Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, William (1730?-1819)

SMITH, WILLIAM (1730?–1819), actor, commonly known as ‘Gentleman’ Smith, the son of William Smith, a wholesale grocer and teadealer in the city of London, was born in London about 1730. He was educated at Eton under Dr. Somner, and, with a view to entering the church, was admitted on 23 Oct. 1747, aged over sixteen, at St. John's College, Cambridge. Here his conduct was irregular, and at the close of a drunken frolic he snapped at the proctor an unloaded pistol. Refusing to submit to the punishment imposed, he came to London and put himself under the tuition of Spranger Barry [q. v.], through whom he obtained an engagement at Covent Garden. There, as Theodosius in Lee's ‘Theodosius,’ he made his first appearance, 8 Jan. 1753, to the Varanes of Barry and the Athenais of Mrs. Cibber; the performance was repeated on the three following days. On 13 Feb. he was Polydore in the ‘Orphan,’ and on the 21st the original Southampton in Jones's ‘Earl of Essex.’ After an uninterrupted run of sixteen nights the piece last named was withdrawn in favour of ‘All for Love,’ in which Smith was Dolabella. For his benefit on 7 April he played Abudah in the ‘Siege of Damascus.’ His impersonations had hitherto been tragic. On 22 Oct. he made, with Orlando in ‘As you like it,’ his first appearance in comedy, and on 26 Nov. played Young Mirabel in the ‘Inconstant.’ On the first appearance on the stage of Mrs. Gregory as Hermione in the ‘Distrest Mother,’ 10 Jan. 1754, Smith spoke a prologue, and on the 20th or 22nd was the original Musidorus in McNamara Morgan's ‘Philoclea.’ He was, 23 Feb., the original Aurelian in Francis's ‘Constantine,’ and played during the season Axalla in ‘Tamerlane,’ Loveless in the ‘Relapse,’ Myrtle in the ‘Conscious Lovers,’ Carlos in ‘Love makes a Man,’ and Valentine in ‘Love for Love.’ At Covent Garden Smith remained until the close of the season of 1773–4. While there he created the following original parts: Icilius in Moncrieff's ‘Appius,’ 6 March 1755; Glenalvon in ‘Douglas’ on its production in London, 14 March 1757 (the part had previously been played in Edinburgh by Love); Palador, otherwise Guiderius, in Hawkins's alteration of ‘Cymbeline,’ 15 Feb. 1759; Bellfield in Murphy's ‘No one's Enemy but his own,’ 9 Jan. 1764; Sir Charles Somerville in the ‘Double Mistake,’ by Mrs. Griffiths, 9 Jan. 1766; Bellford in Murphy's ‘School for Guardians,’ 10 Jan. 1767; Don Antonio in ‘Perplexities,’ Hull's adaptation of the ‘Adventures of Five Hours,’ 31 Jan.; Cambyses in ‘Cyrus,’ Hoole's adaptation from Metastasio, 3 Dec. 1768; Lord Clairville in the ‘Sister,’ by Mrs. Lennox, 18 Jan. 1769; Orestes in Lord Warwick's adaptation from Voltaire, 13 March; Belfield junior in Cumberland's ‘Brothers,’ 2 Dec.; Timanthes in Hoole's adaptation so named, 24 Feb. 1770; Athamand in Cradock's ‘Zobeide,’ 11 Dec. 1771; Lord Seaton in Mrs. Griffiths's ‘Wife in the Right,’ 9 March 1772; Athelwold in Mason's ‘Elfrida,’ 21 Nov.; Alzumar in Murphy's piece so named, 23 Feb. 1773; King Henry in Hull's ‘Henry II,’ 1 May; and Captain Boothby in Kenrick's ‘Duellist,’ 20 Oct. During these years he had been seen in a large variety of parts, among which the following stand conspicuous: Hippolitus in ‘Phædra,’ Juba in ‘Cato,’ Antony in ‘Julius Cæsar,’ Henry V, Romeo, Comus, Hotspur, Hastings, Oswyn in ‘Mourning Bride,’ Bastard and Edgar in ‘Lear,’ Archer, Lothario, Hamlet, Young Bevil, Coriolanus, Lord Foppington, Sir Harry Wildair, Demetrius in ‘Humorous Lieutenant,’ Falconridge, Pierre, Copper Captain, Richard III, Bajazet, Mirabel in ‘Way of the World,’ Iago, Antony in ‘All for Love,’ Alexander the Great, Castalio, Iachimo, Lord Townly, Macbeth, Volpone, and Don Sebastian.

To Garrick Smith wrote a letter, dated 24 Aug. 1773, giving a list of fifty-two parts in which he was ready at short notice to appear. This means, says Boaden, a recollection of twenty-five thousand lines. The letter in question forms one of a correspondence in which Smith, who had quarrelled with Colman, seeks an engagement, but wrangles whether the terms shall be twelve pounds or guineas per week. Garrick is very acrimonious, and Smith finally a little abject. Smith asked Garrick to destroy the correspondence, which however still exists. In an address to the public at Covent Garden, 10 March 1774, as Macbeth, he spoke, according to the manager's notebook, some verses, apparently of his own composition, announcing his intention to play Macbeth and Richard no more, but to devote himself to fox-hunting and country pursuits:

    Then take the circuit of my little fields,
    And taste the comfort that contentment yields.

He also declared (quite erroneously) that he had served the public thirty-five years. The retirement thus contemplated had a duration of barely more than six months.

