Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, John (1729-1773)

CUNNINGHAM, Sir JOHN (1729–1773), poet, born in Dublin in 1729, was the younger son of a wine cooper in Dublin of Scottish extraction, who after winning a prize in a lottery set up as a wine merchant there, and eventually became a bankrupt. He was educated at Drogheda, and began at the early age of twelve to write poems, which were published in the Dublin newspapers. In 1747 he wrote a farce, ‘Love in a Mist,’ which was published in Dublin in that year, and acted at the Crow Street Theatre, and which supplied Garrick with many hints for his ‘Lying Valet.’ He went on the stage after the success of his piece, but was a very poor actor, and only successful in ‘petit maître’ parts and as a mock Frenchman. After travelling about a great deal as a strolling actor he eventually appeared at Edinburgh, where he became a great favourite with the manager, Mr. Digges, and the leading lady, Mrs. George Anne Bellamy [q. v.], and wrote many occasional prologues for them. It was at Edinburgh that he published his first poem, an ‘Elegy on a Pile of Ruins.’ It is a rather weak imitation of Gray's ‘Elegy,’ but had a great success, and caused him to be summoned to London by a company of booksellers, who, however, were bankrupt before he arrived. His brother Peter, who had by this time become a well-known statuary in Dublin, begged him to come and live with him, but he preferred a strolling actor's life, and continued at short intervals to publish small volumes of poems, which brought him a certain amount of reputation, but very little money. These volumes were ‘The Contemplatist, a Night Piece,’ published in 1762; ‘Fortune, an Apologue,’ in 1765, and ‘Poems, chiefly Pastoral,’ in 1766. His health at last broke down from his wandering mode of life, and he retired to Newcastle, where he died in the house of Mr. Slack on 18 Sept. 1773. He was buried in the churchyard of St. John's Church, Newcastle-on-Tyne, where it was engraved upon his tombstone that ‘his works will remain a monument to all ages.’

[Memoirs of John Cunningham in London Magazine, October 1773, pp. 495–7, which seems to be the only authority for the lives of him prefixed to the editions of his poems in Johnson, Chalmers, Bell, and Cook's Collections of English Poems, and in Baker's Biographia Dramatica.]

H. M. S.