GEORGE COLMAN, an eminent dramatic author and manager, the son of Thomas Colman, esq. British resident at the court of the grand duke of Tuscany at Pisa, whose wife was a sister of the countess of Bath, was born at Florence about the year 1733, and placed at a very early age in Westminster-school, where he soon distinguished himself by the rapidity of his attainments, and the dawning splendour of his talents. He was elected to Christ Church college, Oxford, in 1751, and took the degree of M.A. in 1758. During his progress at Westminster, and while at college, he formed those literary connections with whom he remained in friendship till they severally dropped off the stage of life. Lloyd, Churchill, Bonnel Thornton, Cowper, and other celebrated wits of that period, were among the intimate associates of Mr. Colman, and gave a lustre to his name, by noticing him in some of their compositions. Even so early as the publication of the "Rosciad," Churchill proposed Mr. Colman as a proper judge to decide on the pretensions of the several candidates for the chair of Roscius; and only complains that he may be thought too juvenile for so important an award.
It was during his residence at Oxford that he engaged with his friend Bonnel Thornton, in publishing the "Connoisseur," a periodical paper, which appeared once a week, and was continued from January 31, 1754, to September 30, 1756. When the age of the writers of this entertaining miscellany is considered, the wit and humour, the spirit, the good sense, and shrewd observations on life and manners, with which it abounds, will excite some degree of wonder, but will, at the same time, evidently point out the extraordinary talents which were afterwards to be more fully displayed in the "Jealous Wife" and the "Clandestine Marriage."
When he came to London, the recommendation of his friends, or his choice, but probably the former, induced him to fix upon the law for his profession, and he was received with great kindness by lord Bath, who seemed to mark him for the object of his patronage: a circumstance that gave rise to the suspicion that his lordship had a natural bias in favour of young Colman. He was entered of the society of Lincoln's-inn, and in due season called to the bar. He attended there a very short time, though, from the frequency of his attendance on the courts, we must conclude that it was not for want of encouragement that he abandoned the profession. It is reasonable to suppose that he felt more pleasure in attending to the muse than to briefs and reports; and it will therefore excite no surprise, that he took the earliest opportunity of relinquishing pursuits not congenial to his taste. "Apollo and Littleton," says Wycherley, "seldom meet in the same brain." At this period Lloyd addressed to him a very pleasant poem on the importance of his profession, and the seducements to which he was liable, on account of his attachment to the sisters of Helicon. His first poetical performance is a copy of verses addressed to his cousin lord Pulteney, written in the year 1747, while he was yet at Westminster, and published in the St. James's Magazine, a work conducted by his unfortunate friend Robert Lloyd; in conjunction with whom he wrote the best parodies of modern times, the "Odes to Oblivion and Obscurity." In 1760, his first dramatic piece, "Polly Honeycomb," was acted at Drury-lane with great success; and next year he was one of three different candidates for public favour in the higher branch of the drama; viz. Mr. Murphy, who exhibited the "Way to keep him;" Mr. Macklin, the "Married Libertine;" and Mr. Colman, "The Jealous Wife." The former and latter of these were successful, and Colman in a very high degree. About the same time the newspaper entitled "The St. James's Chronicle" was established; of which he became a proprietor, and exerted the full force of his prosaic talents to promote its interest, in a series of essays and humourous sketches on occasional subjects. Among these he opened a paper called "The Genius," which he published at irregular intervals as far as the fifteenth number. These papers appear, upon the whole, to be superior to the general merit of the Connoisseurs; they have rather more solidity, and the humour is more chaste and classical. His occasional contributions to the St. James's Chronicle were very numerous, and upon every topic of the day, politics, manners, the drama, &c. A selection from them appears in his prose works, published by himself in 1787.
In the establishment of the St. James's Chronicle, he had likewise Mr. Thornton for a colleague, who was one of the original proprietors: and by their joint industry they drew the productions of many of the wits of the times to this paper, which, as a depository of literary intelligence, literary contests and anecdotes, and articles of wit and humour, soon eclipsed all its rivals. It appears that the principal departments were for some time filled by the following persons: the papers entitled "The Genius," by Mr. Colman; "Smith's Letters," by Peregrine Phillips, esq. short essays of wit, by Bonnel Thornton, esq.; longer essays of wit, by — Waller, esq.; rebusses and letters, signed "Nick Testy" and "Alexander Grumble," — Forest; letters signed "Oakly," Mr. Garrick.
