1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Davies

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 6:421-43.



MR. THOMAS DAVIES, a man of uncommon strength of mind, who prided himself on being through life a companion for his superiors, was born in or about the year 1712. In 1728 and 1729 he was at the University of Edinburgh, completing his education; and became, as Dr. Johnson used to say of him, "learned enough for a Clergyman."

Mr. Davies imbibed very early a taste for theatrical pursuits; and in 1736 his name occurs among the Dramatis Personae of Lillo's celebrated tragedy of Fatal Curiosity, at the Theatre in the Haymarket; where he was the original performer of young Wilmot; under the management of Henry Fielding.

In a short time he commenced Bookseller, in Duke's-court, opposite the church of St. Martin in the Fields; met with misfortunes in trade, which induced him to return to the stage; and on the 24th of January, 1746, Venice Preserved was acted for his benefit at Covent-Garden Theatre; when, as the play-bill says, the part of Pierre was "attempted" by him. Not succeeding, probably, to his hopes on a London stage, he became an itinerant, and performed at York; where he married Miss Yarrow, daughter of an actor there, whose beauty was not more remarkable than her private character was ever unsullied and irreproachable. He also performed at Edinburgh (where he appears to have been the Manager of the Theatre) the characters of Romeo, Richard III., and Ranger.

He then went to Dublin; and, with his wife, performed several characters there.

In 1753 he came, with his wife, to Drury-lane Theatre; and, on Mr. Havard being taken ill, appeared first in the character of Stukely, in Moore's tragedy of The Gamester. Here Mr. and Mrs. Davies remained several years, in good estimation with the Town, and played many characters, if not with excellence, at least with propriety and decency.

In his Dramatic Miscellanies he thus modestly speaks of his own performance on a particular occasion: "When sickness deprived the stage of this valuable man (Mr. Edward Berry), Mr. Garrick called the Writer of this Miscellany to represent the character of Gloster (in the tragedy of King Lear); the candour of the audience gave him much more encouragement than he expected."

In the same entertaining Work he thus speaks of his wife: "Mrs. Davies, during Mrs. Cibber's illness, was invited to supply her place. She did not pretend to imitate that which was not to be attained by imitation, the action, voice, and manner of Mrs. Cibber. Mr. Davies's figure, look, and deportment, were esteemed to be so correspondent with the idea of this amiable character (Cordelia in King Lear), that she was dismissed with no inconsiderable degree of approbation."

Churchill's indiscriminate satire, in the Rosciad, endeavoured to fix some degree of ridicule on Mr. Davies's performance; but the pen of a Satirist is not entitled to implicit credit. It, however, had the ill effect, Dr. Johnson said, of driving this respectable performer from the stage.

In 1762, a few years before he finally quitted the Theatre, he resumed his former occupation of a Bookseller, in Russel-street, Covent Garden.

In 1772 he collected and republished, in three volumes, the beautiful Pastoral Poems, &c. of William Browne; who flourished in the reign of James I. and who was complimented with commendatory Verses by three of the best Pastoral Poets this nation has produced: Drayton, Jonson, and the unjustly contemned Wither.

He also re-published The Poems of Sir John Davies; consisting of his Poem on the Immortality of the Soul; the Hymn of Astraea; and Orchestra, a Poem on Dancing: All published from a corrected Copy formerly in the Possession of W. Thompson, of Queen's College, Oxon. 1773, 12mo.

In the same year he was the editor of Miscellaneous and Fugitive Pieces [by the Author of The Rambler], 1773, in two volumes, 8vo; to which was afterwards added a third Volume. In these volumes, Dr. Johnson is the prominent feature; but we meet in them likewise with the names of Garrick, Colman, Cradock, Goldsmith, Francklin, Lloyd, and others. Dr. Johnson was for a short time displeased at the publication; and his behaviour on that occasion is thus described by Mrs. Piozzi: "When Davies printed the Fugitive Pieces without his (Dr. Johnson's) knowledge or consent, 'How,' said I, 'would Pope have raved, had he been served so!' 'We should never,' replied he, 'have heard the last on't, to be sure; but then Pope was a narrow man. I will, however,' added he, 'storm and bluster myself a little this time:' — so up to London in all the wrath he could muster up. At his return, I asked how the affair ended. 'Why,' said he, 'I was a fierce fellow, and pretended to be very angry; and Thomas was a good-natured fellow, and pretended to be very sorry: so there the matter ended. I believe the dog loves me dearly. 'Mr. Thrale,' turning to my husband, 'What shall you and I do for Tom Davies? We will do something for him, to be sure.'"

