Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lewes, Charles Lee

LEWES, CHARLES LEE (1740–1803), actor, was born, according to his own account, in New Bond Street, London, 19 Nov. 1740 (O.S.) His father, a hosier, who subsequently became a letter-carrier, was of Welsh descent, and through his mother, the daughter of William Lewthwaite of Broadgate, Cumberland, he claimed connection with some families of distinction. From seven years of age until fourteen he was at school in Ambleside, Westmoreland. About 1754 he returned to London, and seems to have assisted his father in his work as a letter-carrier. His first performance, presumably as an amateur, was about 1760 at the Haymarket, as Cash in ‘Every Man in his Humour.’ Matthew Mug in the ‘Mayor of Garrett’ he subsequently gave at Chelsea. After playing at Chesterfield and other country towns, and experiencing at Sheffield a disabling accident as harlequin, he was engaged at Covent Garden as second harlequin to Woodward. Small parts were occasionally entrusted to him, his first recorded appearance at Covent Garden being 26 Sept. 1763, as Bardolph in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV.’ His name then, and for a short time subsequently, was spelt Lewis. After the departure of Woodward for Edinburgh he became principal harlequin, and played the character in ‘Harlequin's Jubilee,’ 1 Oct. 1770. Young Cape in the ‘Author,’ Bowman in ‘Lethe,’ Lord John in the ‘Englishman returned from Paris,’ Lord Bawble in the ‘Country Madcap,’ Montano in ‘Othello,’ Squire Groom in ‘Love à la Mode,’ Prattle in ‘Deuce is in Him,’ and Marplot in the ‘Busybody’ were assigned him during the season. On 3 Dec. 1772 he was Bertram in ‘All's Well that Ends Well,’ and played subsequently Cloten and other parts. On the first production of ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ 15 March 1773, Smith refused the part of Young Marlow, which Lewes played so much to the satisfaction of the management as to secure him a position as leading comedian. Goldsmith, pleased with his performance, wrote him an epilogue, which, in the character of Harlequin, he spoke at his benefit. With summer visits to Liverpool he remained at Covent Garden until 1783, playing parts so varied as Gratiano, Roderigo, Jeremy in ‘Love for Love,’ Lorenzo in ‘Spanish Fryar,’ Sir Novelty Fashion in ‘Love's Last Shift,’ Lord Foppington in the ‘Man of Quality,’ Young Wilding in the ‘Liar,’ Sir Anthony Absolute, Mercutio, Slender, Bobadil, Trappanti, Clown in ‘Winter's Tale’ and in ‘Twelfth Night,’ and many other leading characters. He was the original Fag in the ‘Rivals,’ Justice Credulous in ‘St. Patrick's Day,’ Meadows in the ‘Deaf Lover,’ Flutter in ‘Belle's Stratagem,’ Squire Turnbull in Holcroft's ‘Duplicity,’ Lord Sparkle in ‘Which is the Man,’ Grog in O'Keeffe's ‘Positive Man,’ and Welford in the ‘Capricious Lady,’ Cumberland's alteration of the ‘Scornful Lady’ of Beaumont and Fletcher. Quarrelling with the management of Covent Garden he accepted an engagement at Drury Lane, where he appeared on the opening night of the season, 16 Sept. 1783, as Marplot. The change was wholly disadvantageous. He played during the season, among other parts, Touchstone, Perez in ‘Rule a Wife and Have a Wife,’ Lucio in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Witwoud in the ‘Way of the World,’ Falstaff in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ and Tattle in ‘Love for Love,’ and was the original Colonel Quorum in ‘Reparation.’ His name next appears for his benefit, 9 May 1785, as Brush in the ‘Clandestine Marriage,’ and as Meadows in the ‘Deaf Lover,’ and he had no further engagement at the principal London theatres. On 19 May 1787 he was in Edinburgh, where he acted in several pieces and gave, after a custom adopted in his later life, recitations of George Alexander Stevens's ‘Lecture on Heads.’ He went with Palmer to the Royalty Theatre in Wellclose Square, where he recited Cowper's ‘John Gilpin.’ In a vain hope of bettering his fortune he visited India with his wife and family. He had not obtained the requisite leave from England, and his performances were prohibited. On 7 April 1790 for the benefit of John Edwin [q. v.], and on 18 May 1790 for the benefit of Hull [q. v.], he played at Covent Garden Buck in the ‘Englishman in Paris.’ Returning to Scotland, he engaged in Edinburgh in 1792 under Stephen Kemble, was part manager of the Dundee Theatre, and in 1792–3 was in Dublin, where he became a favourite in low comedy. While undergoing imprisonment for debt he wrote various works of little merit. The most ambitious of these, ‘Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes,’ &c., written by himself, 4 vols. 12mo, 1805, was a posthumous publication edited by his son. Among theatrical compilations it has an unenviable precedency of worthlessness. A few highly coloured pictures of his own early life are given; but he supplies many apocryphal anecdotes of other actors, and devotes two volumes to an account of the wrangles concerning the Edinburgh Theatre between Jackson, Mrs. Esten, and others. Lewes is also responsible for Hippisley's ‘Drunken Man, as altered by Charles Lee Lewes,’ 8vo, no date (?1787); a ‘Lecture on Heads, as delivered by Charles Lee Lewes,’ 1784; ‘John Gilpin, as delivered by Charles Lee Lewes,’ unmentioned by authorities and inaccessible; ‘Comic Sketches, or the Comedian his own Manager,’ 12mo, 1804, consisting of the entertainments he had given and a sketch of his life and a portrait; ‘National Melodist, Songs,’ &c., 12mo, 1817. Harris, the manager of Drury Lane, lent the theatre for the benefit of Lewes, 24 June 1803, when the ‘Wonder’ was performed, with Lewes as Lissardo, H. Siddons as Don Felix, Mrs. Jordan as Violante, and Mrs. Mattocks as Flora. An address entitled ‘Lee Lewes's Ultimatum,’ written by Thomas Dibdin, was delivered. A considerable sum of money was raised, but a serious decay of power was manifested by Lewes, who two days later according to Dibdin, on 23 July according to Boaden, was found dead in his bed. He was buried in Pentonville. Lewes was thrice married, leaving a family by his first wife, a Miss Hussey, and another by the second, a Miss Rigley, the daughter of a Liverpool innkeeper. Genest speaks of Lewes as a good actor, and says his retirement was a loss to the stage. Anthony Pasquin praises his valets for a bold ‘pertness.’ Two portraits by De Wilde of Lewes as Bobadil are in the Garrick Club. In theatrical records Lewes is frequently confused with William Thomas Lewis [q. v.]

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Thespian Dict.; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Georgian Era; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Boaden's Life of Mrs. Jordan; Lowndes's Bibliographer's Manual; Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe; Brit. Mus. Cat.; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage.]

J. K.