Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jephson, Robert

JEPHSON, ROBERT (1736–1803), dramatist and poet, born in Ireland in 1736, was educated at Dublin at the same school as Malone, and entered the army. He became captain of an infantry regiment on the Irish establishment, and on its reduction retired on half-pay, and fixed his residence in England. There, about 1763, he contracted an intimacy with William Gerard Hamilton [q. v.], with whom he resided as a guest for the greater part of five years, and associated with Johnson, Burke, Charles Townshend, Garrick, Goldsmith, Reynolds, Burney, and others of eminence in literature and art. From a letter written by Jephson in September 1763 it would appear that he had been befriended in a substantial manner by Garrick, but the latter, writing in 1765, implies that Jephson's conduct towards him was less satisfactory than he had expected. Jephson married, in 1767, a daughter of Sir Edward Barry [q. v.], an eminent physician, and soon afterwards obtained the post of master of the horse to Viscount Townshend, lord-lieutenant of Ireland. He thereupon settled in Dublin.

Jephson acquired high reputation by his convivial disposition and his felicity in ludicrous compositions. In the pages of a Dublin newspaper styled ‘The Mercury’ he defended with much wit and humour the administrative acts of Lord Townshend as viceroy. Some of these contributions were reprinted under the title of ‘The Bachelor, or Speculations of Jeoffry Wagstaffe.’ In 1771 appeared Jephson's satiric ‘epistle,’ purporting to have been written by Gorges Edmond Howard [q. v.], a dull legal compiler and unsuccessful dramatist, to George Faulkner (1699–1775) [q. v.], a Dublin publisher, noted for his pompous and pedantic verbosity. A permanent pension of 300l. per annum on the Irish establishment (subsequently doubled) was granted to Jephson, and he retained his office of master of the horse under twelve successive viceroys. In 1778, through an arrangement made by Lord Townshend, Jephson obtained a seat in the parliament of Ireland, as representative for Old Leighlin.

Jephson's tragedy, ‘Braganza,’ was produced with great success at Drury Lane in February 1775. The prologue was written by Arthur Murphy, and the epilogue, composed by Horace Walpole, was spoken by Mrs. Yates, who performed the leading part of Louisa, duchess of Braganza. The play was subsequently published by Jephson, with a dedication to Viscountess Nuneham, dated from Dublin Castle. Walpole publicly expressed his admiration for ‘Braganza,’ and addressed to Jephson three published letters concerning it, under the title of ‘Thoughts on Tragedy.’ On 19 Jan. 1777 Jephson acted Macbeth in the theatre in Phœnix Park. A play by him entitled ‘Vitellia’ was declined by Garrick in the same year, notwithstanding Walpole's commendation of it. It was apparently based on Metastasio's ‘Clemency of Titus,’ and under the new title of ‘Conspiracy’ was produced at Drury Lane Theatre, with Kemble in the chief part, on 15 Nov. 1796; it was published in the same year (cf. GENEST, vii. 286). The ‘Law of Lombardy,’ a tragedy by Jephson, was performed at Drury Lane in February 1779, and an edition of it, published in the same year by the author, was dedicated to the king. A tragedy by Jephson entitled ‘The Count of Narbonne,’ founded on Walpole's ‘Castle of Otranto,’ was produced at Covent Garden in November 1781, and met with much success, owing to the efforts of the actor Henderson. The epilogue was written by Edmond Malone, who was loud in his praises of the piece. The tragedy was published by Jephson, with a dedication to Horace Walpole. When the piece was performed at Dublin in the winter of 1781–2, John Philip Kemble [q. v.] made a great success in the character of Raymond, and Jephson became friendly with the actor. A farce by Jephson, entitled ‘The Hotel, or the Servant with Two Masters,’ was performed at the Theatre Royal, Smock Alley, Dublin, in 1784, when the part of Donna Clara was acted by Mrs. Elizabeth Inchbald [q. v.] ‘Julia, or the Italian Lover,’ a tragedy by Jephson, was performed at Drury Lane in April 1787. The prologue, written by Edmond Malone, was delivered by John Philip Kemble, who acted the part of Mentevole with eminent success, but Steevens wrote to Percy that ‘the playhouse lost by the performance’ (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 3). Kemble's sister, Mrs. Siddons, personated Julia, and spoke the epilogue. ‘Julia’ was published in 1787, with a dedication to Charles Manners, duke of Rutland, lord-lieutenant. Jephson was author also of the ‘Campaign, or Love in the East Indies,’ a comic opera, first acted at Covent Garden on 12 May 1785, and subsequently reproduced 15 March 1787 in an abbreviated form entitled ‘Love and War,’ a ‘musical entertainment,’ for which O'Keeffe was responsible. Jephson's ‘Two Strings to your Bow,’ a farce, was first acted in England at Covent Garden Theatre 16 Feb. 1791.

In 1794 Jephson published ‘Roman Portraits,’ a poem in heroic verse on Roman heroes, with historic remarks and illustrations, 4to; the engravings from the antique were by Bartolozzi, E. Harding, jun., W. Evans, and R. Clamp. Prefixed was a portrait of the author, engraved by Singleton, from a drawing by Stoker. At the close of the poem the author inveighed against the execution of Louis XVI, and denounced the ‘ruthless fanatic Gauls.’ In 1794 Jephson published, in 2 vols. 8vo, with illustrations, a satire on the excesses committed during the French revolution, entitled ‘The Confessions of Jacques Baptiste Couteau.’

Jephson died from paralysis at his residence at Blackrock, near Dublin, on 31 May 1803. The originals of some letters addressed by Jephson to Garrick, printed in the ‘Garrick Correspondence,’ are preserved in the Dyce and Forster Library, South Kensington. A presentation volume of the collected plays of Jephson, formerly in the Strawberry Hill collection, is in the possession of the writer of this notice.

[Memoirs of Garrick, by T. Davies, 1780; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Works of Earl of Orford, 1798; Parliamentary Logic, 1808; Hardy's Life of Charlemont, 1810; Biographia Dramatica, 1812; Boswell's Life of Johnson; Genest's Account of English Stage, 1830; Correspondence of Garrick, 1831; Letters of Horace Walpole, 1857; Prior's Life of Malone; Hist. of City of Dublin, 1859; Memoirs of Lord Cloncurry, 1849; manuscripts of Earl of Charlemont, 1891.]

J. T. G.