William Smith of Covent Garden

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 2:59-71.

MR. WILLIAM SMITH. This gentleman, who was generally distinguished by the appellation of "Gentleman Smith," I had not the pleasure of knowing till many years after he had retired from the stage. I had been applied to by Mr. Hill, a gentleman well known in the literary circles of the metropolis, who was then the proprietor of a respectable literary and theatrical repository, entitled "The Monthly Mirror," now no longer in existence, to procure a biographical sketch of Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith I had been accustomed to see perform in my early days, and was a warm admirer of his acting. I had been present when he took leave of the stage, and was in a private box at Drury Lane Theatre with Madame Mara.

On entering the stage, to deliver his farewell to the audience, he was received with a universal burst of applause, which was repeated, and continued for several minutes. His address was brief but emphatic, and delivered with a manly dignity, and fervid expression of gratitude that powerfully operated on the audience. At one time the applause was so great, that I thought it was likely to subdue his firmness; but he paused for a moment, and then resumed his speech with all the manly buoyancy of his character.

The substance of his address was to say, that he was fully impressed with a sense of the kindness which he had so long experienced from the public, and to assure the audience, that though many might be more worthy of their favour, none could exceed him in zeal in their service. Madame Mara was deeply affected by this speech, and I heartily sympathized in her emotions.

Many years after he retired from the stage, he was induced to quit his retreat at St. Edmund's Bury, and to revisit London for the purpose of performing Charles in "The School for Scandal," for the benefit of his old friend King. I passed him in the street a day or two before the performance took place, and could but feel pleasure in seeing how little his person had been altered by time. There was the same easy and manly gait, though less of that spirited and careless buoyancy, which had marked his earlier years. He seemed to walk with a kind of philosophic indifference to the things around him, and in so unaffected a manner, that he probably passed unnoticed by those who did not know his person, except from his gentlemanly appearance. There was something in his manner, and in the intelligence in his face, which induced me, even on this casual glance, to regret that I had not the pleasure of being acquainted with him.

It was impossible for me to miss his performance, and I joined with my friend the celebrated Mrs. Robinson in taking a box sufficient for herself, her daughter, one of her female friends, and myself, in the lower range of boxes level with the pit. I shall not attempt to describe the tumultuous reception which he experienced from as large an audience as it was possible for the theatre to contain, when the curtain was withdrawn and presented him at the convivial table. It was repeatedly renewed, and he came forward and bowed to the audience. Never, perhaps, on any occasion, did an individual in any station receive more hearty demonstrations of public esteem and approbation. It is sufficient to add, that there was no abatement of his spirit and humour in his performance of the character, or of his corporeal activity.

In the last scene of the play, when Lady Teazle happened to drop her fan, there was a race among the male performers to pick it up and present it to her, but Mr. Smith got the start of them all, and delivered it to her with such unaffected ease and elegance, that the audience were struck with the incident, and strongly expressed their applause.

This fine display of comic genius, which confirmed the impressions that his acting made upon me in my early days, induced me to write an account of it the same night for a daily newspaper entitled "The True Briton," of which I was then a proprietor; and Mr. Smith was so well satisfied with it, that he sent his thanks to the editor, declaring that he thought it one of "the brightest eulogiums he had received during his theatrical career," and added a copy of the verses written by himself, and which he had delivered at the end of the play. The original letter, after his death, I presented to his amiable widow, who is still living, I hope, in good health at Bury St. Edmund's, with her venerable sisters.

I took a copy of this letter for the gratification of my own pride, but it was unluckily lost upon the sudden and unexpected removal of my papers from the Sun Office in the Strand.

To resume the subject of his biography. Urged by Mr. Hill, and encouraged by Mr. Powell of Drury Lane Theatre, who had been patronised by Mr. Smith and recommended by him to that theatre, I ventured to apply to Mr. Smith for a sketch of his public life, and endeavoured to excuse the liberty by acknowledging myself the author of the account of his performance for the benefit of Mr. King, with which he had declared himself to have been so much gratified. I received a very kind answer, in which he promised to give me the sketch I had requested. In a day or two after I received a brief account of his education, his residence at Cambridge University, and the general course of his theatrical life. The very next day, however, I received a letter from him, earnestly entreating me to send his manuscript back by return of post, alleging that on reflection he could not be guilty of the vanity of supposing that any of his professional or private concerns could possibly be worthy of record, and interesting to the world at large. I therefore contented myself with reading the manuscript, which was well and modestly written, and returned it by post the same day, though not without reluctance, as it would really have been a very interesting memoir of a gentleman, a scholar, and an actor, who was long and deservedly a favourite with the public.

