Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lewis, William Thomas

LEWIS, WILLIAM THOMAS (1748?–1811), called ‘Gentleman’ Lewis, actor, of Welsh descent, the son of William Lewis, a linendraper on Tower Hill, London, subsequently an actor and manager in Ireland, was born at Ormskirk, Lancashire, in or about 1748. His grandfather is stated to have been a clergyman in Glamorganshire, and his great-grandfather, Erasmus Lewis [q. v.] He was educated at Armagh and is said to have been dandled as an infant in the arms of Don John in the ‘Chances.’ Later he was Jeremy, the sleeping boy, in ‘Barnaby Brittle,’ and was first called Mr. in the playbill when he acted Colonel Briton in Mrs. Centlivre's comedy, the ‘Wonder.’ Under Dawson Lewis appeared (1770–71) at Capel Street Theatre, Dublin; another member of the company, Miss Leeson, subsequently became his wife. On 26 Feb. 1770 he was Sir Harry Newburgh in Hugh Kelly's ‘False Delicacy.’ Hastings in ‘Jane Shore’ followed. On 19 Feb. 1771 he was Belcour in the ‘West Indian,’ a part he made wholly his own. On 4 May 1772 Tate Wilkinson, who speaks of him as a sprightly lad, saw him play at Crow Street Theatre Romeo to the Juliet of Mrs. Sparks, and on 28 May Young Belfield in the ‘Brothers.’ Lewis sprang rapidly to the front of popularity in Dublin, supporting, says Hitchcock, ‘a very extensive and varied line of business in tragedy and comedy with great ability’ (View of the Irish Stage, ii. 207), and he is stated to have conducted himself ‘with so much good sense and propriety as to defy malice to point out a blemish’ (ib. ii. 236).

On 15 Oct. 1773, in his favourite character of Belcour in the ‘West Indian,’ Lewis made his first appearance at Covent Garden, where he was well received and sprang into immediate repute. During the season he played Posthumus, Aimwell, Lothario, Florizel in the ‘Winter's Tale,’ Prince of Wales in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV,’ Antonio in ‘Don Sebastian,’ Valentine in ‘Love for Love,’ Petruchio, Lorenzo in the ‘Spanish Fryar,’ Carlos in the ‘Revenge,’ and Campley in the ‘Funeral,’ besides a number of original parts in new plays (see list below). Lewis remained at Covent Garden to the close of his career, only quitting it on excursions to Liverpool in the summers of 1776 and 1777, to Birmingham in 1779, and to Dublin in 1806. During this period he played more characters, original and established, than almost any other English comedian on record. He had at first a predilection for serious and poetical parts, and Romeo, Edgar, Hotspur, Philaster, Cassio, Young Norval, Orestes, and Hamlet diversify a list including also Trinket, Sir George Airy, Sir Brilliant Fashion, Mirabell, Mercutio, Touchstone, Sir Courtly Nice, and Sir Harry Flutter. When, however, in 1782 he became deputy-manager of Covent Garden, he practically abandoned his experiments in serious characters.

