"On the 19th day of February, 1732," says Mr. Cumberland in his autobiography, "I was born in the Master's Lodge of Trinity college, inter silvas Academi, under the roof of my grandfather Bentley, in what is called the Judge's Chamber." When turned of six years of age, we find that he was sent to the school at Bury St. Edmund's, then under the mastership of the Rev. Arthur Kinsman, a gentleman who formed his scholars upon the system of Westminster.
We find that Mr. Cumberland, at a very early period of his life, began to try his mental strength in several attempts at dramatic writing: "and," as he says, "Shakspeare was most upon my tongue, and nearest to my heart. I fitted and compiled a kind of Cento, which I entitled Shakspeare in the Shades, and formed into one act, selecting the characters of Hamlet and Ophelia, Romeo and Juliet, Lear and Cordelia, as the persons of my drama, and giving to Shakspeare, who is present throughout the piece, Ariel as an attendant spirit, and taking for the motto to my title page, —'Ast alii sex | Et plures, uno conclamant ore.—'"
We soon after find Mr. Cumberland transplanted to Westminster. "Cracherode, the learned collector, and munificent benefactor to the Royal museum, was in the head-election, and at that time as grave, studious, and reserved as he was through life, but correct in his morals, elegant in his manners; not courting a promiscuous acquaintance, but pleasant to those who knew him; beloved by many, and esteemed by all. At the head of the town boys was the Earl of Huntingdon, whom I should not name as a boy, for he was, even then, the courtly and accomplished gentleman, such as the world saw and acknowledged him to be. The late Earl of Bristol, the late Earl of Buckinghamshire, and the late Right Hon. Thomas Harley, were my form-fellows; the present Duke of Richmond, then Lord March, Warren Hastings, Colman, and Lloyd, were in the under-school; and what is a very extraordinary coincidence, there were then in the school together three boys, Hinchliffe, Smith, and Vincent, who afterwards succeeded to be severally Head-masters of Westminster school, and not by the decease of any one of them."
Mr. Cumberland passed through school and college with great credit both to his preceptors and to himself. When only in his fourteenth year he was admitted of Trinity college, Cambridge; whence after a long, assiduous, and elegant course of study, of which he gives us an accurate and entertaining account, be launched into the great world. Of his political debut he speaks in the following terms: — "Whilst I was preparing to resume my studies with increased attention, and repair the time not profitably past of late, I received a summons which opened to me a new scene of life; I was called for by Lord Halifax to assume the office of his private confidential secretary. It was considered by my family, and the friends and advisers of my family, as an offer upon which there could be no hesitation."
Having been invited by his friends at Trinity college to offer himself as a candidate for the lay fellowship vacant by the death of Mr. Titley, the Danish envoy, he obtained it; but observes, "I did not hold it long, for Providence had a blessing in store for me which was an effectual disqualification from holding any honours on terms of celibacy." About this time he wrote his first legitimate drama, in five acts, and entitled it The Banishment of Cicero. In favour of this drama, he was honoured with a letter from Bishop Warburton, who says, "Yesterday I received a letter from the Primate — it gives me great satisfaction that my opinion agrees with yours." The Opinion of Dr. Warburton was, that Cumberland's fine dramatic poem "was, like Mr. Mason's, too good fur a prostitute stage." This play, though patronized by Lord Halifax, was refused by Garrick.
In 1761, having obtained, through the patronage of Lord Halifax, a small establishment, as Crown-agent for the province of Nova Scotia, he married. When Lord Halifax returned to administration, and was appointed lord-lieutenant of Ireland, Mr. Cumberland went with him to that country as Ulster secretary; his father as one of his chaplains; and his brother-in-law, Captain William Ridge, as one of his aides de camp. His father was afterwards appointed Bishop of Clonfert, and our author assistant-secretary at the Board of Trade.
His first acted piece, The Summer's Tale, of which he speaks with great modesty, was performed at Covent Garden in 1765. He soon after visited his father at his episcopal residence, by courtesy called a palace. Of the manners of the Irish, with whose wild eccentric humours he was uncommonly delighted, he has given us a picturesque and animated description. "If," says he, "I have been successful in my dramatic sketches of the Irish character, it was here I studied it in its most pure and primitive state, from high to low it was now under my view."
In the winter of 1769 he produced his very excellent comedy, The Brothers. Woodward in the part of Ironsides, and Yates in that of Sir Benjamin Dove, were actors that could keep the scene alive, if any life was in it. Quick, then a young performer, took the part of Skiff; and Smith was the young man of the piece. Mrs. Green, in Lady Dove, was exquisitely comic; and Mrs. Yates was the heroine Sophia. "Garrick," says the author, "was in the house the first night of The Brothers; and as I was planted in the back seat of an upper box, I could not but remark his action of surprise when Mrs. Yates opened the epilogue with the following lines:—
Who but hath seen the celebrated strife,
Where Reynolds calls the canvass into life,
And 'twixt the tragic and the comic muse,
Courted of both, and dubious where to choose,
The immortal actor stands?'
