Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilkinson, Tate

WILKINSON, TATE (1739–1803), actor, the son of the Rev. John Wilkinson, D.D., and his wife, Grace Tate, the daughter of an alderman of Carlisle, was born on 27 Oct. 1739. His father, a chaplain to the Savoy and to Frederick, prince of Wales, was rector of Coyty in Glamorganshire, and had other preferment. Tate Wilkinson was educated at schools kept by a Mr. Bellas in Church Lane, Chelsea, and a Mr. Tempest, near Wandsworth, and in November 1752 was sent to Harrow, where, having previously displayed some skill in mimicry and some taste for the stage—he had indeed, through a chance intimacy, been admitted to rehearsals at Covent Garden—he played Lady Townley and other parts. His father was transported to America in March 1757 for continuing to solemnise marriages at the Savoy by his own license, in defiance of the marriage act of 26 George II, and died at Plymouth, where the vessel had put in during the voyage. A commission offered Tate by influential friends was declined, in spite of the protests of his father's friend, Jonas Hanway [q. v.], and some lessons were taken from John Rich [q. v.], who dismissed the lad as incapable of becoming an actor. His chief enemy was Margaret Woffington, who, irritated by his imitation of her, insisted on his dismissal. The company all but Shuter took the part of the leading lady. Shuter, for his benefit at Covent Garden, on 18 April 1757, brought Wilkinson on as the Fine Gentleman in ‘Lethe,’ when he was announced as ‘a person who had never appeared.’ This part he repeated for Bencraft's benefit on the 29th. On his second appearance he was derided, and did not venture to make another experiment. His aristocratic patrons, who were numerous, got him an engagement for the autumn from Garrick, whom his imitations, especially that of Foote, delighted. Meantime he became a sharing member of a company under Wignell, and opened at Maidstone as Aimwell in the ‘Beaux' Stratagem.’ He played other parts with little success, and on appearing at Drury Lane under Garrick was treated as a supernumerary. Garrick introduced him to Foote, who, after hearing his imitations, took him to Ireland. A fever caught on the journey prevented his appearance for some weeks. He was nursed into convalescence and entertained by friends, and became extremely popular in Dublin. Near the end of 1757 he appeared with Foote at Smock Alley Theatre under Sheridan, playing the pupil in Foote's entertainment ‘Tea.’ His imitations gave great delight, and he obtained with Garrick's leave an engagement at three guineas a week. His imitations of Foote were highly approved. He acted Cadwallader, Foote's part in ‘The Author,’ after Foote's return to London. He then won acceptance as Othello, which he played in the manner of Spranger Barry [q. v.], and gave imitations of Mrs. Woffington, Sparks, and Foote. His manager Sheridan he greatly offended by offering to imitate him. For his benefit, on 25 Feb. 1758, he played Hastings in ‘Jane Shore’ and Queen Dollalolla in ‘Tom Thumb.’ His social and financial successes in Dublin were equally conspicuous, and he returned to London with 130 guineas in his pocket. He was still engaged to Garrick, who refused to pay him for the time he had been away. On 8 May, for a benefit, he played in Bath as Othello and in Foote's ‘Tea.’ Through the influence of fashionable friends he was engaged at Portsmouth, where the fleet was then stationed. Here, in addition to parts already named, he was seen between 9 June and 14 Aug. 1758 as Romeo, Hotspur, Lord Townly, Richard III, Castalio, Horatio, Essex, Lear, Hamlet, Orestes, Osmyn in the ‘Mourning Bride,’ Lord Chalkstone, and Petruchio.

Wilkinson's first appearance under Garrick at Drury Lane took place with Foote on 17 Oct. in Foote's two-act farce, ‘The Diversions of the Morning.’ In this he was Bounce, and gave imitations of Sparks in Capulet, Barry in Alexander, Sheridan in Orestes, and of Foote, and others. These were so successful that Sparks complained. Their withdrawal by managerial order led to a riot. They were then recommenced, Garrick submitting, in order to pacify others, to be himself imitated. Garrick called Foote and Wilkinson at the time ‘the Exotics.’ Wilkinson was generally but unjustly spoken of as Foote's pupil. For his benefit he acted Othello for the first time in London, and as Lady Pentweazel greatly to Garrick's delight he took off Foote, with whom Wilkinson had had a difficulty.

After another summer season in Portsmouth Wilkinson, whom Garrick had taken into favour, reappeared at Drury Lane as Mrs. Amlet in the ‘Confederacy,’ and on 5 Nov. 1759 played Bajazet in ‘Tamerlane.’ On Garrick's advice he then revisited Dublin, arriving on 26 Dec. 1759, and was engaged at Smock Alley Theatre, where he acted in opposition to Foote, who was at Crow Street. He played with much success in many minor parts, gave his imitations, and received for his benefit a larger sum than had at that time been taken in the theatre. Returning to England he was engaged at Winchester, where many militia regiments were quartered. On 24 Nov. 1760, in Foote's comedy, ‘The Minor,’ he made his first appearance at Covent Garden. He played the same parts in the piece as Foote was exhibiting at Drury Lane—Shift, Smirk, and Mrs. Cole—and delivered the epilogue, imitating Foote himself to the life. He also imitated Garrick, who was so incensed that he never again spoke to the offender. Foote tried very hard to frighten Rich, the manager, out of making the experiment, but failed. Among others Wilkinson imitated was Whitefield. Subsequently he made his first appearance in Bath, where, as everywhere, he was very popular.

