The Life & Career of an English Actor 1717 - 1779

Biographical Note

Christening Record

David Garrick was born in Hereford on 19th February 1717. His father Peter, the son of a Huguenot immigrant, was a lieutenant in the Dragoons.

He often travelled around the country recruiting soldiers and on this occasion was accompanied by his wife Arabella. Soon after David’s birth they returned to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where David Garrick was brought up, apart from a brief spell in Lisbon, Portugal, with an uncle.

He went to the local grammar school and then to a school at nearby Edial Hall run by another Lichfield man, Dr Samuel Johnson. The school was not a success and Johnson decided to move to London in 1737.

His pupil and young friend went with him. They had little money and walked most of the way. They remained friends, despite Johnson’s not approving of actors.

Turning his back on studying the law, Garrick worked with his brother Peter as a wine merchant, but his real passion was for the theatre. His first play, Lethe, was performed in 1740 and he took to the stage the following year, in the summer season at Ipswich. His first appearance in London was as Richard III at Goodman’s Fields in October. He was 23 years old, not tall or handsome but with an attractive and mobile face and a mellow voice. He soon became a popular actor, as successful in comedy as in tragedy. People flocked to his performances and bought pictures and souvenirs of him. He was also an acute businessman and in 1747 he became co-manager of the Drury Lane Theatre, with James Lacy. He remained at Drury Lane as actor-manager until his retirement in 1776, when he sold his share of the theatre. He played a leading role in reviving the fame of Shakespeare, including mounting the first, if disastrous, Shakespeare festival, the Jubilee, at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1769.

In 1749 he had married a young Austrian dancer, Eva Maria Veigel, who had come to work in London. For many years they lived near the theatre in Southampton Street before moving to the grander Adelphi Terrace in 1772. They also had a country home at Hampton, a few miles west of London. Their homes were use to display Garrick’s collections of paintings and objets d’art, many of which were bought on their grand tour of Europe in 1763-5. Garrick also had a large library on many subjects including an important collection of English drama.

David Garrick died on 20 January 1779, a little short of his 62nd birthday. He was buried with great pomp in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, close to the memorial to Shakespeare. A marble memorial was erected, which shows him as an actor holding aside curtains, as if taking a bow after a performance. On either side are seated the figures of Tragedy and Comedy. Above Garrick’s head is a medallion portrait inscribed ‘Shakespeare’. His wife outlived him by 43 years.