“…but what were they actually like?” 2. David Hume

David Hume by Allan Ramsay

From Eminent Scotsmen: “Lord Charlemont, who at this period met with Mr. Hume at Turin, has given the following account of his habits and appearance, penned apparently with a greater aim at effect than at truth, yet somewhat characteristic of the philosopher: ‘Nature, I believe, never formed any man more unlike his real character than David Hume. The powers of physiognomy were baffled by his countenance; neither could the most skilful in the science pretend to discover the smallest trace of the faculties of his mind in the unmeaning features of his visage. His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless; and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher. His speech in English was rendered ridiculous by the broadest Scotch accent, and his French was, if possible, still more laughable, so that wisdom most certainly never disguised herself before in so uncouth a garb.’”

David Hume on himself: “To conclude historically with my own character. I am, or rather was (for that is the style which I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiment); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame—my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”

From Lockhart, Peter’s Letters. “The prints of David Hume are, most of them, I believe, taken from the very portrait I have seen; but of course the style and effect of the features are much more thoroughly to be understood when one has an opportunity of observing them expanded in their natural proportions. The face is far from being in any respect a classical one. The forehead is chiefly remarkable for its prominence from the ear, and not so much for its height. This gives him a lowering sort of look forwards, expressive of great inquisitiveness into matters of fact and the consequences to be deduced from them. His eyes are singularly prominent, which, according to the Gallic system, would indicate an extraordinary development of the organ of language behind them. His nose is too low between the eyes, and not well or boldly formed in any other respect. The lips, although not handsome, have in their fleshy and massy outlines abundant marks of habitual reflection and intellectual occupation. The whole had a fine expression of intellectual dignity, candour, and serenity. The want of elevation, however, which I have already noticed, injures very much the effect even of the structure of the lower part of the head…. It is to be regretted that he wore powder, for this prevents us from having the advantage of seeing what was the natural style of his hair—or, indeed, of ascertaining the form of any part of his head beyond the forehead.”

These excerpts, and the ones that will follow in future “…but what were they actually like?” blog posts, are from Word Portraits of Famous Writers by Mabel E. Wotton (London: Bentley, 1887), It was a clever anthology, well reviewed, incidentally, by Oscar Wilde in the Pall Mall Gazette. Mabel Wotton (1863-1927) was an interesting writer, best known for her feminist novels, that found their place in the “New Woman” school – a term coined by the Irish writer, Sarah Grand, to embrace novels written by women of independent and radical outlook. Wotton was a close friend of Israel Zangwill, who introduced her to the publisher John Lane.