Refusing a three years' engagement at Covent Garden, he joined Foote (to whom he had become reconciled) at the Haymarket, appearing in June as Shift and Dr. Squintum, and in July was the first Peter Primer in the ‘Mayor of Garratt,’ a part in which he imitated Sheridan. Next year he was the first Golcondus in Foote's ‘Tragedy à la Mode,’ in which he was assisted by mute actors dressed ridiculously in high tragedy style. He had in the meantime played for the first time in Norwich and York, reaching Edinburgh, where he opened on 15 Feb. 1764 in the ‘Minor,’ playing subsequently Bayes in the ‘Rehearsal,’ Major Sturgeon, and many other comic and serious parts. Other places were also visited. Wilkinson had made in York the acquaintance of Joseph Baker, the proprietor and manager of a newly built and unlicensed theatre, who conceived a strong liking for him, confided to him the management of his house, and spoke of him always as his adopted son. Baker had himself been an actor, and was a painter of church interiors and of theatrical scenery. A suggestion was made to him that he should associate Wilkinson with him in management. Wilkinson put, in course of time, fourteen hundred pounds into the speculation, and became partner with Baker in the management of several Yorkshire theatres and of the theatre at Newcastle. His début in this capacity was made in York in January 1766 as Coriolanus. In October 1768 he married, in York, Miss Jane Doughty, and the following year he obtained at the price of 500l. patents of twenty-one years each for the theatres in York and Hull. Baker died in 1770 in debt to the extent of 3,000l., leaving Wilkinson sole manager of the theatres in York, Hull, and Newcastle. The last-named Wilkinson abandoned a year or two later, and opened in its stead a new theatre in Leeds. He gave performances in the race week at Doncaster, and at other times at Beverley, Halifax, Pontefract, Sheffield, and Wakefield. In the summer of 1772 he revisited Dublin and acted at Crow Street Theatre. Visits to Dublin, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Norwich, &c., were more or less frequently made, and on 15 Jan. 1778 he reappeared at Covent Garden, playing Captain Ironsides in the ‘Brothers’ and Don Manuel in ‘She would and she would not,’ besides his customary parts in the pieces of Foote. From this visit he took the name he bore of ‘the Wandering Patentee.’ In 1780 and again for a short time in 1781 he added to his other responsibilities the management of the Edinburgh Theatre. He broke his leg for the second time in 1788, and was thenceforward prevented from playing juvenile characters. Wilkinson died on 16 Nov. 1803, leaving five surviving children, one of whom (John Wilkinson, like himself an actor, and during some years a member of the company) succeeded him in management.

Concerning Wilkinson's powers as an actor little is known, so completely overshadowed are they by his reputation as a mimic. He played a large range of characters, from Hamlet, Lear, and Romeo, to Bayes and Mrs. Cole, and won acceptance everywhere until his later years. On his last appearance at Covent Garden, the date of which is unmentioned, he was hissed by the public, the wrath of which he disarmed by a tactful apology. His success in tragic characters Genest attributes to his catching the manner of Garrick and Mossop. His reputation as an actor was chiefly derived from his performances in the plays of Foote. As a mimic he can have had no superior. Campbell calls him one of the most extraordinary mimics that ever lived. Churchill in the ‘Rosciad’ speaks of Wilkinson and William O'Brien [q. v.] as shadows of Foote and Woodward, and says ill-naturedly:

    With not a single comic power endued,
    The first a mere mere mimic's mimic stood,

but formed subsequently a more favourable opinion. Wilkinson caught the very appearance of the people he imitated, even, it is said, when they were young and good-looking women. Plain himself, he could make himself look like Peg Woffington. His mimicries involved him in endless quarrels, but his victims, with the exception of Garrick, always ended by forgiving him. As a manager he was exemplary, and the York circuit in his day as a recruiting ground rivalled Bath and surpassed Norwich. He reformed abuses of theatrical usage, especially the personal applications of the actors and sale of tickets to individual patrons, and was honourable and liberal. He engaged every performer of distinction or notoriety, from Mrs. Siddons to dancing dogs, and, in spite of the caprices of fortune, made money. A man of good birth and education, a gourmet, a free liver and a humourist, he enjoyed great popularity. Charles Mathews the elder speaks of him as ‘a polished gentleman’ and ‘a Chesterfield.’ He had, however, a curious method of speech, jolting out, as from a bag, disconnected phrases; behind a gruff manner he disguised a kind disposition. In later years, with impaired health, he grew melancholy. His portrait by Atkinson is in the Mathews collection in the Garrick Club.

In 1790 Wilkinson published his ‘Memoirs’ in four volumes (York, 12mo; Dublin, 1791), and in 1795 his ‘Wandering Patentee, or a History of the Yorkshire Theatres,’ in four similar volumes (York, 12mo). These, though they have been frequently sneered at and condemned, are among the most amusing and trustworthy theatrical documents we possess. In them he included some of Foote's farces in which he was in the habit of appearing, together with the ‘Mirror, or Actor's Tablet, with a Review of the Old and New Theatrical Schools,’ and other rather miscellaneous matter. ‘Original Anecdotes respecting the Stage and the Actors of the old School, with Remarks on Mr. Murphy's Life of Garrick,’ was printed posthumously about 1805, being made up from articles contributed to the ‘Monthly Mirror.’ Only twelve copies are said to have been struck off, and, like all Wilkinson's books, it is scarce.

[Particulars of Wilkinson's life are drawn principally from his Memoirs, and of his management from his Wandering Patentee. Much information is supplied in Genest's Account of the English Stage and Hitchcock's Historical View of the Irish Stage; Dibdin's Annals of the Edinburgh Stage; Thespian Dictionary; Michael Kelly's Reminiscences; O'Keeffe's Recollections; Bernard's Retrospection of the Stage; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Georgian Era; Stirling's Old Drury Lane; Bryan's Dict. of Painters; Lowe's Bibliography; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Churchill's Poetical Works.]

J. K.