David Garrick may not have lived in Herefordshire for long, but the County can still claim him as one of their own as he was born at the Angel Inn in Hereford on 19th February 1717. (The building no longer exists). Of French and Irish descent, David was the son of Peter Garrick who was a Captain in the English army, and an Irish vicar’s daughter; one of seven children, David was the eldest and from an early age wrote interesting and educated letters to his father away on army duties in Gibralter.
David was educated at Lichfield grammar school, before going to a theatrical academy opened at Edial by Samuel Johnson – the academy didn’t do well, and eventually in 1737 Samuel Johnson and David who had formed a friendship headed for London, where David became a wine salesman in the family firm before pursuing his dream of being an actor and playwright.
David Garrick the Actor
David Garrick starting his acting career anonymously as he didn’t want his family to know that he was following what was regarded generally as a low profession, and even after the death of his mother in 1740 he was still reluctant to confess. He appeared in several plays where he was reasonably well received but failed in his attempts to work at Covent Garden or Drury Lane.
In 1741 though, everything changed. He gave a phenomenal performance as Richard III at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in London and he began to act under his real name as well as telling his father what he was up to. He became an overnight sensation and went on to play many diverse roles brilliantly.
In April 1747 some of David’s friends helped him to raise money in order to buy the lease of the Drury Lane Theatre, and he and his new partner James Lacy turned the theatre into one of the finest in Europe. David had high standards and didn’t suffer slackers, be they actors or technicians, and there was a high turnover at the Theatre – however he cherished those that he found favourable, even eschewing chances to play Macbeth again after his leading lady in the play, Hannah Pritchard, died in 1768.
One change at the theatre that took him a good 15 years to bring into effect was the banning of inebriated men from sitting on the stage; something that could never be imagined now.
The theatre layout was very class conscious, with the upper gallery being for working classes; the next level down was for middle classes, and the lower boxes were for the gentry. The pit in front of the stage was used by professionals, and the boxes at the very top of the auditorium were used by prostitutes who were on the lookout for business.
David made other innovatitive changes at the Drury Lane Theatre, replacing the candles with oil lamps in the auditorium, and using lanterns to light the stage. His clever business sense saw him reap the rewards, and he built a large mansion on the banks of the river in Hampton to add to his other residences in London.
David Garrick the Man
David was no great oil painting, but possibly his charisma made it easy for him to attract women, and for a while he lived with Peg Woffington, an actress who specialised in cross dressing parts including Rosalind in As You Like It. Eventually Garrick brought the relationship to a close.
He married Eva Maria Veigel, a Roman Catholic Austrian opera dancer, in 1749; they were to have no children but the marriage was a happy one and despite her lack of English, she threw herself into lavish entertainment with her husband. In 1763 they embarked on a continental tour, but Eva was in great pain with her back, possibly a slipped disc, and David nearly died of typhoid in Munich.
David had a great many influential friends, including Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, both of whom immortalised him in oils; he also had shares in several newspapers of the time, and lately it has been suggested that he indulged in more than a little self-promotion, writing numerous wonderful reviews of his own performances. There is no doubting his excellence as an actor and businessman, but certainly his many articles praising his own acting prowess would have fuelled the public’s adoration.
David Garrick retired from the stage and sold his share of the Drury Lane patent in 1775, before settling down to enjoy his retirement. He became a member of Johnson’s Literary Club which met once a week for dinner and discussion, and at Hampton he loved spending time in his garden with his dogs and relatives, or indoors in his library.
Death of David Garrick
David had always had kidney problems, and whilst staying at Althorp with Lord and Lady Spencer during the New Year celebrations of 1779 be suddenly became very ill. He returned to his house in Adelphi Terrace, where he died. He was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.