In 1774 he published The Works of Dr. John Eachard, late Master of Catherine Hall, of Cambridge. Consisting of the Grounds and Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy; his Dialogues on the Writings of Mr. Hobbes; and other Tracts. A new Edition; with a Second Dialogue on the Writings of Mr. Hobbes, not printed in any former edition; and some Account of the Life and Writings of the Author, 3 vols. 12mo.

The Works of Mr. George Lillo; with some Account of his Life, 1775, 2 vols. 12mo.

In 1777, he was the Author of The Characters of George the First, Queen Caroline, Sir Robert Walpole, Lord Hardwicke, Mr. Fox, and Mr. Pitt, reviewed. With Royal and Noble Anecdotes, and a Sketch of Lord Chesterfield's Characters, 12mo.

Some Memoirs of Mr. Henderson, 1778.

In 1779 he published Some Account of the Life and Writings of Massinger; prefixed to a new and improved Edition of his Works, in 4 volumes, 8vo.

A series of very curious Letters from Mr. Davies was inserted, by Mr. Malcolm, in Letters between the Rev. James Granger, M.A. Rector of Shiplake, and many of the most eminent Men of his Time, 1805; many of them highly characteristic both of Mr. Granger and Mr. Davies.

Not meeting with that success which his attention and abilities merited, Mr. Davies, in 1778, was under the disagreeable necessity of submitting to become a bankrupt; when, such was the regard entertained for him by his friends, that they readily consented to his re-establishment; and none, as he said himself, were more active to serve him, than those who had suffered most by his misfortunes. But all their efforts might possibly have been fruitless, if his great and good friend Dr. Johnson had not exerted all his interest in his behalf. He called upon all over whom he had any influence to assist Tom Davies; and prevailed on Mr. Sheridan, patentee of Drury-lane Theatre, to let him have a benefit; which he granted on the most liberal terms. This event took place May 27, 1778; when Mr. Davies made his last appearance on the stage, in the character of Fainall, in Congreve's comedy of The Way of the World, and acquitted himself to the satisfaction of his friends and the publick.

In 1780, by a well-timed publication, The Life of Mr. Garrick, in two volumes, which passed through four editions, he not only acquired considerable fame, but realized money.

He also published, Dramatic Miscellanies, consisting of Critical Observations on several Plays of Shakspeare; with a Review of his principal Characters, and those of various eminent Writers, as represented by Mr. Garrick, and other celebrated Comedians. With Anecdotes of Dramatic Poets, Actors, &c. 1785. 3 vols. 8vo. A second edition appeared a few days only before his death.

Mr. Davies was also the writer of essays without number, in prose and verse, in the St. James's Chronicle, and some of the public newspapers.

The Compiler of the present Volumes knew Mr. Davies well; and for several years passed many convivial hours in his company at a social meeting; where his lively sallies of pleasantry were certain to entertain his friends by harmless merriment. The last time, however, that he visited them he wore the appearance of a spectre; and, sensible of his approaching end, took a solemn valediction. Poor Ghost! how it would comfort thee to know, that, at a subsequent meeting of thy sincere friends, the impression of thy last appearance was not eradicated; and that every breast heaved a sympathetic sigh, lamenting the loss of so excellent an associate!

He died May 5, 1785, aged about 73; for, in the Postscript to the second edition of his Dramatic Miscellanies, published 1785, he mentions a circumstance which occurred, he says, when he was in his 73d year. He was buried, by his own desire, in the vault of St. Paul Covent Garden; and the following lines were written on the occasion:

Here lies the Author, Actor, Thomas Davies;
Living, he shone a very rara avis.
The scenes he play'd Life's audience must commend,
He honour'd Garrick — Johnson was his friend.

Mrs. Davies, he widow, died Feb. 9, 1801.