Today (June 10) in London History – “like the roll of muffled drums”

The great actor David Garrick gave his farewell performance on June 10, 1776. This Today in London History podcast takes us there.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s June 10th. And talk about spoiled for choice.

Working back, 22 years ago today the new Millennium Bridge opened and had to be immediately closed. It swayed so much under the weight of its huge opening day crowds it had to be cleared and sealed off for safety checks.

And today’s the 40th birthday of Kensington’s town hall. It’s the 102nd birthday of the Imperial War Museum. On this day in 1865, London got its grandest new hotel – the Langham. The Crystal Palace reopened on June 10th, 1854. That was an impressive undertaking. They’d dismantled it in Hyde Park, moved the pieces to Sydenham Hill in south London and re-erected it. On June 10th, 1845 we got New Oxford Street. That was bye-bye one of the worst slums in London and hello a new thoroughfare. On June 10th 1684 there was a pitched battle between workmen and Greys Inn lawyers. The fields just to the north of Greys Inn were about to be developed. The lawyers had used those fields for recreation. They took exception to the development and got physical. And lost. 

All worthy candidates but my vote goes to a curtain call on June 10th, 1776. The great actor David Garrick has just made his final appearance. Everybody in the audience knew full well that it was his farewell performance. When he made his last bow the applause was like the roll of muffled drums. 

So said someone who was there.

And let’s get to know David Garrick a little better. Many would say he was the GOAT – as Americans say these days. GOAT being an acronym for the greatest of all time.

He was born in Lichfield in 1717. Lichfield of course also gave us another goat – Dr Samuel Johnson, the greatest man of letters – the French have the word – litterateur – in the English literary tradition. Johnson was a few years older. He taught David Garrick. The two of them set out on March 2nd, 1773 and walked to London. In search of… well, to be honest, they knew not what. Neither of them had clearly mapped out a future when they headed off to London.

Worked out for both of them, though.

Now the thing about actors is, their art is the most ephemeral of all. Hogarth was the painter was David Garrick’s contemporary. He painted Garrick. We can look at Hogarth’s paintings today. Henry Fielding the novelist was Garrick’s contemporary. We can read Fielding’s novels. We can hear music that was composed in the 18th century. We can look at sculptures that were carved in the 18th century. But the 18th-century actor’s performance – gone. Lost. Can’t be retrieved. Of course 20th century developments have taken some of the sting out of that state of affairs. Olivier’s performance of Richard III, for example, is on film. Similarly, we can hear Paul Schofield’s Hotspur in the Naxos audio recording. So the waters of oblivion haven’t completely closed over a lot of great 20th and 21st-century acting. 

But David Garrick, we’ll never hear that voice, its timbre, ranges, its cadences, its timing. We have Hogarth’s and other portraits – indeed, David Garrick became the most painted man in England – but what Hogarth complained about we can only imagine, we’ll never get to see it. Hogarth said the constant and complete mobility of Garrick’s face made him a difficult subject for a portraitist.

All is not lost, though. We can see where Garrick first performed in London. St. John’s Gatehouse. What a history that building has. In Shakespeare’s day the Elizabethan censor had his offices. Shakespeare will have brought his manuscripts there to get them passed, get official approval for them to be staged. 150 years later it was the editorial offices of The Gentleman’s Magazine. So, yes, it was frequented by Dr Johnson. And on it goes, including David Garrick’s performing there.

And we have in Southampton Street – it mostly gets overlooked – David Garrick’s city home for twenty-three years, its four storeys tastefully furnished by Mrs Garrick and its walls decorated by Garrick’s growing collection of books and pictures. His unique dramatic library was eventually bequeathed to the British Museum. Whenever I’m in front of that house I always have the same, enriching four-thought sequence. Just as I try to imagine some of his great performances, I imagine the door opening and being welcomed. And admiring his collection: paintings by Watteau, Andrea del Sarto, Hals, Poussin, Lely, and Gainsborough. And of course – occupying Pride of place – the four great oils of Hogarth’s Election sequence, which Garrick bought from the artist in 1762.

The second part of the four thought sequence is thinking of that roll of muffled drums – what a haunting image – the sound of the applause when he took his last bow.

The third thought in the sequence was David Garrick’s advice to a young actor: “but above all, never let your Shakespeare be out of your hands, or your Pocket.” That’s good advice by itself. But it counts for even more when you remember that Garrick’s legacy was not confined to acting. David Garrick presided over the creation of Shakespeare as the national poet and icon.

And the fourth and final scene I always envision when I’m in front of that house is Dr Johnson, less than three years later, inconsolable, full of memories and grief, there on Adelphi Terrace – looking out over the Thames and over the past and doubtless the future – Johnson was there because of the Thames but also because No. 4 Adelphi Terrace was David Garrick’s final London home and he’d just died there, on January 20th, 1779. The Latin poet Catullus wrote an ode to commemorate his dead brother. In the ode he uses the phrase ave atque vale. It means, simply and movingly, hail and farewell.

I would say that Dr Johnson penned the English equivalent of ave atque vale when he said his friend and former pupil and townsman’s death has eclipsed the gaiety of nations.

Two final points. Both of them memorable. David Garrick’s body was autopsy’d. That was when they found out he only had one kidney. Secondly, less of a surprise this one, his funeral – it took place on February 1st – was a theatrical occasion in its own right. The procession took more than an hour to travel from the Adelphi to Westminster Abbey. Yes, David Garrick is buried in Poet’s Corner. There were upwards of 50 coaches in the cortege. 50 coaches passing weeping crowds in the streets.

That in itself is a glimpse of the eclipse of the gaiety of nations.  

And for a Today in London recommendation, let’s not do anything as structured as a museum or gallery visit, let’s just go to 27 Southampton Street. And see David Garrick’s House. And maybe, in your mind’s ear, hear that roll of muffled drums. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. 

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: whether you’re an employer or a consumer, you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.

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