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Significant Scots
Sir James Hall


HALL, (SIR) JAMES, Bart., was born at Dunglass in East Lothian, on the 17th January, 1761. He was the eldest son of Sir John Hall, who had married his cousin, Magdalen, daughter to Sir Robert Pringle of Stitchell in Berwickshire. The subject of our memoir received a private education until his twelfth year, when he was sent by his father to a public school in the neighbourhood of London, where he had the good fortune to be under the care and superintendence of his uncle, Sir John Pringle, the king’s physician. He succeeded to the baronetcy by the death of his father, in July 1776, and much about the same period entered himself in Christ’s college, Cambridge, where he remained for some years. He then proceeded with his tutor, the reverend Mr Brand, on a tour on the continent, whence he returned to Edinburgh, when twenty years old, and lived there with his tutor until he became of age, attending, at the same time, some of the classes of the Edinburgh university. In 1782, Sir James Hall made a second tour on the continent of Europe, where he remained for more than three years, gradually acquiring that accurate information in geology, chemistry, and Gothic architecture, which he afterwards made so useful to the world. During this period he visited the courts of Europe, and made himself acquainted with their scientific men. In his rambles he had occasion to meet with the adventurer Ledyard; the interview between them, its cause, and consequence, are, with a sense of gratitude and justice not often witnessed on similar occasions, detailed in the journals and correspondence of that singular man; and the scene is so honourable to the feelings of Sir James Hall, that we cannot avoid quoting it in Ledyard’s own words:

"Permit me to relate to you an incident. About a fortnight ago, Sir James Hall, an English gentleman, on his way from Paris to Cherbourg, stopped his coach at our door, and came up to my chamber. I was in bed, at six o’clock in the morning, but having flung on my robe de chambre, I met him at the door of the anti-chamber—I was glad to see him, but surprised. He observed, that he had endeavoured to make up his opinion of me with as much exactness as possible, and concluded that no kind of visit whatever would surprise me. I could do no otherwise than remark that his opinion surprised me at least, and the conversation took another turn. In walking across the chamber, he laughingly put his hand on a six livre piece, and a louis d’or that lay on my table, and with a half stifled blush, asked me how I was in the money way. Blushes commonly beget blushes, and I blushed partly because he did, and partly on other accounts. ‘If fifteen guineas,’ said he, interrupting the answer he had demanded, ‘will be of any service to you, there they are,’ and he put them on the table. ‘I am a traveller myself, and though I have some fortune to support my travels, yet I have been so situated as to want money, which you ought not to do - you have my address in London.’ He then wished me a good morning and left me. This gentleman was a total stranger to the situation of my finances, and one that I had, by mere accident, met at an ordinary in Paris." [Life and Travels of John Ledyard, from his Journals and Correspondence, 1828, pp. 223-224.]

The sum was extremely acceptable to Ledyard, for the consumption of the six livre piece and the louis d’or would have left him utterly destitute; but he had no more expectation or right to assistance from Sir James Hall, than (to use his own simile) from the khan of Tartary. On his return to Scotland, Sir James Hall married, in 1786, the lady Helen Douglas, second daughter of Dunbar, earl of Selkirk. Living a life of retirement, Sir James commenced his connexion with the Royal Society of Edinburgh, of which he was for some time president, and enriched its transactions by accounts of experiment, on a bold and extensive scale. The results were in many instances so important, that they deserve to be cursorily mentioned in this memoir, which, treating of a scientific man, would be totally void of interest without some reference to them. He was a supporter of the theory of Dr Hutton, who maintained the earth to be the production of heat, and all its geological formations the natural consequences of fusion; and his experiments may be said to be special evidence collected for the support of this cause. Among the minute investigations made by the supporters of both sides of the controversy, it had been discovered by the Neptunians, that in some granites, where quartz and feldspar were united, the respective crystals were found mutually to impress each other—therefore, that they must have been in a state of solution together, and must have congealed simultaneously; but as feldspar fuses with less heat than is required for quartz, the latter, if both were melted by fire, must have returned to its solidity previously to the former, and so the feldspar would have yielded entirely to the impression of the crystals of the quartz. Sir James Hall discovered, that when the two substances were pulverized, and mixed in the proportions in which they usually occur in granite, a heat very little superior to that required to melt the feldspar alone, fused both, the feldspar acting in some respects as a solvent, or flux to the quartz. Making allowance for the defects of art, the result of the experiment, while it could not be used as a positive proof to the theory of the Huttonians, served to defend them from what might have proved a conclusive argument of their opponents. But the other experiments were founded on wider views, and served to illustrate truths more important. The characteristic of the theory of Dr Hutton, distinguishing it from those of others who maintained the formation of the earth by means of fire, was, that perceiving the practical effect of heat on most of the bodies which formed the crust of the earth, to be calcination, or change of state, and not fusion, or change of form, and knowing from the experiments of Dr Black, that, in the case of limestones, the change depended on the separation of the carbonic acid gas from the earth, the theorist concluded, that by a heat beyond what human agency could procure, calcareous earths might be fused, provided the gas were prevented from escaping, by means of strong pressure. Sir James Hall, conceiving it possible that a sufficient heat might be procured, to exemplify the theory on some calcareous bodies, commenced a series of experiments in 1798, which he prosecuted through success and disappointment for seven years. The result of these experiments produced an elaborate paper, read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and published in the Transactions of that body in 1806; they were in number one hundred and fifty-six, some successful, others productive of the disappointment to which accident frequently exposes the zealous chemist,—conducted with considerable danger, great expense, and unvarying patience and labour, and on the whole singularly satisfactory in their results. The plan followed by Sir James was, to procure a tube which might afford a strong resistance to inward pressure, for which purpose he alternately tried iron, and porcelain; one end being closed up, pulverized chalk or other limestone was inserted, and the space betwixt its surface and the mouth of the tube being closely packed with some impervious substance, such as clay baked and pounded, fused metal, &c., the open extremity was hermetically sealed, and the end which contained the substance to be experimented upon, subjected to the action of a furnace. The iron or the porcelain was frequently found insufficient to sustain the pressure; the substance rammed into the tube to prevent the longitudinal escape of the gas had not always the effect, nor could Sir James, even in the most refined of his experiments, prevent a partial though sometimes scarcely perceptible escape of gas; yet the general results showed the truth of the theory on which he had proceeded to act, with singular applicability;—the first successful experiment procured him from a piece of common chalk, broken to powder, a hard stony mass, which dissolved in muriatic acid with violent effervescence - sometjmes the fruit of his labour was covered with crystals visible to the naked eye—proving fusion, and re-formation as a limestone mineral. The results of these experiments, as applicable to the formation of the earth, were reduced to a table, in which, by a presumption that the pressure of water had been the agent of nature, the author considers that 1700 feet of sea, with the assistance of heat, is sufficient for the formation of limestone - that by 3000 feet a complete marble may be formed, &c.;—it may be remarked that a fragment of marble, manufactured by Sir James Hall in the course of his experiments, so far deceived the workman employed to give it a polish, that, acting under the presumption that the fragment had been dug up in Scotland, he remarked, that if it were but a little whiter, the mine where it was found might be very valuable.

