‘Sagacity’ Middlemore, the man who gave us Burckhardt
Mention to an English-speaking Renaissance scholar the name of Middlemore and you are assured at least a flicker of recognition. Many – if not without some brain-wracking – will identify him as the translator of Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Some might be able to provide his initials but few could add further details. It has recently been noted on-line that little information about him is easily available. The only recent, brief discussion is by Ben Kohl in a valuable essay which sadly appeared only after his own death in the important collection edited by John Law and Bernadette Paton, Communes and Despots in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. As will be seen, Kohl’s brief discussion can be supplemented and corrected in certain respects. Beyond his paragraphs, there is a notable silence : S. G. C. Middlemore does not gain an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or in the on-line Dictionary of Art Historians, or on the encyclopaedia du jour, Wikipedia – as yet. The man who introduced the Anglophone world to Burckhardt’s ‘essay’ – a foundational work that society is still struggling to forget – surely deserves more attention: it is through his eyes that Burckhardt’s vision is reflected for the crowd of scholars who first encountered Civilization in translation as an undergraduate and who have not later felt the need to compare it to the other versions, either in the original German or (for instance) in Italian, that exist. I myself have done that only briefly, in preparation for a paper given five years ago at a symposium organised by Oren Margolis in celebration of the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Burckhardt’s work. One outcome of that event was a recognition of how personal Middlemore’s choices as a translator were – where ‘personal’ might be, at times, a euphemism for ‘misleading’. This is a point Kohl also makes in his article, and our appreciation of this essential insight should make us all the more interested in knowing the man who has shaped for so many scholars their understanding of Burckhardt and, thus, of ‘the Renaissance’.
We might add to this the remarkable fact that the sole English translation of Civilization was published in 1878 when Middlemore was only thirty, and also throw in the nugget that it was not his only foray into Renaissance studies, for he wrote a short survey, The Great Age of Italian Painting, which appeared in print in the last days of 1889 – weeks before Middlemore’s early death. This, I hope, will be sufficient to persuade you that a brief rehearsal of his biography is a worthwhile addition to the treasure-trove of information which is the internet. I will admit, at once, that what follows is a work-in-progress, based to date on ‘soft’ research, drawn partly from what is available on-line but more substantially from a single printed source, the privately printed Some Account of the Family of Middlemore of Warwickshire and Worcestershire of 1901, by W. P. W. Phillimore assisted by W. F. Carter. This work is the origin of the synopses provided by the Visitation of England and Wales, vol. viii (it is to this that Kohl refers) and by the Biographical Register of Christ’s College [Cambridge], with both having some omissions and minor errors. I have supplemented this information with my own reading of Middlemore’s Great Age.
Samuel George Chetwynd Middlemore was born on 16th November 1848 into a large Birmingham family. His father, William (1802-87), inherited and directed the saddlers’ company of Middlemores on which the family’s wealth was based. He was also a Baptist, a philanthropist and a Liberal city councillor. One of Samuel’s elder brothers, John Throgmorton Middlemore (1844-1924), followed his father into politics, though in loyalty to Birmingham’s mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, when he entered Parliament in 1899, it was as a Liberal Unionist. Of Samuel’s own politics I am not yet aware but, as we will see, in religion he moved away from his family’s non-conformist commitment.
Samuel, like John, was educated at Edgbaston Proprietary School. In October 1866, he went up to Merton, Oxford, but his higher education was to be dogged by illness. It seems that he spent only a few terms in Oxford and, presumably for health reasons, travelled to the Continent and became an educational tourist: he attended Heidelberg, Zürich and Dresden, and would later mentioned in The Great Age hearing lectures from ‘one of the most eminent living specialists in historical studies in Germany’ on universal history. It is not clear whether during this trip he either ventured further south into Italy or came to know the work of Jacob Burckhardt. He returned to England and matriculated at Christ’s, Cambridge in early 1871; he was elected to a scholarship the following year but, in September 1873, again left university due to ill health. ‘Thenceforward his life was spent in literature and travel’, according to Phillimore’s Account. ‘He had a perfect knowledge of German and Italian, spoke and wrote French fluently, and had a fair literary knowledge of Spanish, besides being acquainted with some of the Swiss and Italian patois’.
It was in the following years that Middlemore came to work on Burckhardt’s Civilization. It was on 20th December 1875 that he wrote, in German and from Birmingham, to ‘Herr Professor’, expressing his hope that Burckhardt would give his blessing to an English translation. The work, as is well known, appeared three years later, published in two volumes by Kegan Paul, who described it as an ‘authorised translation’. Around this time, Middlemore seems to have moved to London: he was a correspondent for The Saturday Review and became a member of the Savile Club. One of his acquaintances was Robert Louis Stevenson who, as a play on his initials, nicknamed him Sagacity Middlemore, saying ‘it suits his type, his eye, his character’.
I do not yet know where or when Middlemore met his future wife – it was in Florence on 18 April 1881 that he married Maria Trinidad Howard Sturgis (known as Nina, to her friend Emma Lazarus). She had been born in the Philippines on 26 July 1846, the daughter of the American consul there. Like her husband, she was a traveller and an author, translating from Spanish Round a Posada Fire (1883), Spanish Legendary Tales (1885) and Songs of the Pyrenees (1887). She was Roman Catholic and Samuel entered the communion, in London, in December 1886; soon after, they moved to Malvern and a house called ‘Sunnyside’. Their move may partly have been encouraged by the opening of the town’s School of Art where Samuel was to give the lectures which formed the basis of The Great Age of Italian Painting. The preface of that book is dated ‘November 1889’ but soon after the author was, once again, back in Italy. Whether he travelled ill and in the hope of recovery or was taken sick in Rome is unclear, but on 27th January 1890, he died of pneumonia at the Hotel Bristol. His wife, back in Malvern, was not to be a widow for long: on 11th February 1890 she too died. It is a sad end to our tale.
There is, patently, more to be discovered. As yet, I do not know what happened to Middlemore’s library, let alone his letters or papers – and I would, of course, welcome any information. I certainly wish to consider more the light his lectures shed on his reading of Burckhardt and on his knowledge of Italian art. There is (to confine myself for now to a single comment) a story to be told about how his interest in the German’s works – both the Cicerone and Civilization – was part of an English reaction against the fashions promoted by the pre-Raphaelites. On that, more another time and in another place.