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Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee, 1769

When David Garrick, the most distinguished actor of his day, organised a splendid festival in honour of our greatest dramatist, writes Carola Oman, everything favoured him except the weather.

On the morning of May 8th, 1769, a delegation representing the Corporation of the Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon visited England’s most famous actor-manager in his London home. They came to present David Garrick with the Freedom of their city, enclosed in a box made from a mulberry tree planted ‘undoubtedly’ by Shakespeare’s own hands, and a request to open their new Town Hall. Garrick was reputed to be very rich; his fortune was founded on his successes in Shakespeare plays (which he had mauled with demonstrably the happiest results); he was also said to have a childish love of flattery. Considerable correspondence had preceded this interview, and much more was to follow. Garrick was inspired by the suggestion of a Shakespeare Jubilee in the dramatist’s home town. He agreed to open the new building and bestow upon it a statue of Shakespeare. He was decidedly bitten by the idea of companion portraits of himself and the Bard. But perhaps that might be thought presumptuous. He asked his old friend Thomas Gainsborough to run down to look at the bust in Holy Trinity church. If not quite contemporary, it had at any rate been accepted as a likeness by people who had known the man. This affair began badly. Gainsborough, who could be very irritating, went to Stratford in remarkably slow motion, and reported that to him the immortal Shakespeare looked ‘silly’. Garrick endorsed that letter: ‘Impudent scoundrel! Blackguard’, and gave his order to a more pliant lesser artist who duly produced ‘Garrick in his study’ surrounded by Shakespeariana. But he then turned back to Gainsborough, who agreed to paint the actor draping himself adoringly beneath a bust of Shakespeare. This masterpiece, considered by Garrick’s wife the best likeness ever taken of ‘my Davy’, was burnt in a fire at the Town Hall on December 6th, 1946. Garrick was not so naive as the Corporation had been led to suppose; they had to pay Gainsborough what he declared was his standard fee—sixty guineas.

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