Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bensley, Robert

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BENSLEY, ROBERT (1738?–1817?), actor, is said to have been a lieutenant of marines, and in that capacity is believed to have seen active service in America. According to the information he appears to have himself supplied, his amateur performances induced Garrick, to whom, at the cessation of hostilities, he was strongly recommended, to advance him at once to play important characters. A more credible assertion is contained in an eminently untrustworthy compilation, 'The Secret History of the Green Room,' to the effect that early in life Bensley joined the 'company of Mr. Stanton in Staffordshire, where his youth and inexperience made his exertions be treated with ridicule by his associates.' His first recorded appearance was made at Drury Lane, 2 Oct. 1765, as Pierre in 'Venice Preserved,' his début, according to Gilliland (Dramatic Mirror), being attended by a large body of his brother officers. During his two years' stay at Drury Lane Bensley played such roles as Edmund in 'King Lear' and Buckingham in 'Richard III,' and 'created' the character of Merlin in 'Cymon,' an adaptation from Dryden attributed to Garrick. On 16 Sept. 1767 Bensley appeared at Covent Garden, at which house, still playing the same line of parts, he remained until 1775, when he returned to Drury Lane. From this time until his retirement in 1796 he alternated between Drury Lane and the Haymarket, playing at the latter house in the summer and the former in the winter. If few new parts of importance are coupled with his name, the fact is attributable to the absence during that period of any important tragedies. Lord Glenmore in the 'Chapter of Accidents,' a popular drama of Miss Lee; Leonidas in the 'Fate of Sparta,' Harold in the 'Battle of Hastings,' and the like represent the kind of new characters that were assigned him. With a performance for his benefit, 6 May 1796, of the 'Grecian Daughter,' in which he played Evander to the Euphrasia of Mrs. Siddons, Bensley abandoned the stage. It is stated by all his biographers that the influence of his friends secured him a post as barrack-master, and Gilliland, in 1808, speaks of him as then barrack-master at Knightsbridge Barracks. A Robert Bensley is mentioned, however, in the 'Gazette,' 12 April 1798, as appointed paymaster, a post which he appears, from the same authority, to have resigned 27 Nov. of the same year. Supposing, as seems possible, that the Bensley here spoken of is the same, this is the last public reference to him we are able to trace. It is said in one or two places that an accession of fortune on the death of a relative, Sir William Bensley, placed Bensley during his later years in a position of complete independence. The death in question took place, according to the 'Gentleman's Magazine,' in 1809, the date given in the 'European Magazine' being 12 Nov. Mr. W. Clark Russell (Representative Actors) gives 1817 as the year of Bensley's death. In so doing he is apparent misled by the name William Bensley, which he gratuitously bestows on the actor, since in that year a William Bensley, Esq., possibly belonging to the family of printers, died at Stanmore. According to the custom, eminently regrettable from a biographical point of view, of playbills and of early writers on the stage, Bensley is always described as Mr. Bensley.

In the account furnished in the catalogue raisonnée of the Mathews' Gallery of theatrical pictures exhibited in 1833 at the Queen's Bazaar in Oxford Street, one portrait of the actor, by Mortimer (as Hubert to the King John of Powell), and two by Dewilde (as Oakley in the 'Jealous Wife,' and Harold in the 'Battle of Hasting'), are given, but he is there spoken of as Richard Bensley. That his name was William Bensley is positively asserted in 'Notes and Queries' (6th S. x. 273). The question is set at rest, however, by a letter to Gurrick printed in the 'Garrick Correspondence' (London, 1831, ii. 73-4), which is signed Robert Bensley. Doubt is thus thrown upon the assertions that are made as to the place and period of his death, both of which at this time are practically unknown. In spite of a habit of boasting which led Bannister, according to the 'Records of a Stage Veteran,' 1836, to bring him into signal ridicule by counting up in a public address all the actions at which Bensley claimed to have been present, and by drawing thence the inference that he 'carried a stand of colours when only eighteen months old,' Bensley apppears to have been a respectable character and a sound actor. The praise of Charles Lamb is probably excessive. Lamb declares that of all the actors of his time 'Bensley had most of the swell of soul, was greatest in the delivery of heroic conceptions.... He had the true poetical enthusiasm, the rarest faculty among players. None that I remember possessed even a portion of that fine madness which he threw out in Hotspur's famous rant about glory, or the transports of the Venetian incendiary at the vision of the fired city.' Against this estimate may be placed that of the 'Dramatic Censor,' ii. 491, in which it is stated that 'his person is slight, his features contracted and peevish, his deportment falsely consequential, his action mostly extravagant, and his voice rather harsh.' These qualities would, of course, fit him to play Malvolio, his great character, of which Boaden (Life of Jordan) says that he was perfection, while George Colman (Random Records) declares that it was beyond all competition. O'Keefe, ii. 9, declares that Bensley, whom he often met at Colman's, was 'an exceedingly well-informed, sensible man,' and adds that 'as an actor he was most correct to the words and understood his author.' The 'Theatrical Biography,' writing with obviously unfriendly animus, says he is no actor at all. Campbell (Life of Siddons) speaks of his 'ungainly solemnity of action' and 'nasal pronunciation.' Biensley appears to have been a man of more than ordinary intelligence, who combatted with difficulty serious physical disqualifications. He is said to have married a lady with whom he fell in love in consequence of being the accidental cause of her being thrown from her horse.

[Genest's Account of the Stage; Doran's Their Majesties' Servants; Thespian Dictionary; authorities already cited.]

J. K.