But though my application to Mr. Smith for some memorial of his professional life was unsuccessful, it was productive of a correspondence which lasted some years; and I have between twenty and thirty letters from him, all written with the spirit which animated his public and private character. They also manifest his critical judgment, candour, and taste, as well as his classical attainments. There does not appear the least trace of envy towards any of the actors who were his contemporaries, but on the contrary a liberal tribute to their professional merit, particularly to Mr. Garrick, of whom he takes every opportunity of speaking with enthusiasm,though he is so candid in expressing his opinion of Barry as to say, that in some scenes he was equal to Garrick, and in love scenes even superior to him.

Mr. Smith must be considered as a competent judge, and he was also an excellent actor. In one of his letters he says, that Mr. Garrick was so perfect in every character he represented as to be wholly absorbed in the assumption of it.

In another of his letters he says, "Garrick, with all natural graces and perfections, must ever in my now decaying judgment stand alone — 'The front of Jove himself.' Among the chief blessings of my life I ever held the greatest to be that I was bred at Eton, and born in the days of Garrick." Such is the opinion of an actor who was a kind of competitor of Garrick; and such was the opinion of all the most judicious men with whom I ever was acquainted, who were deeply conversant with human nature and the stage.

Mr. Smith's repugnance to all biographical records, and even to all posthumous memorials, increased with age and his farther experience of the vanity of life, for he exacted a promise from his amiable lady that nothing of the kind should be published on his decease; and he was buried with so little pomp and ceremony, that there is no stone or any other indication to mark the spot where his remains are interred.

My late friend Jesse Foot, in his Life of Arthur Murphy, thus relates the opinion of the latter. "Whenever he spoke of Mr. Smith's merits as an actor, he never failed to add, that he was not only a gentleman himself, but always gave a gentlemanly character to his profession." Mr. Smith was a constant frequenter of Newmarket course, from his early life, and almost to the close of his very advanced age. He had formed high connexions at college, and added to them considerably at Newmarket. I never heard that he engaged in betting, and conclude that he went chiefly to enjoy the sport, and to meet those noble friends whom he retained through life.

Among his earliest and firmest friends was the late Sir George Beaumont, a gentleman of whose merits and accomplishments it is difficult for panegyric to exaggerate. This excellent baronet was not only a sound critic on the fine arts, but also an admirable artist. He was sometime a pupil of Wilson, the celebrated landscape painter, and purchased many of his best works, some of which he liberally presented to the National Gallery. Sir George retained his attachment to Mr. Smith till the close of his life; and a few years before his death engaged Mr. Jackson, the royal academican, to take a journey to Bury in order to paint a portrait of him when he was turned of eighty years of age. Sir George had a portrait of him painted at the age of forty. A print from the last portrait by Jackson was well executed, and much valued by his friends. It expressed an intelligent and discerning spirit, that time could not subdue.

On Mr. Smith's last visit to the metropolis, he resided at the hotel in King Street, Covent Garden. In a day or two after he arrived, he sent a note to me, telling me that, if I could call on him at eleven the following morning, we might chat for half an hour, but not more, as he expected Sir George Beaumont to call and take him in his carriage to see some of his old friends, particularly Lord Mulgrave and General Phipps. I was on the point of going to him, when he came to the Sun Office, on foot, for fear, as he said, that some mistake had arisen; and for about a quarter of an hour conversed with us, and displayed all his original animation. I regret that I was prevented from calling on him at the hotel, for then I should probably have been introduced to Mrs. Smith, whom I have never seen, as they were too much engaged in a round of visits for me to have a chance of another interview.

In the evening of that day I met him again in the green-room of Drury Lane Theatre, still under the zealous convoy of Sir George Beaumont, who seemed to be delighted to see the respect which the veteran received from the performers, who thronged round him, and were all emulous to testify their esteem and veneration.

On his return to Bury, he resumed his correspondence with me, and corresponded with me till a very short time before his decease; even his very last letters were characterised by his usual vivacity and vigour. His attachment to Newmarket began early, and he visited the course till his bodily strength was nearly exhausted, and he could go no longer. It is understood that in his engagements with the London manager, he always reserved a right to visit Newmarket at the usual seasons, probably with a proportionable reduction of his salary.

Sir George Beaumont told me that Mr. Smith prided himself on never having, during the whole of his theatrical life, blacked his face or descended through a trap-door. Of course he never performed Othello, Oroonoko, or Zanga, though he would doubtless have rendered ample justice to those characters. Churchill says of him

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

from which it may be inferred that the poet thought he chiefly excelled in comedy, and the epithets which the bard has applied to him, prove that in his opinion he performed his comic parts with all requisite ease and gaiety. Indeed, to Ross, who was his contemporary for a long period at Covent Garden Theatre, the chief characters in tragedy were assigned; and Ross, though so sprightly in private life, was too heavy, and sometimes too sluggish for the comic muse.

As the reader may probably he gratified in seeing a specimen of his poetical powers, I shall insert the following lines, which I received in one of his letters, but not till I had repeatedly requested something of that description.

Written after passing the evening with a friend in the Temple, 1780.

Last night as with my friend I sate,
Methought I cared no more for fate
Than fate might care for me;
In gaiety and easy chat,
We smiled at this and laugh'd at that
With hearts brim full of glee.