In 1808, Sir James Hall represented the burgh of St Michael’s in Cornwall; but after the dissolution of parliament in 1812, he did not again offer himself as a candidate. In 1813, he published his well known "Origin, Principles, and History of Gothic Architecture," in one volume quarto, accompanied with plates and illustrations. It contained an enlargement and correction of the contents of a paper on the same subject, delivered before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the year 1797. This elegant volume is the most popular and esteemed work on the subject of which it treats, both in the particular theory it espouses, and the interest of its details. The origin and formation of Gothic architecture had given birth to many theories, accounting for it on the imitative principles which guide the formation of all architecture, some ingenious, but none satisfactory. Warburton pointed out the similarity of Gothic aisles, to avenues of growing trees. Milner adopted the theory propounded in Bentham’s History of Ely Cathedral, that the pointed arch was formed by the interlacing of two semicircular arches; and Murphy referred the whole formation of Gothic architecture to an imitation of the form of the pyramid. Sir James Hall perceived that no form could be appropriately assumed in Gothic architecture which might not be constructed in wicker-ware; and considered that the earliest stone buildings of this peculiar form were imitations of the natural forms assumed in constructions of boughs and twigs. "It happened," he says, in giving a lively account of the circumstance which hinted such a theory, "that the peasants of the country through which I was travelling were employed in collecting and bringing home the long rods or poles, which they make use of to support their vines, and these were to be seen in every village, standing in bundles, or waving partly loose in carts. It occurred to me that a rustic dwelling might be constructed of such rods, bearing a resemblance to works of Gothic architecture, and from which the peculiar forms of that style might have been derived. This conjecture was at first employed to account for the main parts of the structure, and for its general appearance only; but after a diligent investigation, carried on at intervals, with the assistance of friends, both in the collection of materials, and the solution of difficulties, I have been enabled to reduce even the most intricate forms of this elaborate style to the same simple origin; and to account for every feature belonging to it, from an imitation of wicker work, modified according to the principles just laid down, as applicable to architecture of every sort." Sir James, who was never fond of trusting to the power of theory without practice, erected with twigs and boughs a very beautiful Gothic edifice, from which he drew conclusions strikingly illustrative of his theory. But it must be allowed, that he has carried it in some respects a little beyond the bounds of certainty, and that, however much our tasteful ancestors continued to follow the course which chance had dictated of the imitation of vegetable formations in stone, many forms were imitated, which were never attempted in the wicker edifices of our far distant progenitors. A specimen of this reasoning is to be found in the author’s tracing the origin of those graceful spherical angles, which adorn the interior parts of the bends of the mullions in the more ornate windows of Gothic churches, to an imitation of the curled form assumed by the bark when in a state of decay, and ready to drop from the bough. The similitude is fanciful, and may be pronounced to be founded on incorrect data, as the ornament in question cannot be of prior date to that of the second period of Gothic architecture, and was unknown till many ages after the twig edifices were forgotten. The theory forms a check on the extravagancies of modern Gothic imitations, and it were well if those who perpetrate such productions, would follow the advice of Sir James Hall, and correct their work by a comparison with nature. This excellent and useful man, after a lingering illness of three and a half years, died at Edinburgh on the 23d day of June, 1832. Of a family at one time very numerous, he left behind him five children, of whom the second was the late distinguished captain Basil Hall.


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