Lewis created many characters of high and some of primary importance. He was the first Faulkland in the ‘Rivals,’ Wyndham in the ‘Man of Reason,’ Sir Charles Racket in ‘Three Weeks after Marriage,’ Counsellor Witmore in Kenrick's ‘Duellist’ (20 Nov. 1773), Beverley in Colman's ‘Man of Business’ (1774), Arviragus in Mason's ‘Caractacus,’ Millamour in Murphy's ‘Know your own Mind,’ Doricourt in the ‘Belle's Stratagem,’ Egerton in the ‘Man of the World,’ Sir Harry Portland in Holcroft's ‘Duplicity,’ Beauchamp in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Which is the Man?’ On 17 Jan. 1783 he was the first Younger Loveless in the ‘Capricious Lady,’ an adaptation of the ‘Scornful Lady;’ 25 Feb. 1783 Don Julio in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Bold Stroke for a Husband;’ 14 Dec. 1784 Almaviva in ‘Follies of a Day’ (‘La folle journée’); 10 Feb. 1787 Twineall in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Such things are;’ 28 Nov. 1788 Count Valentia in Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Child of Nature;’ 16 April 1791 Rover in ‘Wild Oats;’ 18 Feb. 1792 Goldfinch in the ‘Road to Ruin;’ 11 Feb. 1801 Frederick in the ‘Poor Gentleman;’ 5 March 1803 Tom Shuffleton in ‘John Bull;’ and 5 Nov. 1803 Jeremy Diddler in ‘Raising the Wind.’ His last original character was Modern in Reynolds's ‘Begone Dull Care,’ 9 Feb. 1808. His farewell to the public took place on 29 May 1809, at the Haymarket, whither, after the destruction of Covent Garden by fire, the company had retired. On that occasion he played Roger in the ‘Ghost’ and the Copper Captain in ‘Rule a Wife and have a Wife,’ and delivered an address, in which he said that he had been thirty-six years in the service of the public, and could not recall having once fallen under its displeasure. He died on Sunday, 13 Jan. 1811, at his house in Westbourne Place, London. On 6 June 1803, in partnership with Thomas Knight (d. 1820) [q. v.], he began a lesseeship of the Liverpool Theatre, which after his death devolved on his son. Before his death he had in conjunction with Knight taken the Manchester Theatre. By his wife, Miss Leeson, a pupil of Macklin and a great favourite in Dublin, he had three sons and two daughters.

The stage has seen few comedians more refined or competent than Lewis. The qualification ‘Gentleman’ which he associated with his name was subsequently with far less justice assigned to Richard Jones (1779–1851) [q. v.] and other actors. Respectable mediocrity may be assigned him in serious parts. In comedy—before he ‘descended to be the gentle buffoon of modern farce’—he was described by Cooke as ‘the unrivalled favourite of the comic muse in all that was frolic, gay, humorous, whimsical, and at the same time elegant.’ Genest complains of a man who could supply such impersonations as Ranger, Mercutio, and the Copper Captain playing in the end all the extravagant parts which Morton and Reynolds thought proper to write for him. Lewis stood aloof from all theatrical squabbles, and theatrical ana scarcely mention his name. The position he held for sixteen years of director of Covent Garden under Harris exposed him necessarily to attacks which he lived down. He was always original, and bestowed upon every part as much care as if his reputation depended upon it. While questioning the right of Lewis to the exclusive title of gentleman, Leigh Hunt considers that ‘vulgarity seems totally impossible to an actor of his manners.’ In characters such as Rover, full of frankness and vivacity, Lewis is conceded ‘an original excellence.’ He is said to be ‘the most complete fop on the stage,’ but is censured for extravagance of dress and for excessive indulgence in shaking of the head and respiration. Hazlitt seems inspired by Lamb in writing of ‘gay, fluttering, hare-brained Lewis, … all life and fashion and volubility and whim, the greatest comic mannerist perhaps that ever lived.’ He was spare in body, and enjoyed fine health.

A portrait of Lewis by Sir Martin Archer Shee, another as Pharnaces in ‘Cleonice’ by Harlowe, and a third as Mercutio by De Wilde are in the Mathews Collection at the Garrick Club. As Tanjore in ‘Speculation,’ Lewis figures with Munden (as Project) and Quick (as Alderman Arable) in a picture by Zoffany, painted at the desire of George III, and now also at the Garrick Club.

His son, H. Lewis, appeared at Covent Garden, 10 Oct. 1805, as Squire Groom, and played a few parts with little success. He was afterwards on the Dublin stage.

[The early life of Lewis has to be extracted from Hitchcock's View of the Irish Stage, Tate Wilkinson's Wandering Patentee, and O'Keeffe's Recollections. For subsequent particulars the following books have been consulted: Genest's Account of the English Stage; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; the Manager's Note-book; Georgian Era; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Leigh Hunt's Critical Essays on Acting; Memoirs of Mrs. Crouch; Theatrical Inquisitor, vol. i.; Monthly Mirror, various years; Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe; Hazlitt's Dramatic Essays; Bernhard's Recollections; Dunlap's Life of Cooke; the Druriad, 1798; Boaden's Memoirs of John Philip Kemble and Memoirs and Corresp. of Mrs. Inchbald.]

J. K.