David Garrick, Wine Merchant

The actor's brief career as a wine dealer was a dismal failure, but something of this former way of life stayed with him


How many authors also had connections with the wine trade? Chaucer’s father was a merchant who earned a prosperous living by exporting wool and importing wine, and a number of the poet’s other relatives were also involved in the wine trade. Chaucer himself was occasionally rewarded in wine for his service to the royal household. In 1374 Edward III granted him a gallon pitcher of wine every day for the rest of his life (a gift which was later exchanged for an annuity of 20 marks). It was followed by another such gift in 1397 when Richard II granted Chaucer a tun of wine (that is, 252 gallons) annually. But of what wine it was, we know nothing.

We know much more about David Garrick’s brief career as a wine merchant. Garrick’s uncle, also called David, had himself been a wine merchant, and under the terms of his will his nephew would inherit £1,000 on his 21st birthday. In 1738 Garrick reached his majority, and was able to abandon the career which up until then he had half-heartedly pursued, namely study of the law. Together with his brother Peter he decided to go into the wine trade. Peter would look after the business in Lichfield, while David would act as the London agent for the partnership and would try to place their wine in the coffee-houses of Covent Garden, as well as to private clients. They rented premises just off the Strand, and their stock included port, German wine, sweet wines from the Canaries, and a red wine which they claimed to be claret (the Garrick family had roots in Bordeaux) but which was probably something cheaper from Portugal.

Garrick’s early letters to his brother are confident and optimistic: “I have ye custom of ye Bedford Coffee house,” he writes gleefully in July 1740, “one of ye best in London.” But by September, a different note enters his correspondence: “I must desire you to send me up a Bill as soon as possible, for Cash is rather low & Brounker wants his Money, pray let me have it as soon as possible.” Garrick managed to stagger on for another year in the wine trade, but by October 1741 he had realised that his future lay elsewhere. The business was consuming his stock of capital at an alarming rate, as he explained to his brother:

I am now to tell You what I suppose You may have heard of before this, but before I let you into ye Affair tis proper to premise Some things that I may appear less culpable in yr Opinion than I might Otherwise do. I have made an Exact Estimate of my Stock of wine & what Money I have out at Interest & find that Since I have been a Wine Merchant I have run out near four hundred pounds & trade not encreasing I was very Sensible some way must be thought of to redeem it.

What Garrick proposed was simply to withdraw from the wine trade — “I am willing to agree any thing You shall propose about ye Wine, I will take a thorough Survey of ye Vaults & making what You have at Lichfield part of ye Stock will either send you your Share or any other way you shall propose.”

But in the same letter, he also tells his brother about the new career that has caught his fancy:

My Mind (as You must know) has been always inclin’d to ye Stage, nay so strongly so that all my Illness & lowness of Spirits was owing to my want of resolution to tell You my thoughts when here, finding at last both my Inclination & Interest requir’d some New way of Life I have chose ye most agreeable to my Self & tho I know You will be much displeas’d at Me yet I hope when You shall find that I may have ye genius of an Actor without ye Vices, you will think less Severe of Me & not be ashamed to own me for a Brother.

Certainly for Garrick the economic prospects offered by the stage easily eclipsed those of the wine trade. He reports that “last Night I played Richard ye Third to ye Surprize of Every Body”, and calculates that he should be able to make £300 per annum out of the theatre. It seems that it was Garrick’s dismal failure as a wine merchant that gave him the courage to follow his true inclination and become an actor.

But even when Garrick had turned his back on the profession of wine merchant, something of his former way of life stayed with him. The “Prologue” to his adaptations of The Winter’s Tale and The Taming of the Shrew presents the pleasures of his current profession in terms of the one he had abandoned:

To various Things the Stage has been compar’d,
As apt Ideas strike each humorous Bard:
This Night, for want of better Simile,
Let this our Theatre a Tavern be:
The Poets Vintners, and the Waiters we.

There follows a witty passage, in which Shakespeare’s poetic variety and versatility is figured as a choice of liquors:

To draw in Customers, our Bills are spread,
You cannot miss the Sign, ’tis Shakespear’s Head.
From this same Head, this Fountain-head divine,
For different Palates springs a different Wine!
In which no Tricks, to strengthen, or to thin ’em —
Neat as imported — no French Brandy in ’em —
Hence for the choicest Spirits flow Champaign . . .

The mention of the “tricks” of the wine trade — tricks that Garrick presumably knew at first hand and perhaps had practised — leads him into a short fable about a vintner who successfully passed off perry as champagne, which fable he then applies to his own practice of adapting Shakespeare’s plays for 18th-century audiences:

Thus the wise Critic too, mistakes his Wine,
Cries out with lifted Hands, ’tis great! — Divine!
Then jogs his Neighbour, as the Wonders strike him;
This Shakespear! Shakespear! — oh there’s nothing like him!

But Garrick, like the sly vintner who sold perry as champagne, has adapted Shakespeare in a similar way — “In this Night’s various, and enchanted Cup, / Some little Perry’s mixt for filling up” he confesses. But the purpose of Garrick’s textual interference is the reverse of the crafty vintner’s. It is intended to preserve Shakespeare, not to corrupt him:

Lest then this precious Liquor run to waste,
’Tis not confin’d and bottled for your Taste.
’Tis my chief Wish, my Joy, my only Plan,
To lose no Drop of that immortal Man!

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