from Cambridge, and residence in London as part of his ecclesiastical duties, his life was centred in Emmanuel College, which he served in various capacities, as tutor, lecturer, steward, dean, and master, this last beginning on 21 March 1775. That same year he became vice-chancellor of the university and DD; he was admitted ad eundem gradum in 1796 at Oxford University. Upon the death of the university librarian on 27 June 1778 Farmer was elected to that position, which he kept until his death. As a librarian he instituted some needed reforms, but he more than once bought books for his personal library when he should have had the best interests of the university library at heart.

On 8 July 1769 Farmer was appointed one of the twelve preachers at the Royal Chapel, Whitehall, necessitating stays in London. Other ecclesiastical preferments followed: in 1774 he was elected Lady Margaret preacher in Cambridge; in April 1780 he was collated by Bishop Hurd to the prebend of Alrewas and the chancellorship annexed, founded in the cathedral church of Lichfield; shortly thereafter, in March 1782, he was installed as prebendary of Canterbury Cathedral. Seven years later he resigned the prebend, being preferred by William Pitt to a residentiary canonry and the prebend of Consompta-per-Mare at St Paul's Cathedral on 19 March 1788. This was the highest of his ecclesiastical preferments, although he is said to have refused twice a bishopric, pleading that 'One that enjoyed the theatre, and the Queen's Head, in the evening would have made but an indifferent bishop' (Sherbo, 30).

For up to fifteen years Farmer was curate of Swavesey, and Thomas Martyn, Farmer's friend who had entered Emmanuel College a year ahead of him, wrote that he was faithful to his duties but 'was not famous as a Preacher. His Sermons were florid, and composed in haste; his enunciation was loud and hurried; his setting-off was so violent as to make nervous people start' (Sherbo, 58). Another account has Farmer giving 'a plain practical sermon, strongly enforcing some moral duty' (ibid., 58). Despite his indolence, being reluctant to get up in the morning, to retire at night, and to settle his accounts, Farmer could act and act forcibly when the occasion demanded. There is the story, varying with the teller, of his violent reaction to the refusal of some members of the university to give up the key to the university chest containing a seal necessary for an address favourable to the king and against the Americans. According to one source, Farmer broke open the door to the place housing the chest; according to another, he broke open the chest itself; according to a third, he used a sledge-hammer to effect his purpose. It may have been a solo effort, although one version has it that he was helped by a blacksmith. This was not the only time, however, that he showed his tory sympathies, his detractors hinting that he thus gained preferments.

Farmer's intention to write something on Shakespeare and his commentators was known to Thomas Percy as early as October 1763, some four years before the publication of Farmer's Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare in 1767. Prior to 1767 Samuel Johnson had unsuccessfully solicited Farmer's help in the revised edition of his 1765 Shakespeare on the occasion of his first and only visit to Cambridge. In March 1770 Johnson again asked for Farmer's help, requesting that he correct and add to a list of translations, compiled by George Steevens, that Shakespeare may have seen and used. Farmer not only obliged on that score, but when the JohnsonSteevens Shakespeare edition of 1773 appeared it also included, in volume ten, a second appendix entitled 'A letter from the Rev. Mr. Farmer of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, author of an essay on the learning of Shakespeare, to Mr. Steevens'. The 'Letter' covered forty closely printed pages, with 247 notes on all the 36 plays of the accepted canon. It deserves belated recognition equal to that of the well-known Essay on Shakespeare's learning. The Essay itself won instant praise, Johnson, for example, declaring that the subject was now closed, and that Shakespeare relied on translations and not on a knowledge of Greek and Latin. Others were not so kind; but, in any event, Farmer greatly revised and added to the Essay for a second edition, published in the same year, 1767. He made a very few corrections for a third edition, published in 1789. He had also gone so far as to mark up an interleaved copy of the third edition, intending to publish a fourth; the interleaved copy is now in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC (S. a. 138).

