See A. Lang, The Life and Letters of John Gibson Lockhart (2 vol., 1897, repr. 1970); biography by F. R. Hart (1971).
His mother, who was the daughter of the Rev. John Gibson, of Edinburgh, was a woman of considerable intellectual gifts. He was sent to the Glasgow High School, where he showed himself clever rather than industrious. He fell into ill-health, and had to be removed from school before he was twelve; but on his recovery he was sent at this early age to Glasgow University, and displayed so much precocious learning, especially in Greek, that he was offered a Snell exhibition at Oxford. He was not fourteen when he entered Balliol College, Oxford, where he acquired a great store of knowledge outside the regular curriculum. He read French, Italian, German and Spanish, was interested in classical and British antiquities, and became versed in heraldic and genealogical lore.
He contributed to Blackwood many spirited translations of Spanish ballads, which in 1823 were published separately. In 1818 the brilliant and handsome young man attracted the notice of Sir Walter Scott, and the acquaintance soon ripened into an intimacy which resulted in a marriage between Lockhart and Scott's eldest daughter Sophia, in April 1820. Five years of domestic happiness followed, with winters spent in Edinburgh and summers at a cottage at Chiefswood, near Abbotsford, where Lockhart's two eldest children, John Hugh and Charlotte, were born; a second son, Walter, was born later at Brighton.
In 1820 John Scott, the editor of the London Magazine, wrote a series of articles attacking the conduct of Blackwood's Magazine, and making Lockhart chiefly responsible for its extravagances. A correspondence followed, in which a meeting between Lockhart and John Scott was proposed, with Jonathan Henry Christie and Horace Smith as seconds. A series of delays and complicated negotiations resulted early in 1821 in a duel between Christie and John Scott, in which Scott was killed. This unhappy affair, which has been the subject of much misrepresentation, is fully discussed in Andrew Lang's book on Lockhart.
He had now established his literary position, and, as the next heir to his unmarried half-brother's property in Scotland, Milton Lockhart, he was sufficiently independent, though he had abandoned the legal profession. In London he had great social success, and was recognized as a brilliant editor. He contributed largely to the Quarterly Review himself, his biographical articles being especially admirable. He showed the old, railing spirit in an amusing but violent article in the Quarterly on Tennyson's Poems of 1833, in which he failed to discover the mark of genius.
He continued to write for Blackwood; he produced for Constable's Miscellany Volume XXIII in 1828 what remains the most charming of the biographies of Burns, his Life of Robert Burns. Because Lockhart was the only one of Burns's biographers to have been the author of a classic, his Burns has been treated with a respect and given a circulation which its merits, in spite of its graceful style do not justify. For it is misleading and dishonest. As Snyder puts it: 'The best that one can say of it today... is that it occasioned Carlyle's review. It is inexcusably inaccurate from beginning to end, at times demonstrably mendacious, and should never be trusted in any respect or detail.'.
But his chief work was the Life of Sir Walter Scott (7 vols, 1837—1838; 2nd ed., 10 vols., 1839). This edited a great number of Scott's letters. There were not wanting those in Scotland who taxed Lockhart with ungenerous exposure of his subject, but to most healthy minds the impression conveyed by the biography was, and is, quite the opposite. Carlyle did justice to many of its excellencies in a criticism contributed to the London and Westminster Review (1837). Lockhart's account of the transactions between Scott and the Ballantynes and Constable caused great outcry; and in the discussion that followed he showed unfortunate bitterness by his pamphlet, "The Ballantyne Humbug handled." The Life of Scott has been called, after Boswell's Johnson, the most admirable biography in the English language. The proceeds, which were considerable, Lockhart resigned for the benefit of Scott's creditors.
Robert Scott Lauder painted two portraits of Lockhart, one of him alone, and the other with Charlotte Scott.
Lockhart's Life (2 vols., London and New York, 1897) was written by Andrew Lang. A.W. Pollard's edition of the Life of Scott (1900), is the best.