John Taylor, the journalist, newspaper editor and poet, was born in 1757. His grandfather, the legendary 'Chevalier' Taylor, had been oculist to George II, and afterwards, so his grandson assures us, to 'every crowned head in Europe'. He was as famous for his womanising as for his knowledge of ophthalmology, but most famous, perhaps, for his habit of prefacing every operation he performed with a long speech in praise of his own skill, composed in what he claimed was 'the true Ciceronian', with each main verb cunningly held back to the end of the sentence. According to Johnson, he was a remarkable instance of 'how far impudence may carry ignorance'. Taylor himself - my John Taylor - later became oculist to George III, a job he shared with his brother. The post was unpaid and undemanding: though Taylor seems to have been a competent ophthalmologist in his twenties, by the time he received his royal appointment he had abandoned the discipline in favour of a career in journalism, and does not appear to have been called in to treat the long series of eye-problems, partly the effects of undiagnosed porphyria, which eventually left the king blind. He was fascinated by the stage, and in the 1780s became drama critic for the Morning Post. He cultivated the friendship of actors, dramatists, theatre managers, with extraordinary assiduity; indeed, over a period of more than forty years he seems to have known everyone: politicians, poets, novelists, painters, journalists, soldiers, clerics, even civil servants if they were sufficiently close to ministers to be worth knowing. During the 1790s, when the social networks in which Taylor moved were everywhere unpicked by political disagreements, Taylor, a known and convinced Tory and devotee of the prime minister, William Pitt, managed to remain on friendly terms with men such as William Godwin and the great satirical poet John Wolcot, 'Peter Pindar', whom Pitt's government regarded as dangerously disloyal.
LRB 1 April 2004 | PDF Download