The Essay and the 'Letter' are not Farmer's only contributions to Shakespearian scholarship, for he assisted Edmond Malone in his Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays Published in 1778 (2 vols., 1780), Isaac Reed in his 1785 edition of Shakespeare, and George Steevens in his 1793 Shakespeare. Reed published a revised edition in 1803, that included new material by Farmer and Steevens. Farmer also published 'Directions for the study of English history' in the European Magazine in 1791, although written in 1763. This was something of a pioneer essay, for the study of modern history, as opposed to ancient history, was still in its infancy. After mentioning Caesar, Tacitus, and Suetonius as the only worthwhile sources on the subject, Farmer made his way from the 'Monkish writers' to Hume, Smollett, Mrs Macaulay, and others, to 'Collections of Letters and State papers'. He also published in the European Magazine, in June 1794, a letter to Reed of January 1794, which contained information about certain events in the college career of John Dennis.

Farmer's help to various scholars, besides Johnson, Steevens, Malone, and Reed, was extensive and important, most notably in the vital role he took in providing information to Bishop Percy for his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In May 1780 Samuel Johnson wrote to Farmer asking for information from college or university registers for dates relating to Ambrose Philips, William Broome, and Thomas Gray, and Farmer obliged by giving him an unpublished letter from Pope to Broome, dated 29 April 1730. John Nichols acknowledged Farmer's help in three of his works; James Granger was also indebted to Farmer, as he acknowledged in the advertisement to the second edition of his Biographical History of England. Among others were Richard Gough, John Sidney Hawkins, William Herbert, and Thomas Warton. Without Farmer's help the works of these scholars and others would be far from complete. It was largely, if not solely, from Farmer's reading in black-letter literature and the fine collection of black-letter books and other rare works in his library, that he was able to supplement the knowledge of some of the most learned of his contemporaries.

Farmer was one of the most gregarious of men. He was a member of at least three London clubs: the Eumelean, the Unincreasable (his friend Reed was president), and the Literary Club founded by Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Both in Cambridge and in London he was surrounded by friends, chief among them Steevens and Reed, both of whom made a number of annual trips to Cambridge. While there they stayed in Emmanuel College and spent virtually all their time with Farmer, dining in college and visiting all the attractions that Cambridge and the nearby villages could offer. They also attended the plays put on by an acting company from Norwich at the annual Sturbridge fair. When in London Farmer attended the theatre just as assiduously and took full advantage of the social life of the city. He was generous to a fault, forgetting the loans he had made and ever ready to lend books from his library. He is said to have loved above all else old port, old clothes, and old books. His addiction to the bottle and the pipe, coupled with his reluctance to retire for the night, eventually took their toll and he died, after painful illnesses, on 8 September 1797 in Emmanuel College, where he was buried. He never married, although his name was linked more than once with that of the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas Hatton of Madingley in Cambridgeshire. There is evidence that after Sir Thomas's death, he having opposed Farmer's proposals of marriage, Farmer again proposed and was accepted but got cold feet and broke off the affair, this when he was fifty-two or fifty-three years old. Miss Hatton was twenty years his junior.

The sale catalogue of Farmer's library contained 8267 lots, some of them running to twenty titles. The sale took thirty-five days and realized £2210, not a princely sum, and one wonders why he did not leave all or some of his books to Emmanuel College or to the university library. He wrote of his library, 'it is believed that not many private Collections contain a greater Number of really curious and scarce Books; and perhaps no one so rich in the ancient Philological English literature' (Sherbo, 106). The large majority of the works cited or quoted in his Essay was in his library. He not only collected books; he read them.


  • A. Sherbo, Richard Farmer, master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge: a forgotten Shakespearean (1992)


  • BL, annotated copy of Edmund Carter's History of the University of Cambridge
  • Folger, interleaved copy of 3rd edn of the ‘Essay on the learning of Shakespeare’ with Farmer's additions, S. a. 138
  • BL, corresp. with Thomas Percy, Add. MS 28222


  • G. Romney, oils, 1777–84, Emmanuel College, Cambridge [see illus.]
  • J. Downman, drawing, 1778, FM Cam.
  • S. Harding, miniature, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
  • T. Hodgetts, mezzotint (after G. Romney), NPG
  • monument, Emmanuel College, Cambridge
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)