Thursday, 24 March 2016

"Immortal Rich! how calm he sits at ease, mid snows of paper, and fierce hail of pease"; John Rich (1692-1761), St John the Baptist, Hillingdon


The entries for December 1761 in the burial register for St John the Baptist, Hillingdon

Mr Aldridge, the parish clerk at St John the Baptist, Uxbridge Moor, recorded 7 burials in December 1761. Four of them were children, no ages given and three recorded with just their first names and noted as being the son or daughter of the Hills, Hodges and Smiths of the parish. The fourth, and saddest, buried on the 28th is a “child dropt i’th Ch(urch) yard; name unknown.” Henry Philips was buried on the 13th (truly an unlucky day for him) and Hannah Weeden, widow, on the 4th. Hannah’s no doubt modest funeral would have been easily eclipsed by the other interment taking place that cold winter day, that of the 69 year old John Rich for whom the parish clerk, dazzled by his celebrity, broke with tradition and recorded more than the bare fact of his name “John Rich, Esq Comedian of Covent Garden Theatre.” It is the only entry for the entire year where the deceased was considered worthy of the honorific Esquire and no other entry in the entire register gives an occupation. Rich’s grave is marked by the churchyard’s most splendid tomb. The epitaph reads “"Sacred to the memory of John Rich Esq. Who died November 26th. 1761 Aged 69 Years. In him were united the various virtues that could endear him to his family, friends and acquaintance: Distress never failed to find relief in his bounty, unfortunate merit a refuge in his generosity. Here likewise are interred Amy, his second wife, with their two youngest children, John and Elizabeth, who both died in their infancy."    

In his pantomime role as Lun
John Rich was born in 1692, his father, Christopher, was an attorney turned theatre manager who died in November 1714 leaving his two sons in possession of the newly rebuilt but as yet unopened theatre at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. John, still dressed in mourning, took to the stage himself on the opening night in December to deliver a prologue to Farquhar’s ‘The Recruiting Officer’. According to the D.N.B. “for the next forty-seven years Rich implemented his father's vision, first as manager at Lincoln's Inn Fields and later at Covent Garden, where he opened a lavish new theatre in 1732. He distinguished himself as the originator of English pantomime, introducing elaborate scenery and extravagant costumes into his productions, and he became the most celebrated comic dancer of his age.” He is best remembered for staging ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, the greatest commercial success of the eighteenth century stage, taking on John Gay’s opera when it had been turned down by the rival theatre at Drury Lane and from which he is said to have made £9000 in two years, the equivalent of millions today. The unparalleled success of the production gave rise to the immortal quip that it ‘made Gay Rich and Rich Gay’ though in truth Rich would have already been rich but Gay undoubtedly made him richer.

Rich’s prototype of the pantomime would not be recognised by that name today. Between the scenes of a serious (and apparently often dull) classical epic drawn from Ovid or some other similar source Rich interspersed comic scenes based on Italian Commedia dell’arte. Rich himself played a character he called Lun who was based on Harlequin. A Victorian newspaper account gives the flavour of the English pantomime.“One of the best of Rich's productions was his ‘Catching the Butterfly,’ declared by the chroniclers of the time to be "a most wonderful performance." His harlequin hatched from an egg, by the heat of the sun, was such an attraction that crowds waited under the piazza of Covent Garden from mid-day till evening for admission to the theatre. Rich's harlequin never uttered a word, but his gesticulations and expressions in dumb show were such as to provoke roars of laughter or the shedding of tears at his will. A writer of the time says " from the first chipping of the egg, his receiving of motion, his feeling of the ground, to his quick harlequin trip round the empty shell, through the whole progression, every limb had its tongue, and every motion a voice." Amongst the literati Rich’s pantomime was less well received. Henry Fielding lambasted it in Tom Jones:

“That most exquisite entertainment, called the English Pantomime …..consisted of two parts, … the serious and the comic. The serious exhibited a certain number of heathen gods and heroes, who were certainly the worst and dullest company into which an audience was ever introduced; and (which was a secret known to few) were actually intended so to be, in order to contrast the comic part of the entertainment, and to display the tricks of harlequin to the better advantage… So intolerably serious, indeed, were these gods and heroes, that harlequin ……was always welcome on the stage, as he relieved the audience from worse company.”

 Hogarth, who was supposed to be his friend, caricatured Rich as the performing Dalmatian dog that had appeared in his version of Perseus and Andromeda in "Rich's Procession" showing taking over his new theatre at Covent Garden 
His undoubted successes at Covent Garden failed to impress some of his contemporaries; John Genest called him “ill qualified for his situation” and said that he was without “talents adequate to the proper management of a theatre.” Charles Dibden summed him up (and dismissed him) as “the vainest and most ignorant of all human beings.” Scurrilous stories were retailed about his illiteracy, his eccentricity and his general ignorance. He could not or would not remember names and to the irritation of his associates in the theatrical world insisted on using alternative versions of them calling Tate Wilkinson ‘Williamskin’ or ‘Whittington’, David Garrick ‘Griskin’ and the writer Samuel Foote ‘Footseye’. When even those names failed him he simply called everyone ‘mister’. He was said to treat writers brusquely and with little respect. When one author demanded the return of his rejected play script Rich couldn’t find it but offered the writer the choice of any of the other large number of rejected manuscripts sitting in his drawer saying “A thousand to one but it may be better than yours mister.” He could be fairly short with his actors too. When one performing the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy from Hamlet failed to impress Rich told him “Toby may be a very good dog Mister but Toby will not do for me.  You need not trouble yourself any farther Mister.”

By 1755 he was wealthy enough to be making the King lavish and unusual presents.  According to the Derby Mercury of June 6 “Yesterday being the Birth-Day of his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, a Pleasure Barge, built by John Rich, Esq; and presented to her Royal Highness, was launched in the Gardens at Kew, and named the Augusta. It is formed in an entire new Taste, and made to imitate a Swan swimming; the Representation is so Very natural, as scarcely to be distinguished from a real Bird, .except by the Size of it. The Neck and Head rise to the Heighth of eighteen Feet; the Body forms a commodious Cabin, neatly decorated, and large enough to accommodate ten Persons, and the Feet are so artfully contrived as to supply the Place of Oars, which move it with any Degree of Velocity. The Novelty of the Design, and the Elegance of the Execution, afforded a very particular Pleasure to the Royal Family, who were present, and the rest of the Spectators.”

John Rich and his many cats interviews the Irish actress Peg Woffington

Rich married three times; his first wife, Henrietta Brerewood he married on 7 February 1717 in St Clement Danes. They had one son, John, who was born on 3 May 1720 and was buried on 28 February 1721. Henrietta died in 1725. His second wife, Amy, was the mother of seven of his children: two sons and five daughters. She died ‘of a Hectick fever’ on 26 November 1737 and was buried in the churchyard at St John’s where Rich later joined her.  His third wife was Priscilla Wilford, a minor actress in the Covent Garden Company under the stage name of Mrs Stevens who, it was rumoured, had been a barmaid and, when her theatrical career failed to ignite, became Rich’s housekeeper. Rich married her on 25 November 1744. The new Mrs Rich fell under the influence of Methodism and became a religious enthusiast and made Rich’s life a misery. Tobias Smollett commented "The poor man's head, which was not naturally very clear, had been ordered with superstition, and he laboured under the tyranny of a wife and the terror of hell-fire at the same time."