Sir Joseph Ayloffe, 6th (and last) Baronet, of Braxted Magna, Essex, was Kirby’s first patron, and something of a mystery to me. I can’t quite tell whether to celebrate his achievements or see him as a rather sad case of someone who did not have the success he desired. Nor can I see exactly how he and Kirby got together, nor precisely understand his passion for the antiquities of Suffolk.
Ayloffe was born in 1709 as the only son of Joseph Ayloffe, a barrister (lawyer), of Gray’s Inn, London, and Mary Ayliffe. As a child he went to Westminster School and Lincoln’s Inn. He went up to Oxford in 1726, the same year his father died, but left in 1728 without taking a degree. Following his father, he became a barrister in 1730, and that year his unmarried cousin, Sir John Ayloffe, died, and he succeeded to the baronetcy. He married Margaret Railton, a widow, in 1734 and they had one son, Joseph, who died of smallpox in 1756 at Cambridge.
Ayloffe was one of those eighteenth-century passionate antiquarians. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1731, and of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1732; he was also a member of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. He was appointed clerk to the commissioners for building Westminster Bridge in 1736, and held the post for the 15 years it took for the bridge to be constructed.
Felicity Owen is quite harsh on Ayloffe. She says that he and Kirby met, presumably in the early 1740s, through Kirby’s father’s connections with the Suffolk gentry, although the details are not clear. She characterizes him as someone who “fancied himself as the Montfaucon of England and, like the French savant, was determined to encourage the appreciation of antiquities by publishing their topographical and historical description.” He asked Kirby to make some engravings of Suffolk buildings and monuments to illustrate the intended work, but, “A solicitor, without credentials as a writer, Ayloffe failed to obtain financial backing for his project” and it never appeared. Ayloffe seems to have continued working on the project and had another proposal to publish a history of Suffolk in the 1760s, but once again could not get support. In between he had failed at a number of other projects. He started a review journal, the Universal Librarian, but only one issue appeared. He had a proposal to publish parliamentary debates from before the Restoration, but that did not happen. He had a plan to issue a translation of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, but the first number was mocked so badly that it was the last.
He did have later successes. In 1770, he read a paper to the Society of Antiquaries on the painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold at Windsor, and that appeared as a book, An historical description of an ancient picture in Windsor Castle in 1773. In 1772, he supervised the opening of the tomb of Edward I in Westminster Abbey and 10 days later he reported on the discoveries to a packed meeting of the Society. His 1774 edition of the Calendars of the ancient charters, and of the Welch and Scotish rolls, now remaining in the Tower of London, completed a task begun by Philip Morant.
The engravings Kirby made for Ayloffe’s abortive history of Suffolk in the 1740s became the basis for his own Historical Account, the book that launched Kirby’s career, and for which Ayloffe headed the subscriber list.
Sir Joseph Ayloffe has a substantive and judicious DNB entry.