Smith's first appearance at Drury Lane was made under Garrick, 22 Sept. 1774, as Richard III. Iachimo, Hamlet, Orestes in ‘Electra,’ Hastings in ‘Jane Shore,’ Duke in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Bajazet, and other parts followed, and he was the original Edwin, earl of Northumberland, in Dr. Franklin's ‘Matilda,’ 21 Jan. 1775, and Velasquez in Jephson's ‘Braganza,’ 17 Feb. His other new parts at Drury Lane consisted of George Hargrave in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Runaway,’ 15 Feb. 1776; Arzaces in Ayscough's ‘Semiramis,’ adapted from Voltaire, 13 Dec.; Loveless in Sheridan's ‘Trip to Scarborough,’ 24 Feb. 1777; Charles Surface in the ‘School for Scandal,’ 8 May; a part unnamed in the ‘Roman Sacrifice’ of William Shirley, 18 Dec.; Paladore in Jephson's ‘Law of Lombardy,’ 8 Feb. 1779; Almaimon in Hodson's ‘Zoraida,’ 13 Dec.; Acamas in ‘Royal Suppliants,’ adapted by Delap from Euripides, 17 Feb. 1781; Hamet in Pratt's ‘Fair Circassian,’ 27 Nov.; Morley in ‘Variety,’ assigned hesitatingly to Richard Griffith, 25 Feb. 1782; Montague in Hull's ‘Fatal Interview,’ 16 Nov.; St. Valori in Cumberland's ‘Carmelite,’ 2 Dec. 1784; Clifford in Burgoyne's ‘Heiress,’ 14 Jan. 1786; and Erragon in Delap's adaptation from Euripides ‘The Captives,’ 9 March. Among other parts in which he was first seen at Drury Lane are Don Felix, Captain Absolute, Ford, Alwin in the ‘Countess of Salisbury,’ and King Arthur.

He made his last professional appearance on the stage as Charles Surface, 9 June 1788, after which he retired, settling at Bury St. Edmunds. He returned to the stage of Drury Lane for one night, 18 May 1798, playing Charles Surface for the benefit of King. He died, 13 Sept. 1819, in his house at Bury St. Edmunds. His fortune, declared under 18,000l., he left principally to his widow, his will being proved on 14 Oct. 1819. At his request his funeral was without pomp, and no stone or other indication is erected to show his place of sepulture. He also directed that no biographical record should be issued after his death. Smith had married, in May 1754, Elizabeth, widow of Kelland Courtenay; she was second daughter of Edward Richard Montagu, viscount Hinchinbroke, and was thus a sister of John Montagu, the notorious fourth earl of Sandwich [q. v.] Great outcry being raised concerning the disgrace to the family, Smith offered to retire from the stage if an annuity equal to the income he made by his profession were given him. This proposal was declined, and the lady died on 11 Dec. 1762. He subsequently married another widow, of humbler station, but possessed of considerable property, who survived him and forgave him a solitary but too notorious escapade, when in the spring of 1774 he went to Paris in company with Mrs. Hartley, his Lady Macbeth.

Smith's youthful reputation as a ‘buck,’ the circumstances of his early life, and his marriage to the sister of a peer, conspired to secure him the appellation of ‘Gentleman.’ He deserved the name, however, for other reasons. He was by no means deficient in tact, and his rancour against the critics had less of absurdity in it than is common with the generality of actors. His manners were polished; his voice, though monotonous, was distinct, smooth, and powerful; his person was pleasing and his countenance ‘engaging;’ he was always easy and never deficient in spirit. In tragedy he did not stand foremost, though his Richard III was held a fine performance, and his Hamlet, Hotspur, Lothario, Edgar, and Henry V won recognition. In characters less essentially heroic he was esteemed. His Kitely was held better than Garrick's, and his Leon, Oakly, Ford, Clifford, Falconbridge, and Iachimo were warmly commended. His chief success was in gay comedy. His original performance of Charles Surface is held never to have been equalled, and in Plume, Archer, and other characters he had few successful rivals. Churchill, in the ‘Rosciad,’ speaks of

    Smith, the genteel, the airy, and the smart.

During his long connection with the stage Smith only twice acted out of London during the summer season. There seems something like affectation in his boast that he had never played in an afterpiece and never worn a beard or gone down a trap; but he is said to have had a clause in his engagements that he should not be called on to act on a Monday in the hunting season. Horseracing and hunting were his delight; he sometimes hunted in the morning, and took relays of horses so as to act at night, riding once, it is said, eighteen miles in an hour. When he came from his retirement to play Charles Surface for King's benefit, though nearly seventy years old and portly in figure, he showed signs of his old grace of movement. In the Mathews collection of pictures, now in the Garrick Club, is a portrait of Smith as Charles Surface in ‘the screen scene,’ with King as Sir Peter, Palmer as Joseph Surface, and Mrs. Abington as Lady Teazle. Prints of the same characters were published by John Harris in 1778, and Sayer in 1789. A portrait of Smith as Iachimo by William Lawranson has also been engraved. A portrait by Hoppner (1788) was presented to the nation by Serjeant Taddy in 1837, and was transferred from the National to the National Portrait Gallery in 1883 (Cat. 1896, p. 369). John Jackson (1778–1831) [q. v.], at the instance of Sir George Beaumont, went down to Bury in 1811 to paint a portrait of Smith, then over eighty years of age; this was engraved by William A. E. Ward [q. v.], and published in 1819.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Manager's Note-Book; Thespian Dictionary; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Theatrical Inquisitor, 1819; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Boaden's Life of Mrs. Jordan, i. 122; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Smith's Cat.; Garrick Correspondence; Davies's Life of Garrick; Dutton Cook's Hours with the Players; Georgian Era; Walpole Letters, ed. Cunningham; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill; Taylor's Records of my Life; note from R. F. Scott, esq., of St. John's, Cambridge.]

J. K.