Garrick is one of Britain's greatest actors and the first to be called a star. From 1741 until his retirement in 1776, he was a highly successful actor, producer and theatre manager. He wrote more than 20 plays, and adapted many more, including plays by Shakespeare.
David Garrick in William Shakespeare's Richard III, mezzotint print, 1772. Museum no. S.131-2007
Richard III was the role in which David Garrick sprang to fame on 19 October 1741 at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre. He was not even billed by name, but just described as ‘A Gentleman (Who never appeared on any Stage)’, and the play was presented ‘gratis’ (free) in the interval of ‘a concert of vocal and instrumental music’, to get around the licensing laws.
By the time of this mezzotint of 1772, Garrick was established at the top of the theatrical profession. His acting style, so revolutionary to the audience who saw his first Richard, was the new standard. Instead of declaiming the verse in a thunderous, measured chant, he spoke with swift and natural changes of tone and emphasis. Rather than strike solemn poses, he moved quickly and gracefully about the stage. He didn’t school his face to tragic stillness, but allowed his features to illustrate the whole range of his character’s feelings. As an actor and with the changes he made as manager of Drury Lane, Garrick changed the whole face of theatrical performance.
Figurine of David Garrick as Tancred in James Thomson's play Tancred and Sigismunda, Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1745, polychromed glazed porcelain, Derby Porcelain Factory, Derby, England, 1777-1780. Eddison Collection. Museum no. S.1007-1996
Engraving of David Garrick as Macbeth in Shakespeare's Macbeth, London, England, 1775
David Garrick's portrayal of Macbeth was hugely acclaimed, particularly the scene pictured here where he enters holding the bloody daggers, having murdered the innocent King Duncan.
While Shakespeare's plays were extremely popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, extensive adaptation and rewriting was deemed necessary. Garrick's versions of the plays were closer to the originals than most, but even so, there were changes. In Shakespeare's version Macbeth dies off-stage, but Garrick, who was famous for his death throes, wrote himself a dying speech in order to display them. It was standard for performers in the 18th century to wear fashionable modern clothes rather than period costumes. This picture of Garrick shows Macbeth in contemporary dress (an 18th century military uniform).
Tea caddy featuring David Garrick (1717-1779) as Macbeth and King Lear, John Beard (about 1716-1791) as Hawthorn in Bickerstaffe's Love in a Village and Mary Ann Yates (1728-1787) as Mandane in Hoole's Cyrus, silver filigree with blue glass liner, the lid is engraved on two roundels with Garrick's crest, London, England, about 1770. Museum no. S.185-1981
This silver tea caddy celebrates two of the cultural rages of the 18th century, tea and the theatre. Tea was then an expensive commodity and had to be locked away from servants in the 'tea-chest'. The word caddy (a corruption of 'kati', a Malay word for a weight of just over 1lb) did not replace tea-chest until the last quarter of the 18th century. The boxes were often made from precious materials, reflecting the value placed on the tea they contained. Caddies were made of a wide range of materials including exotic woods, ivory, silver, gold and tortoiseshell, and were prominently displayed by their proud owners.
This tea caddy represents the great actor David Garrick (1717-1779) and members of his company in famous roles such as Macbeth and King Lear.
The Provoked Wife by John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), engraved print, mid 18th century. Museum no. S.3869-2009
The role of Sir John Brute in Vanbrugh's Restoration comedy The Provok'd Wife was one of David Garrick's best comic roles. The coarse humour of Restoration drama was no longer considered acceptable in Garrick's day (he first played the part in 1744) so the play and its characters had been adapted somewhat. In the original version, first staged in 1697, Brute is, as his name suggests a violent lout. Garrick's predecessor James Quin had played the part as an 'ill natured, surly swine of a fellow'. Garrick made him a mischievous but charming villain, 'a joyous, agreeable, wicked dog'. There were two much loved comic scenes involving Brute. In one, he returns home rolling drunk, which Garrick played to perfection, his wig lopsided, barely able to speak or stay awake. The second had Brute in drag, pretending to be his wife. A spectator wrote that Garrick was 'perfectly versed in the exercise of the fan, the lips ... and even the minutest conduct of the finger'.
Colour print of David Garrick as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), print by Jean Louis Fesch, watercolour, Indian ink and gold paint on vellum, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, England, 1770. Museum no. S.446-1979