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David Garrick

David Garrick (19 February 1717 – 20 January 1779) was a celebrated Shakespearian actor, playwright, and is most well-known for being responsible for putting Stratford upon Avon on the map with his Shakespeare Jubilee.

Widely lauded as one of the most talented, convivial, and influential actors of all time, David Garrick remains, to this day, an iconic global thespian. Garrick was the theatrical equivalent of a sensation and an overnight one at that. More portraits were painted of Garrick than of King George III; his extensive collection of plays and books, upon his death, was enough to found the library of the British Museum; he introduced methods of acting, staging, and lighting to the theatre as well as financial rewards and sick pay for his actors; and he put Stratford-upon-Avon on the official Shakespeare map at a time when nobody considered the small market town of any significance to anything, let alone to the national poet.

Having left the family business in Lichfield, a 20 year old Garrick arrived in London and eventually began writing and acting. Just two years later, he was recognised as "ye best Actor ye English Stage had produc’d" by none other than the future prime minister and Whig party leader, William Pitt the Elder. The role that earned him such lavish praise was Mr Shakespeare’s Richard III, or more properly, Colley Cibber’s adaptation of the role. Shakespeare’s works were to have a great influence over Garrick’s career, and promoting a love of Shakespeare himself among theatre-goers was to become his greatest ambition.

David Garrick as Richard III
David Garrick as Richard III

Although Garrick was a playwright, director and actor, it really was with Shakespeare that he became synonymous. A verse etched into the statue of Garrick at Westminster Abbey links the two names together: "Shakespeare and Garrick like twin stars shall shine/And earth irradiate with a beam divine". With French blood in his veins, courtesy of his father’s family, and an education under the tutelage of his life-long mentor and companion, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick was destined for greatness. His real genius was able to flourish after he took joint management of Drury Lane Theatre in 1747: no small achievement for a man only 30 years of age. Twenty years later, Garrick oversaw the original Shakespeare Jubilee in the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The youthful energy and comparative naturalism that Garrick brought to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes – Romeo, Lear, Macbeth – was enough to secure his everlasting fame. Although prone to changing endings and adding grand processions and songs into his productions, Garrick was keen to retain as much Shakespearian text as possible. However, it was not until he performed Hamlet in 1772 that he began to attract attention for his innovative editing of plays. He famously omitted the final act of the play, moving the action from Ophelia’s farewell to Hamlet’s death in only 60 lines. Compensating for Ophelia’s funeral, the gravediggers and the duel, Garrick re-introduced previously excised roles including Polonius and Laertes, and he restored, albeit heavily edited, Claudius’ prayer scene which had not been seen on the English stage since the 1600s. Together with new editing and performance styles, Garrick brought innovative set designs to the theatre, lavish costumes and, most famously, special stage effects. The most striking of all his stage effects was a mechanism designed to set Hamlet’s wig upright to signify fear upon the entrance of the Ghost.

David Garrick as Hamlet
David Garrick as Hamlet

Garrick’s mould-breaking theatricality was not about to stop by so trivial a matter as his death. In fact, so grand was his funeral in January 1779 that it is considered one of the largest mourning ceremonies witnessed in London until the funeral of Lord Nelson in 1805. Garrick was to be interred at Westminster Abbey after a three-day mourning period at his home in Adelphi Terrace, at which the King and Queen were present, and for which 1800 admission cards were distributed.

SBT 2002/32 Copy of David Garrick's death mask
SBT 2002/32 Copy of David Garrick's death mask

A death mask, which is cared for in our collections, was made from Garrick’s face following his demise – a common practice from the period. His corpse was placed inside no fewer than 3 coffins: two made of elm and one of lead, before being laid to rest at Westminster.

SBT DR32/2 Second page of David Garrick's Funeral bill
SBT DR32/2 Second page of David Garrick's Funeral bill

Our archives hold a copy of the 18 page-long undertaker’s bill made up for the display of the body at his home and for the procession of said body to Westminster Abbey. Among the hundreds of pounds spent on gloves, silk scarves, ribbons, crepe bands, banners, candles and coats ordered for the official processers, there were 35 grand state coaches each drawn by six horses for the funeral guests. Thousands of visitors lined the streets between Garrick’s home and Westminster Abbey to witness the grand procession. The bill amounts to an impressive £1, 405 and 10 pence. A tax reduction brought the bill down to £1, 391 which equates to £170,000 in current value.

SBT DR32/2 Final page of David Garrick's funeral bill
SBT DR32/2 Final page of David Garrick's funeral bill

It is perhaps the most touching gesture that Garrick instructed all executors of his will that, upon the death of his widow, his estate should be divided up and sold, with the single exception of his Shakespeare statue that would be bequeathed to the trustees of the British Museum 'for the use of the public’.

A copy of this statue resides in the very spot where Garrick erected it in his temple to Shakespeare on his estate at Hampton. Of course, another copy belongs to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust where it can be admired at the Shakespeare Centre by our thousands of international visitors: a wonder of which Garrick himself would have been proud.

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