vol II date / index
St. Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria, A. D. 608. St. Amatus, Bp. A. D. 690. Another St. Amatus, or Ame, Abbot, A. D. 627. St. Maurilius, 5th Cent.
THE ORIGINAL CHARLES SURFACE.
To the Editor of the Every-Day Book.
Probably a biographical sketch of this eminent professor of the histrionic art, may prove acceptable to your interesting weekly sheet. Of the latter days of Mr. Smith, I write from my own recollection of him. It is a pleasant occupation to record the acts of these worthies of the legitimate drama—to notice the talents and acquirements of an actor so universally respected for the kindness of his disposition—the firmness of a mind gradually developing principles and conduct worthy the sympathy and respect of all—and whose ease and gracefulness of manner obtained for him the honourable distinction of "Gentleman Smith."
The subject of our memoir was born in London, in 1730. He was designed for the church, and in 1737 his father sent him to Eton, from whence he was removed to St. John's-college, Cambridge, in 1748. The vivacity and spirit which had distinguished young Smith while at Eton, here led him into some rash and impetuous irregularities. He was young—very young: unknown to the world, and too worldly in his pleasures. The force of evil example, so glaringly displayed within our colleges and grammar-schools, was powerful—and Smith yielded to its power. One hasty act of impudence and passion, frustrated his father's hopes, and determined the future pursuits of this tyro. Having one evening drunk too freely with some associates of kindred minds, and being pursued by the proctor, he had the imprudence to snap an unloaded pistol at him. For this offence he was doomed to a punishment to which he would not submit; and in order to avoid expulsion immediately quitted college. He now had the opportunity of gratifying his inclination for the stage, and without any deep reflection upon the step he was about to take, immediately upon his arrival in London, applied to Mr. Rich, the manager of Covent-garden theatre, and succeeded in obtaining an engagement. He made his first appearance in January, 1753, in the character of Theodosius; on which occasion many of his college friends came up for the purpose of giving him their support. His second attempt was Polydore, in the "Orphan;" after which he appeared successively in Southampton, in the "Earl of Essex," and Dolabella, in "All for Love." Mr. Smith was obliged for some time to play subordinate parts; but after Mr. Barry quitted the stage, he undertook several of the principal characters in which that great actor had appeared with such distinguished approbation. Mr. Smith's mode of acting had many peculiarities which were considered as defects, but from his frequent appearance, the audience seemed to forget them, or to regard them as trifles undeserving notice, when viewed in connections with the many excellencies which he always displayed. This favourable disposition towards him was greatly increased by his upright and independent conduct in private life, which gained for him very general esteem. When Churchill published his "Rosciad," in 1761, the only notice he took of him in his satire, is comprised in the following couplet:—
"Smith the genteel, the airy, and the smart,
Smith was just gone to School to say his part."
After being twenty-two years at Covent-garden, Garrick engaged him, in the winter of 1774, to perform at Drury-lane, where he remained till the close of his professional labours in 1788. Though Mr. Smith, for a considerable period, played the first parts in tragedy, nature seemed not to have qualified him for this branch of the histrionic art. His person was tall and well formed, but his features wanted flexibility, for the expression of the stronger and finer emotions of tragedy, and his voice had a monotony and harshness, which took much from the effect of his finer performances. The parts in this line in which he acquired most popularity were Richard the Third, Hotspur, and Hastings.
But, now, I must speak of those powers in which Mr. Smith was unrivalled. His personation of Charles Surface, in the "School for Scandal," (of which he was the original representative,) has always been spoken of as his masterpiece, and, indeed, the highest praise and admiration were always awarded him for originality, boldness of conception, truth, freedom, ease, and gracefulness of action and manner. A sight of tender regret to the recollection of so great a worthy has been uttered by the pleasant ELIA, in his "Essay upon Old Actors," to which I refer every lover of the drama,—there he will discover what our favourites in the old school of acting were,—and what our modern professors ought now to be!
Mr. Smith's Kitely has been extolled as superior to that of Garrick. Archer and Onkly are two other parts, in which he acquired high reputation.
On the 9th of March, 1788, after performing Macbeth, he delivered an epilogue, in which he announced his intention to quit the stage at the close of the season, thinking it time to "resign the sprightly Charles to abler hands and younger heads." On the ninth of June following, he took his leave, after the performance of Charles Surface, in a short, but neat and elegant address: expressing his gratitude for the candour, indulgence, and generosity he had experienced, and his hope that the "patronage and protection the public had vouchsafed him on the stage, would be followed by some small esteem, when he was off." He performed but once afterwards, which was in the same part, in 1798, for the benefit of his old friend King. Mr. Smith was first married to the sister of the earl of Sandwich, the widow of Kelland Courtnay, Esq.; she died in 1762. Soon afterwards he married Miss Newson, of Leiston, in Suffolk. Lord Chedworth bequeathed him a legacy of 200l. He died at Bury St. Edmunds, on the 13th of September, 1819, in the 89th year of his age.*
In my humble walk of life, when a boy at the free grammar-school of Bury St. Edmunds, I had, with my young "classical" companions, frequent opportunities of meeting this aged veteran of the drama. His appearance was always agreeable to us. He encouraged our playful gambols, and was well-pleased in giving us something to be pleased with. In his eightieth year he looked "most briskly juvenal." His person was then debonair, and his fine, brown, intelligent eye reflected all the mind could realize of the volition of Charles Surface. His dress was in perfect keeping with the vivacious disposition of the man. He always wore, when perambulating, a white hat, edged with green—blue coat—figured waistcoat—fustian-coloured breeches, and gaiters to correspond. Thus apparelled, he was, when the weather was favourable, to be met with in some one of the beautifully rural walks in the neighbourhood of the town, tripping on at a sharp, brisk pace, and twisting his thin gold-headed cane in his right hand. His politeness was proverbial; and the same ease and gracefulness of carriage—dignity of manner—and suavity of address—were features as conspicuous off, as when on, the stage. It was a lucky moment for us to meet himnear our "tart" and "turn-over" shop. He would anticipate our raspberry cravings, and remind us that he "was once a school-boy," and that the fagging system was only to be tolerated in the hopeful expectation of a plentiful reward in "sweets" and "sugar-candy." He was one whom Shakspeare has painted—
"That liv'd, that lov'd, that lik'd, that look'd with cheer."
Should this trifling sketch fall into the hands of any of my respected fellows, who were with me during my labours at the above-named school, I am confident they will contemplate this great man's memory with that regard which his rich pleasantries, and our personal knowledge of him, are calculated to inspire. He was an honourable man; and it was his honourable conduct which alone conducted him to an honourable distinction in the evening of his days. Unlike the many of his profession, whose talents blaze forth for a while, and then depart like a sunbeam, he retired into the quiet of domestic life—sought peace and solace—and found them. In a word, "Gentleman Smith" was a respecter of virtue:—and he developed its precepts to the world in the incidents of his own life.
I am, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
Officinal Crocus. Crocus Sativus.
Dedicated to St. Eulogius.
Notes [all notes are Hone's unless otherwise indicated]:
1. An interesting notice of Mr. Smith will be found in a small and elegant little work, entitled "County Biography," &c., published by Longman and Co., accompanied by a good portrait of the subject of this article. [return]