Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy

Posted on 18th July 2019 by simonbeattie

As our readers know, Simon has been enjoying putting out a theatre-themed list during the past few summers, and 2019 will be no different. Next week, we will release another: Shakespeare and the Stage. In addition to items relating to the Bard, the list will also have material on a veritable titan of the 18th century London theatre scene, David Garrick.

One of our favourite items in the list is a deftly-rendered (and untrimmed!) mezzotint after the original Reynolds painting of Garrick, painted in 1762, David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. The original painting resides at Waddesdon Manor, less than an hour’s car journey from our office here in Chesham, and has been reproduced in a wide variety of media including prints, textiles, and even a late nineteenth-century porcelain jar.

The mezzotint, by C. Corbutt [i.e. Richard Purcell], printed in 1769 for Robert Sayer in London. Chaloner Smith 31.

The image depicts Garrick imitating a young Hercules, who must choose between Virtue and Vice.  The pictorial sources are Mannerist and Baroque (Giulio Romano, Correggio, Guido Reni, William Dobson, Rubens), and exemplify the complexity of Reynolds’s mature style; it is ‘one of his most remarkable’ paintings (Oxford Art Online). 

The year this mezzotint was produced was, of course, a big year for Garrick, as it was in 1769 that he organised his Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford upon Avon: ‘It seemed a fitting recognition of his staging twenty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays at Drury Lane, and Garrick entered into planning the September festival with almost callow enthusiasm. There would be an octagonal amphitheatre, nightly fireworks, a grand masquerade, banquets, the whole to be topped by a procession of characters from Shakespeare’s most popular plays. The orchestra and most of the acting company from Drury Lane would be there; so would the local aristocracy and many of Garrick’s friends. It was a problem that Stratford had insufficient accommodation for all the visitors, but the first day, 6 September 1769, passed off in great good humour, and was pronounced a success. That night and all the next day it rained. The fireworks got wet, the amphitheatre flooded, the great procession was cancelled. It was a fiasco, and Garrick’s enemies exulted in his discomfiture. But Garrick’s love of Shakespeare was genuine, and he understood his audience’s delight in spectacle. Loosely accommodated in a comic plot, the grand procession of Shakespearian characters (Garrick himself was always Benedick) was staged ninety-one times at Drury Lane between 14 October 1769 and the end of the season. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen. It was a triumph of showmanship’ (Oxford DNB). 2019 marks the 250th anniversary of Garrick’s Jubilee, which, despite being a partial washout, has since been recognised as at least in part putting Stratford upon Avon on the map.

For more info on this mezzotint and other Garrick-related items, stay tuned for our upcoming list, Shakespeare and the Stage, coming next week!

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