Garrick’s debut character on the London stage was Richard III, and this is the role in which artists portrayed him twice as often as any other (Abel Drugger, Hamlet, and Macbeth tie for second place). David Garrick played Richard III throughout his career, from his first London performance on October 19, 1741 to his retirement from the stage in 1776. When Thomas Davies described Garrick as Richard III, he wrote, “Mr. Garrick shone forth like a theatrical Newton; he threw new light on elocution and action.”
This version of Nathaniel Dance’s 1771 oil painting shows the moment when Richard shouts, “A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Dance has created a history painting where Richard III has Garrick’s features, not a portrait of a stage production. The Battle of Bosworth Field rages in the middle ground while the doomed tyrant raises his sword and refuses to flee. Dance’s original painting is now owned by the Stratford-upon-Avon Town Council. This version, by an unknown artist, is probably copied from John Dixon’s 1772 mezzotint of the painting rather than the painting itself, since the coloring differs and appears quite harsh.
Like the generation before and generations after, the Richard III David Garrick performed was not Shakespeare’s original text, but Colley Cibber’s version, “altered from Shakespear, and cut for the Theatre-Royal, Drury-Lane.” This remained the main acting version of the play throughout the nineteenth century, and could still be seen on stage in the twentieth. Cibber composed half the lines himself, took about forty percent from Shakespeare’s Richard III, with the remaining bits and pieces coming from other Shakespeare history plays. The resulting plot-driven story was easier to follow than Shakespeare’s more poetic text, and introduced the immortal cliché, “Perish the thought!” (Act 5, scene 5).
The tent scene in particular allowed Garrick to display the great range of emotion for which he was known. The Hogarth portrait of Garrick, as Richard III awakening after being visited by the ghosts of those he has killed, is an artistic composition rather than a record of actual performance practice. Nevertheless, William Hogarth brilliantly captures the contradictory mixture of agitation and frozen horror Garrick showed on stage by creating a diagonal composition where roiled up fabrics contrast with a stark upraised palm and petrified face.
John Bacon (1740–1799) based the porcelain figurine seen here on Nathaniel Dance’s painting of Garrick. The same body mold continued to be used for porcelains well into the nineteenth-century, with changes to the head and coloring to portray both John Philip Kemble (1757–1823) and Edmund Kean (1787–1833) in the role.
William Shakespeare. The tragical history of King Richard III. Altered…by C. Cibber. Dublin, 1756.
William Hogarth and Charles Grignion. Mr. Garrick in the character of Richard the 3d. Engraving, 1746.
Modeled by John Bacon. David Garrick as Richard III. Derby porcelain figurine, ca. 1775-80.
Thomas Davies (ca. 1712-1785): actor, bookseller and author. Davies knew Garrick and his circle personally, and wrote the biography Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, first published in 1780.
Tent Scene: According to Arthur Murphy, "When he started from his dream he was a spectacle of horror. He called out in a manly voice, 'Give me another horse,' he paused, and with a countenance of dismay, advancd crying out in a tone of distress, 'Bind up my wounds,' and then, falling on his knees, said in a most piteous accent, 'Have mercy heaven!' In all this the audience saw an exact imitation of nature."
William Hogarth (1697-1764): painter and engraver, a friend of David Garrick. Hogarth hoped to elevate the reputation of English painting in part by combining portraiture (a traditional but lowly strength of the English School) with history painting, as seen here. The original Richard III painting, executed one year before the engraving, can be seen at the Walker, in Liverpool.