Twenty nine friends of the RSC visited the Garrick Club in London, without whose namesake there might be little theatrical activity in Stratford. It was Garrick who created the great Jubilee of 1769 (commemorated by a plaque in the Bancroft Gardens) which sowed the seed of performing Shakespeare’s plays in his home town. Despite it being late summer, the specially built Rotunda flooded when the Avon broke its banks and the great pageant had to be cancelled. Ever the actor manager, Garrick transferred it to his theatre in Drury Lane and it ran for ninety performances.
The Garrick Club was founded in 1831 when actors and creative people were not deemed respectable enough for the other gentlemen’s clubs in London; it moved to its present premises in in 1864. Garrick, who died in 1779, was never a member but his dominance of the British theatrical scene in the eighteenth century made him a natural namesake. He promoted a realistic style of acting, brought Shakespeare to contemporary audiences and reformed audience behaviour. He lies in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.
The Club was recently refurbished beautifully after a large donation connected to the AA Milne estate, so the pictures hang in splendour as well as being well lighted for easy viewing. We were taken into all the public rooms, starting in the Members’ lounge where the portrait of the actor Charles Mathews hangs; his collection of theatrical paintngs and drawings formed the core of the Club’s collection, and he also managed to obtain a large number of paintings from Thomas Harris, who had been manager of Covent Garden; the paintings include many by Zoffany and Thomas Lawrence as well as other well known English masters. Paintings were the only way to preserve actors’ images and performances, and the collection contains vivid paintings of Garrick, Irving, Sarah Siddons, Kean and Ellen Terry in various Shakespearean roles. It was fascinating to see (and have explained) the gestures which were part of role playing then, ameliorating audience distances and bad lighting. Interesting too the importance of good legs in men and the stances customised to show them well. For all those who rail against contemporary dress in Shakespearean performances today it is thougt provoking to see Garrick and his ladies in full contemporary eighteenth century costume. And indeed the Victorians too. As Jonson said, Shakespeare is for all time.
We passed on the fine staircase the chair Garrick sat in in the Drury Lane Theatre and arrived in the Morning Room. There we were served coffee and had leisure to study the paintings, which included Kean playing Hamlet, which became the classic look for the part. Moving to the Bar, which has contemporary portraits, we saw a very familiar face for Stratford, Donald Sinden, as well as many others. Our guide, Frances Hughes, was a mine of scholarly and amusing information, with lively stories of backstage conditions, well told and leaving us eager to look up more for ourselves. A privilege to be in the Garrick Club, which does such honour to Shakespeare.
Coreen Turner Housesteads1@btinternet.com
We need 20 people for another visit if you missed this one. Please add a comment or email if you’re interested.