William Smith of Covent Garden

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 89 (October 1819) 375-76.

Sept. 13. At Bury St. Edmund's, in his 89th year, Wm. Smith, Esq. formerly of Drury Lane Theatre. — Mr. Smith, from the propriety of his conduct, his mental accomplishments, and the superior grace and elegance of his manners and appearance, was designated by his acquaintance "Gentleman" Smith. He was the son of a wholesale grocer and tea-dealer in the city. He was born about the year 1730 or 31; and, after an education at Eton School, was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge, with a view of afterwards entering into holy orders. At the University Mr. Smith's conduct did not please his superiors; and his finances having been deranged after the death of his father, at length induced him to abandon the prospect of college advancement. On his return to town, he determined to make the stage his profession, and was introduced by Mr. Howard, at that time an eminent surgeon, to Mr. Rich, the then proprietor of Covent Garden Theatre. At this time Mr. Barry and the celebrated Mrs. Cibber were the principal performers, and young Smith became a pupil to the veteran Barry. He made his first appearance on the stage, January 1, 1753, in the character of Theodosius, in the tragedy of The Force of Love; his success was every thing that he could wish; and he continued to play a wide range of principal parts, for twenty-two years, at Covent Garden, with annually-increased reputation. In the winter of 1774, he entered into an engagement with Mr. Garrick, and continued the remainder of his theatrical life at Drury Lane, at the head of the company, which terminated at the end of the season 1788; when having married a lady of fortune, he took leave of the Publick, to the great regret of the admirers of the Drama, in the character of Charles, in The School for Scandal; in which part he again appeared ten years after for the benefit of his friend King, and attracted an overflowing audience. Notwithstanding his long absence from the stage, and having grown very lusty, he went through the character with that spirit, ease, and elegance, for which he was unequalled. Mr. Smith was on the stage 35 years; during which long period he was never absent from the Metropolis one season, nor ever performed out of London, except one summer at Bristol, after the death of Mr. Holland, and again in the summer of 1774, when he went to Dublin. His Kitely, in the comedy of Every Man in his Humour, was said to be superior to that of the British Roscius. His voice had a kind of monotony, but was rich and full; and his action, though not always perfect, was ever easy. In person, Mr. Smith was rather tall, and perfectly well formed; his face handsome, but not capable of strong expression. As an actor, his Richard, Hastings, and Hotspur, in Tragedy; and his Kitely, Oakley, and Charles Surface, in Comedy, were his principal characters, in which he was rarely excelled. he naturally prided himself in the reflection that he was never called upon to perform an afterpiece, or required to pass through a trap-door in any entrance or exit on the stage. His chief diversion was fox-hunting; which sometimes, in his early days, detached him too much from his professional studies, and called forth from Churchill, in the Rosciad, this couplet—

Smith, the genteel, the airy, and the smart;
Smith was just gone to school to say his part.

The lady Mr. Smith married was Elizabeth, second daughter of Edw. Richard Viscount Hinchinbrook (the eldest son of Edward, third Earl of Sandwich), and widow of Kelland Courtenay, of Powderham Castle, Devonshire, bart. She died Dec. 13, 1762 [sic], and was interred in the Church of Leiston, Suffolk. Mr. Smith was a Legatee under the will of the late eccentric Lord Chedworth, who bequeathed to him 200, a sum which is said to have greatly disappointed his expectations, having fondly imagined that his Lordship would have left him considerably more.

The following tribute to his memory is from the Muse of John Taylor, esq.:

Here Smith now rests, who acted well his part,
Mere human errors mark'd his life and art;
Yet were his merits of no common kind,
For Nature had adorn'd his form and mind.
Oxford of learning, gave an ample store,
Genius, Experience, Judgment, taught him more;
And, e'en Garrick charm'd a wond'ring age,
Smith threw a lustre o'er the rival stage;
Conspicuous for the skill he then display'd,
Or with the tragic or the comic maid.
At length, when Summer veil'd her radiant fire,
Reflecting Autumn taught him to retire;
Yet propp'd by Health, he scarcely felt decay,
And Winter cheer'd him with the glow of May.
Time kept aloof, as if inclin'd to spare
A work that Nature form'd with partial care;
And when resolv'd no longer to delay,
He gently wafted lingering life away.
His mournful widow plac'd this Tablet here,
And paid the tribute of a silent tear,
Sooth'd by the hope, when her brief scene is o'er,
To meet in purer realms, to part no more.