18th-century portrait of Dr Johnson, in a wig and wearing a brown suit, frowning at the viewer, his hand and sleeve just visible in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame.

Dr Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, Wikimedia Commons.

Celebrity was still a relatively new concept in the eighteenth century. Often seen as an ignoble version of ‘fame’ or ‘glory’, celebrity has its roots in Grub Street, where it flourished in the rich soil of Georgian print culture. To be ‘celebrated’ was to be both admired and reviled – a personality much talked about, yet lacking real substance. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first usage of the word as occurring around 1600, and Samuel Johnson’s use of it in Rambler 165 (‘I did not find myself yet enriched in proportion to my celebrity’) is a significant example.

As a place of nightly spectacle, the Georgian playhouse was fundamental to this commodified view of humanity, and David Garrick – who left Lichfield in the company of Johnson to seek fame and fortune in London – is frequently designated the first modern celebrity.

What seems incredible, given Garrick’s enduring popularity as a subject of biographical studies as well as of theatre and performance history, is that few have considered the extent to which the actor managed his own brand. As Leslie Ritchie’s excellent book reveals, many scholars have simply followed the ‘exceptional life’ model set down by early biographers (notably the bookseller Thomas Davies), simply refreshing the actor’s fame rather than asking crucial questions about how it operated, and the extent to which he ‘pulled the levers’ behind the scenes of his own celebrity.

Perhaps the most surprising revelation of David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity was that the actor owned shares not only in Drury Lane – the stage on which he performed – but also in several newspapers. Ritchie (who is an associate professor in English literature at Queen’s University, Ontario) is excellent on this little-researched area, explaining that most eighteenth-century newspapers were embroiled in the commercial interests of booksellers, who used them as promotional vehicles for their print products. Just as booksellers purchased shares in the copyrights of books and plays, they also purchased fractional shares in newspapers. Thus ‘it is often coalitions of booksellers and printers, rather than individuals, who are competing with one another in the news marketplace’. These coalitions were called ‘congers’ and it is against this conger model (a far cry from today’s ideals of media ownership) that Garrick enters, stage left.

David Garrick as Richard III by William Hogarth, Wikimedia Commons.

From approximately 1756 to the end of his stage career in 1776, Garrick owned shares in different newspapers including the London Packet, the St. James’s Chronicle, the Morning Post and the Public Advertiser (he was a ‘proprietor’ on the latter for the longest period, and was still submitting articles two months before his death). The minutes of the St. James’s Chronicle show that Garrick’s attendance at meetings was so abysmal that he was fined, but the busy actor had little need to show up, since his interests were covered by friends and fellow proprietors: the bookseller Thomas Becket and George Colman, the dramatist and manager of Covent Garden playhouse. Ritchie reveals how this theatrical co-ownership of the St. James’s Chronicle was less about balancing power and more about collusion. An example of her skilful use of sources is an analysis of a satirical poem by Francis Gentleman which depicts the managers as pretended rivals whose real aim was to vend puffs to the newspapers and suppress critical voices: ‘Behind the curtain we shake hands and smile, / United BUBBLE MASTERS of this isle.’

Ritchie gives interesting and varied examples of Garrick’s promotional activities, such as his habit of giving any author who had a play produced on his stage a ticket entitling him or her to free entry thereafter (‘To put this boldly, Drury Lane’s audience was padded with authors who owed something to Garrick’). Meanwhile, her comments on the actor’s construction of his public image are particularly illuminating (fiery eyes and shortness of stature are both important qualities of ‘brand Garrick’). Less convincing is her grasp of the wider landscape of eighteenth-century theatre, which sometimes leads her into dangerous assumptions. Did Garrick really position Drury Lane as hostile to pantomime? (‘If you won’t come for Lear or Hamlet, then I must give you Harlequin’, the actor once wearily remarked, before inaugurating the Drury Lane Christmas panto.) And her analysis of Garrick’s public apologies, usually inserted in the papers when illness prevented him from performing, may have been skewed by the fact that the Burney Collection of newspapers and pamphlets is dominated by Garrick clippings. If she had compared this evidence with the apologies of other players, such as Susannah Cibber, I suspect she would have drawn different conclusions.

But despite these episodes of understandable Garrick-o-mania, there is much to enjoy in this erudite and sprightly book. It is a testament to the enduring power of Garrick’s image that he still inspires biographies and critical commentary, and Ritchie’s attention to the ‘cobweb politics’ of media ownership goes a long way towards explaining why this is the case. Her book (now out in paperback) is both a fresh take on a familiar subject and an important contribution to eighteenth-century scholarship.

Leslie Ritchie, David Garrick and the Mediation of Celebrity (Cambridge University Press: hardback, 2019; paperback, 2021). With thanks to The Samuel Johnson Society of Lichfield for permission to reproduce this article, which first appeared in Transactions (2021).