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David Garrick as Richard III
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More about David Garrick as Richard III

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Hogarth captures David Garrick in the role that transformed him into the world’s first celebrity.

It’s easy to think of acting as simply pretending to be a different person. If the audience is convinced, it’s good acting. But the realism we’ve become accustomed to seeing from modern actors wasn’t always so commonplace. Two hundred years ago the standard for acting was rehearsing a series of stiff gestures and facial expressions for all dialogue, like an exaggerated pantomime or as one actor of the time called it “paint-by-numbers.”

Then David Garrick premiered as Richard III at Drury Lane theater. He portrayed the well-known murderous king as deeply human and even vulnerable when haunted by the ghosts of those he murdered as captured here in Hogarth’s painting. To get an idea of how the audience may have felt, imagine an ensemble of stiff actors belting out their lines in exaggerations that feel far too rehearsed, then Christoph Waltz walks out on stage. Or alternatively, binging a series of awkwardly acted pantomimes then switching to a good episode of Games of Thrones.

While his contemporaries acted with planned out motions and shouts, he delved into the psychology of his character and explored his motivations. This technique caught on quickly, and Stanislavski’s Method developed from similar concepts years later and is now utilized by far too many modern actors to list here.

Garrick is much like Orson Welles both in his large amount of self-confidence and ingenuity in selling himself and manipulating the media turning himself into the world’s first celebrity. Plenty of people in history enjoyed fame prior to him, but he was the first to have paparazzi-esque media attention because the modern press was emerging around the time of his acting debut.

This portrait of Garrick wasn’t commissioned by anyone in particular. Hogarth painted it confident it would sell based on Garrick’s celebrity. It ended up selling for two hundred pounds, the highest price paid for a single portrait of an English artist at the time. The sales didn’t end there though, Garrick utilized the sale of both the original portrait and prints to advertise in the papers while also cross-promoting it with an upcoming performance of Richard III. Nowadays, paparazzi seek to capture images of celebrities off guard, but Garrick managed to have some control over his own portrayal. Partly because he was friends with a successful artist, but mostly because cameras weren’t a thing yet.

Garrick and Hogarth became rather close life-long buds. Garrick commissioned a good deal of portraits from the artist and held him in high regard even contributing a rather poignant verse to his gravestone when his dear friend passed that reads: 

If Genius fire thee, reader, stay,

If Nature touch thee, drop a tear

If neither moves thee, turn away,

For Hogarth's honoured dust lies here.

Sources

Sources

  1. Jones, Jonathan. "David Garrick as Richard III, William Hogarth (1745)." The Guardian. May 06, 2000. Accessed July 17, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2000/may/06/art.
  2. Knight, Joseph. David Garrick. Nabu Press, 2010.
  3. Poser, Norman S. The Birth of Modern Theatre: Rivalry, Riots, and Romance in the Age of Garrick. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2019.
  4. Ritchie, Leslie. David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2019.