From One Shakespeare Collector to Another: David Garrick and Dr. Rosenbach

This blog post was written by Andrew White 

18th-century acting superstar David Garrick has a birthday on February 19; he would have been 401. Though he may no longer be a household name, Garrick is partly responsible for contemporary culture’s reverence of Shakespeare, as well as for the genesis of the Rosenbach’s Shakespeare collection—which visitors may encounter while exploring Dr. Rosenbach’s library.

Portrait of David Garrick by Thomas Gainsborough, c. 1769. National Portrait Gallery.

David Garrick was described by friends as a good, cheery soul, but today we can love him for rescuing Shakespearean productions when they were in decline, establishing William Shakespeare’s reputation as England’s national poet, and bringing respectability to the acting profession. An avid collector of Shakespeare memorabilia, eventually building a neoclassical temple to house his treasures, he also established a tradition of celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday in April. If these achievements weren’t admirable enough, we can also love David Garrick because—from beyond the grave—he helped launch Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach’s career as a book collector.

Abe Rosenbach’s first collecting coup was in 1901, when he was in his mid-twenties. While flipping through a series of bound pamphlets at an auction, some poetry printed by the amateur architect and gothic novelist Horace Walpole caught his eye. Unbeknownst to young Abe, Samuel Johnson’s Prologue and Epilogue spoken at the opening of the Theatre in Drury Lane 1747 was bound among the poems as well.

Samuel Johnson. Prologue and Epilogue Spoken at the Opening of the Theatre in Drury-Lane 1747. London: Printed by E. Cave at St. John’s Gate; fold by M. Cooper in Pater-Noster-Row, and R. Dodsley in Pall-Mall, 1747.

Johnson had written the Prologue to be read by his friend and former student David Garrick, then a rising young actor, for the reopening of the Drury Lane theater, whose patent Garrick had just purchased. After reading the Prologue the first four nights of the reopened theater’s first production (Merchant of Venice), Garrick took ill, and was unable to read it the fifth night. The Prologue was printed to mollify disappointed theater-goers, and for many years this souvenir consolation prize was thought to be lost to history. You can imagine what an electrifying moment it was in the life of a budding book collector (and Shakespeare fan) to discover the lost first edition of a poem written by Samuel Johnson for David Garrick to read. Dr. Johnson is remembered as one of the greatest Shakespearean critics of all time, and David Garrick as one of the bard’s most illustrious interpreters.

In the interior of the case that protects these bound pamphlets, Dr. Rosenbach noted that the volume contains the only known copy of Johnson’s Prologue and Epilogue. Collection of the Rosenbach EL2.A2h.

Another object, or group of objects in Dr. Rosenbach’s library that relate to David Garrick—by way of Shakespeare—­­are a set of model buildings (and one tree) representing places significant to Shakespeare’s life and legend. The models were made in the 1830s by an amateur actor, George Frederick Fisher, as a gift for his daughter Clara. Clara Fisher was a child actor, later successful adult actor, and Shakespeare enthusiast. The houses sit along the tops of Dr. Rosenbach’s bookcases, and include two replicas of Shakespeare’s birthplace at different times. The house immediately to the left of Dr. Rosenbach’s fireplace represents Shakespeare’s birthplace at the time of Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee. The Jubilee was a three day festival in honor of the centenary of Shakespeare’s birth (held five years late) in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Often referred to as Garrick’s Jubilee, the event featured concerts, an oratorio, poetry readings, giant back-lit paintings, lots of rain, and oddly, no play performances. That Fisher should construct a model of Shakespeare’s birthplace as it appeared at the time of Garrick’s Jubilee—in addition to ones representing it in Shakespeare’s time and his own—is a testament to how completely Garrick’s legend had become intertwined with Shakespeare’s.

In the rare book library, you can see Fisher’s paper models (including Shakespeare’s birthplace) on the bookshelves. Photo by Ryan Brandenberg,

Although David Garrick is no longer the household name he was in the 18th century, he is with us as we adulate Shakespeare in the 21st century, much as he is when we explore Shakespeare at the Rosenbach. This spring is a great time to brush up your Shakespeare with us on Delancey Place, with Saturday read-alouds of Julius Caesar, The Tempest, and Hamlet; a sonnet-themed Bibiococktails party on April 13, a discussion on The Tempest led by Charles McMahon of Lantern Theater Company, and productions of the Philadelphia Artist’s Collective’s The Rape of Lucrece.