This was a sure way of attaining the favour of "the immortal actor:" an intimacy followed of course. His next comedy, The West Indian, although it does not appear that the author himself had previously a very high opinion of its success, "ran eight and twenty successive nights, without the buttress of an after-piece, which it was not then the practice of attaching to a new play. Such was the good fortune of an author who happened to strike upon a popular and taking plan."
His fourth comedy, The Choleric Man, "was a successful play in its time, though it has not been so often before the public as the three that preceded it, and since Weston's decease has been laid entirely on the shelf." The next piece that our author brought upon the stage, under the management of Mr. Garrick, was Timon of Athens. These were followed by The Note of Hand, and The Battle of Hastings.
The accession of Lord George Germaine to the seals for the Colonial Department produced a considerable alteration in the situation of Mr. Cumberland, who, from a subaltern in the office, was promoted to the post of secretary. This change of circumstances, as he had then four sons at Westminster school, and two daughters coming into the world, was fortunate, as it put him greatly at his ease, and enabled him to dress their education with advantage. It also gave him time to pursue his poetical studies. He this winter, 1779, brought out at Covent Garden theatre his opera of Calypso, "which," he says, "did not meet with success proportioned to its merit." The next season he wrote a comic opera, which he entitled The Widow of Delphi; or, the Descent of the Deities. Soon after this he was obliged to part with the whole of his hereditary property, to defray the expenses of a mission upon which he had been sent to the courts of Lisbon and Madrid. His loss, upon this occasion, amounted to £5,000, which government refused to pay, though for what reason was never stated. With a very inadequate pension, he now retired to Tunbridge Wells, and, devoting himself entirely to literature, produced in succession a variety of works. When the Board of Trade was annihilated, in consequence of the provisions of Mr. Burke's Bill, "I found," says our author, "myself set adrift upon a compensation which, though nearer to an equivalent than what I had received from the Spanish claims, was, in value, scarce a moiety of what I had been deprived of. By the operation of this reform, after I had sacrificed the patrimony I was born to, a very considerable reduction was made even of the remnant that was left to me, I lost no time in putting my family upon such an establishment as prudence dictated, and fixed myself at Tunbridge Wells."
The first publication of our author after his return was his Anecdotes of eminent Painters in Spain; but before he had settled at Tunbridge Wells, he states, that he had written his comedy of The Walloons, which was played at Covent Garden, 1782. The Mysterious Husband was produced in 1783. These were followed by The Carmelite, a tragedy performed in 1784; The Imposter, a comedy, and several others. His next work was The Observer, first printed at Tunbridge Wells, and afterward, in an enlarged and improved state, by Mr. Charles Dilly. His next dramatic piece was, The Arab, a tragedy performed in 1785 for the benefit of Mr. Henderson. "Of my dramatic pieces," says Mr. Cumberland, "I must say in the gross, that if I did not always succeed in entertaining the audience, I continued to amuse myself. I brought out a comic opera, in three acts, founded on the story of Wat Tyler; which being objected to by the Lord-Chamberlain, I was obliged to new model and produce, under the title of The Armourer. When I had taken all the comedy out of it, I was not surprised to find that the public were not greatly edified by what was left." The indefatigable pen of our author produced also a comedy, called The Country-Attorney, The Box-lobby Challenge, and Don Pedro. The Jew was the first new piece exhibited on the stage of the new and splendid theatre Drury-lane. The Wheel of Fortune came out in the succeeding season; and First Love followed close upon its steps. They were successful comedies, and very powerfully supported by the performers. "I think," says Mr. Cumberland, "as I am now so near the conclusion of these memoirs, I may as well wind up my dealings with the theatres. I am beholden to Covent Garden for accepting my dramas of The Days of Yore, and False Impressions, performed 1796 and 1797, To Drury-lane for The Last of the Family' 1797, The Word for Nature, 1798, The Dependent, The Eccentric Lover, 1798, and for The Sailor's Daughter, 1804. My life has been a long one, and my health of late years uninterrupted. I am very rarely called off by avocations of an undomestic kind; and the man who gives so very small a portion of his time to absolute idleness as I have done, will do a vast deal in the course of time, especially if his body does not stand in need of exercise, and his mind, which never knows remission of activity, demands to be employed." He also projected and edited, during its brief existence, The London Review; and, in 1806, published memoirs of his life, which terminated, in London, on the 7th of May, 1811.