Tag Archives: Society of Antiquaries

Henry Baker

Henry Baker, FRS (1698—1774) was an interesting person. His father, a Clerk in Chancery, died when he was young, and he was largely brought up by his grandmother. He was apprenticed as a bookseller, later declaring his apprenticeship ‘as agreeable a Part of Life as any I have ever known’. Not that he became a bookseller. At the end of his apprenticeship, he went off to visit some relatives and ended up staying for nine years. What caught his interest was the 8-year-old daughter of his host, John Forster, who had been born deaf. Baker undertook to teach Jane and her two younger siblings, also born deaf, to read, write and lip-read, a task in which he was successful and instructing the deaf became his main source of income. He charged high prices and a lucrative practice. He also swore his pupils to secrecy and never revealed the details of his procedure, although it was doubtless based on that devised by the mathematician John Wallis.

It was presumably through a shared interest in the education of the deaf that Baker met Daniel Defoe, whose youngest daughter Sophia he married. They had two sons. The elder, and more colorful one, David Erskine Baker translated Voltaire’s Metaphysics of Sir Isaac Newton into English when only seventeen, was trained as an engineer on account of his mathematical skill, and joined a troupe of travelling players. His brother Henry became a lawyer.

In his youth Baker wrote poetry. Together with Defoe he founded the Universal Spectator, and in the early 1740s he got interested in microscopes. His book on microscopes, about which we will write in a separate post, was much more successful than Benjamin Martin’s Micrographia Nova, selling out a first edition of 1000 copies in only a few months. Although primarily a popularizer rather than a researcher, he used the microscope to study both crystal growth and polyps, earning him a Fellowship in the Royal Society in 1741, and its Copley Medal in 1744.

Baker was an inveterate organizer, recorder and committee member, clearly relishing the organizational tasks involved with the Royal Society, the Society of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, and the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. With these organizations he was intersecting Kirby’s orbit as Kirby was a member of these groups, too.

Most of the information in this post comes from the delightful article on Henry Baker by Gerard L’Estrange Turner.


Turner, G.L’E, 1974. ‘Henry Baker, F.R.S.: Founder of the Bakerian Lecture’. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. October 1, 1974 29 1 53-79.

Sir Joseph Ayloffe (1709/10—1781)

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.