Cheerly the minutes danced away,
Till twilight oped the dawn of day,
Yet free from care's dull power;
We heeded not the watchman's knock,
Nor ask'd our spirits what's o'clock,
Nor mark'd the vulgar hour.

But Prudence whisper'd we must part,
Though bright each eye, alive each heart,
For all was well within;
Yet parting check'd our present bliss,
We both shook hands and join'd in this,
That daylight proved a sin.*

"So," adds he in his letter, "the withered yellow leaf is dropping from the bough, and leaves no trace behind."

I received from him also a translation of an ode of Horace, and also of a passage in Juvenal, which fully evinced his taste and scholarship, but I thought an original effusion of his pen would be more acceptable. I sincerely regret that I did not know him at an early period, as I am convinced his manly spirit and philosophic indifference to the ordinary cares of life, would have corrected a despondency to which I have always been subject, though I have constantly prevented it from appearing in company.

Before Smith's retirement from the stage, a number of gentlemen, friends of his and admirers of the drama, who formed what was styled "The Phoenix Club," of which he was a member, presented to him an elegant and valuable cup, which he found at his house on his return from the theatre, with the following inscription:

On his retirement from the stage.
They knew him well Horatio.

Feeling the highest veneration for the memory of Garrick, in which I am supported by the testimony of Mr. Const and other friends, who had more opportunities of judging of his merit, particularly Sir George Beaumont, who was a good actor himself, I shall cite a few passages from the letters of Mr. Smith. "We may safely rate Garrick," he says, "as 'Onmium Histrionum facile princeps,' and in my humble opinion this was the least part of his excellence. As a man I admired, loved, and honoured him — his merits were great, his benevolence and generosity, though by some disputed were, to my certain knowledge, diffusive and abundant. In bargains, perhaps, he was keen, but punctual. — 'Fiat justitia!'"

"As to Garrick, my utmost ambition as an actor was to be thought worthy to hold up his train."

"Of Garrick and Barry, where love was the burthen or rather support of the scene, Barry was at least equal to Roscius. Romeo, Castalio, Othello, Varaves, and Jaffier, were his own. In the more commanding passions, where the brain forced its workings through the magic powers of the eye, Mr. Garrick was beyond comparison in every thing; but Barry next to him. Allowing each his merit, I have thought for nearly seventy years, all that were eminent were plants of Garrick's rearing under his own fostering hand in his own garden, and Nature the designer. My embers will a little warm when I think of his departed spirit."

"Of Mr. Garrick, whom I first saw and admired at Goodman's Fields, in the year 1740, I can never speak but with idolatry, and have ever looked upon it as one great blessing in my life to have lived in the days of Garrick."

I could quote many more passages from Mr. Smith's letters, in which he expresses his enthusiastic admiration of Garrick, but as they have all the same tenour and substance, it is needless to add to the subject.

As far as I can recollect, Mr. Smith was principally distinguished for his Hamlet, Richard, and Macbeth, in tragedy; and Volpone, Captain Plume, and Archer, in comedy. I remember I was particularly struck with the difference in the demeanour of Mr. Smith, and "Honest Tom King," when the latter just before the dropping of the curtain, advanced in the sight of the audience, and with both his hands extended to shake those of Smith, as if to thank him for his kindness in quitting his retreat, after a long absence, to perform for the benefit of an old friend, whose declining fortunes rendered such an exertion necessary. King's action on this occasion manifested, amidst all the warmth of gratitude, the formality of Sir Peter Teazle, while that of Smith exhibited the easy freedom and generosity of Charles Surface, who seemed to receive all such testimonies as an intrusion upon the liberal gaiety of his natural disposition.

I have dwelt the longer upon the subject of Mr. Smith, because I consider him as an extraordinary individual. With a character of singular animation, and in his early days, while at Cambridge University, distinguished by the designation of the "Young Buck of the College," ready for any spirited enterprise. he was an attentive student, and became an excellent scholar. Though, at the time he entered upon the stage, he assumed a profession that was by no means held in such respect as it has since acquired, yet he retained all his college connexions, which consisted of some of the chief nobility of the country.

It appears to me that he could not have been thrown into any situation in life in which he would not have acquitted himself with honour. It never was my good fortune to sit with him at the same table in company, but I can readily conceive that conversation must have derived its chief spring and, stimulus from the buoyancy of his spirit. He was always affable to his inferiors in the theatre, but at the same time so guarded in manner, that he was treated with cautious respect.

His many letters to me display the same animated character, and are generally seasoned with classical quotations, which, till his eighty-ninth year, proved that his love and taste for literature continued to be one of his unabated attachments. Though I never had the pleasure of being personally introduced to Mrs. Smith, I have nevertheless received several letters from her since the death of her husband, all of which are marked by good sense, amiable feeling, conjugal affection, and the regret naturally attending so melancholy a deprivation.