In July 1764, lord Bath died, and left Mr. Colman a very comfortable annuity, and he now found himself in circumstances fully sufficient to enable him to follow the bent of his genius. The first publication which he produced, after this event, was a translation of the comedies of Terence, in the execution of which he rescued that author from the hands of his former tasteless and ignorant translators.
The successor of lord Bath, general Pulteney, died in 1767; and Mr. Colman found himself also remembered in his will by a second annuity, which confirmed the independency of his fortune. He seems, however, to have taken the first opportunity to engage in active life; as, about the year 1768, Mr. Beard, being incapable of bearing any longer the fatigues of a theatrical life, and wishing to retire from the management of Covent-garden theatre, disposed of his property in that house to Messrs. Colman, Harris, Powell, and Rutherford. These gentlemen carried on the management conjointly; but, in a short time, Mr. Colman appearing to aspire to a greater authority than the other patentees, excepting Mr. Powell, were disposed to grant, Mr. Colman, after a severe literary contest, which was published, sold his share, and retired. Soon after, Mr. Foote, then proprietor of the Haymarket theatre, having been induced to withdraw from the stage, disposed of his theatre to Mr. Colman for a handsome annuity, which he did not long enjoy. On his death, Mr. Colman obtained the license; and, from that period, conducted the theatre with great judgment and assiduity, occasionally supplying many dramas from his own fancy, as well as many pleasant translations from the French.
While Mr. Colman was thus shewing his attention to the theatre, he did not entirely neglect his classical studies. He gave the public, in 1783, a new translation of "Horace's Art of Poetry," accompanied with a commentary, in which he produced a new system to explain that very difficult poem. In opposition to Dr. Hurd, he supposes, that one of the sons of Piso, undoubtedly the elder, had either written or meditated a poetical work, most probably a tragedy; and that he had, with the knowledge of the family, communicated his piece or intention to Horace; but Horace, either disapproving of the work, or doubting of the poetical faculties of the elder Piso, or both, wished to dissuade him from all thoughts of publication. With this view he formed the design of writing this epistle, addressing it with a courtliness and delicacy perfectly agreeable to his acknowledged character, indifferently to the whole family, the father and his two sons: "Epistola ad Pisones de arte poetica." This hypothesis is supported with much learning, ingenuity, and modesty; and the bishop of Worcester, on its publication, said to Dr. Douglas, the late bishop of Salisbury: "Give my compliments to Colman, and thank him for the handsome manner in which he has treated me, and tell him, that I think he is right." It may be added, that the late Dr. Warton and Dr. Beattie were of the same opinion.
Some time about the year 1790 Mr. Colman had a stroke of the palsy, which nearly deprived him of the use of one side of his body; and in a short time afterwards he gave evident signs of mental derangement; in consequence of which, he was placed under proper management at Paddington, and the conduct of the theatre was vested in his son. He died the 14th of August 1794. Mr. Colman, as a scholar, holds a very respectable rank, as may be seen by his translations of Horace's Art of Poetry, and of the comedies of Terence; and his manners were as pleasing as his talents were respectable. His various dramatic pieces have been published in 4 vols. 8vo.
The year after his death appeared a pamphlet, entitled Some Particulars of the Life of the late George Colman, esq. written by himself, and delivered by him to Richard Jackson, esq. one of his executors, for publication after his decease." The object of this pamphlet was to contradict two reports which had long been current. The one, that by his literary pursuits and dramatic compositions, he lost the favour and affection of the earl of Bath; the other, that by his purchase of a fourth of the patent of Covent-garden theatre, he knowingly and voluntarily forfeited the intended bequest of a certain estate under the will of general Pulteney. In opposition to these reports, he proves very clearly that he did not lose the favour of the earl of Bath, and that general Pulteney, while he did not openly resist his becoming a manager of the theatre, but rather consented to it, changed his intentions towards him, and left him, in lieu of the estate, an annuity of four hundred pounds. The general appears, however, to have considered the family as disgraced by Mr. Colman's becoming a manager, for the latter is obliged to remind him of gentlemen who had been managers, of sir William Davenant, sir Richard Steele, sir John Vanburgh, and Mr. Congreve.