Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cumberland, Richard (1732-1811)
CUMBERLAND, RICHARD (1732–1811), dramatist, was born on 19 Feb. 1732, in the master's lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge. His great-grandfather was Richard Cumberland, bishop of Peterborough [q. v.] The bishop's only son, Richard, was archdeacon of Northampton. Archdeacon Cumberland's second son, named Denison, after his mother, was born in 1705 or 1706, educated at Westminster, became a fellow-commoner of Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1728 married Bentley's daughter, Joanna, who was adored by many young men at Cambridge (see Monk, Bentley, ii. 113, 267), and when eleven years old was celebrated by John Byrom [q. v.] in the ‘Spectator.’ Denison Cumberland was presented to the living of Stanwick in Northamptonshire by the Lord-chancellor King, and divided his time between Cambridge and Stanwick until Bentley's death (1742). Richard Cumberland spent much of his infancy in Bentley's lodge, and has left some curious reminiscences of his grandfather. When six years old he was sent to school under Arthur Kinsman, at Bury St. Edmunds. Before leaving this school he had written English verse, and compiled a cento called ‘Shakespeare in the Shades,’ specimens of which are given in his memoirs. When twelve years old he was sent to Westminster, where he lodged at first in the same house with Cowper, and was a contemporary of Colman, Churchill, Lloyd, and Warren Hastings. He says that he was entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, in his ‘fourteenth year,’ though from the date of his graduation, 1750–1, it would appear that he must have come into residence in 1747, i.e. at the age of fifteen. Some of his grandfather's books and papers were presented to him by his uncle, Dr. Richard Bentley (the papers were ultimately given by Cumberland to Trinity College; Monk, Bentley, ii. 415). This led him to study Greek comedies, afterwards discussed in the ‘Observer.’ He also read mathematics, and distinguished himself in the schools, his name being tenth in the mathematical tripos for 1750–1. He was elected to a fellowship in the second year after his degree—the regulations which had hitherto excluded candidates until their third year having been altered on this occasion. He was afterwards chosen to one of the two lay fellowships.
After his degree he had gone to Stanwick, where he made preparations for a universal history, and wrote a play upon Caractacus in the Greek manner. Denison Cumberland had gained credit from the government by enlisting in his own neighbourhood two full companies for a regiment raised by Lord Halifax in 1745. By actively supporting the whigs in a contested election for Northamptonshire (April 1748), he established a fresh claim, which Lord Halifax recognised by taking the son as his private secretary in the board of trade. John, brother of Thomas Pownall [q. v.], was secretary, and Cumberland, whose duties were nominal, amused himself by studying history and composing an epic poem. His father, at the beginning of 1757, changed his living of Stanwick for Fulham. He was a prebendary of Lincoln from 1735 to 1763, and of St. Paul's from 1761 to 1763 (Le Neve, Fasti, ii. 215, 412). At Fulham Cumberland became acquainted with Bubb Dodington, who had a villa in the neighbourhood. He was employed as go-between by Halifax and Dodington when Halifax was intriguing with the opposition in the spring of 1757, and for a time left his office, though he did not actually resign.
Cumberland now wrote his first legitimate drama, called ‘The Banishment of Cicero,’ which was civilly declined by Garrick, but published in 1761. On 19 Feb. 1759 he married Elizabeth, daughter of George Ridge of Kelmiston, Hampshire, having obtained, through the patronage of Halifax, an appointment as crown agent to Nova Scotia. Halifax, after the death of George II, was appointed lord-lieutenant of Ireland (6 Oct. 1761). Cumberland became Ulster secretary, and his father one of Halifax's chaplains. Just before Halifax resigned the lord-lieutenancy he appointed Denison Cumberland to the see of Clonfert. He was consecrated 19 June 1763, and in 1772 translated to Kilmore. He died at Dublin, November 1774, his wife sinking under her loss soon afterwards. His son, who paid him annual visits, speaks strongly of his zeal in promoting the welfare of his tenants, and his general public spirit and popularity. Halifax became secretary of state in October 1762, and, to Cumberland's disappointment, gave the under-secretaryship to a rival, Cumberland—accordingto his own account—having been supplanted owing to his want of worldly wisdom in refusing a baronetcy. He was now glad to put up with the office of clerk of reports (worth 200l. a year) in the board of trade. Having little to do, and being in want of money, he began his career as a dramatist, and boasts (not quite truly) (Memoirs, i. 269) that he ultimately surpassed every English author in point of number of plays produced. His first production was a ‘musical comedy,’ the ‘Summer's Tale’ (1765), in rivalry of Bickerstaff's ‘Maid of the Mill’ (revived as ‘Amelia’ in 1768). His first regular comedy, ‘The Brothers,’ had a considerable success at Covent Garden in 1769. In the next year he composed the ‘West Indian,’ during a visit to his father at Clonfert. Garrick, whom he had flattered in the epilogue to the ‘Brothers,’ brought it out in 1771. It ran for twenty-eight nights, and passes for his best play. He received 150l. for the copyright, and says that twelve thousand copies were sold. Cumberland, who was now living in Queen Anne Street West, became well known in the literary circles. He used to meet Foote, Reynolds, Garrick, Goldsmith, and others at the British coffee-house. He produced the ‘Fashionable Lover’ in January 1772, and rashly declared in the prologue that it was superior to its predecessor. His sensitiveness to criticism made Garrick call him a ‘man without a skin,’ but he explains that there was then ‘a filthy nest of vipers’ in league against every well-known man (Memoirs, i. 347, 349). Cumberland's best performances belong to the sentimental comedy, which was put out of fashion by the successes of Goldsmith and Sheridan. Cumberland gives a very untrustworthy account of the first night (15 March 1773) of Goldsmith's ‘She stoops to conquer.’ Goldsmith died 4 April 1774, shortly after writing the ‘Retaliation,’ containing the kindly though subsatirical description of Cumberland as ‘The Terence of England, the mender of hearts.’ The famous caricature of Cumberland as Sir Fretful Plagiary in the ‘Critic,’ first performed in 1779, was said, according to a common anecdote, to have been written in revenge for Cumberland's behaviour on the first night of the ‘School for Scandal,’ 1777. It was alleged that Cumberland was seen in a box reproving his children for laughing at the play. ‘He ought to have laughed at my comedy, for I laughed heartily at his tragedy,’ is the retort commonly attributed to Sheridan. Cumberland's first tragedy, the ‘Battle of Hastings,’ was performed in 1778, and he denies the whole story circumstantially, and says that he convinced Sheridan of its falsehood (Memoirs, i. 271; see also Mudford, Cumberland, i. 179). Cumberland's ‘Memoirs’ supply sufficient proof that the portrait in the ‘Critic’ was not without likeness. Cumberland's ‘Choleric Man’ was produced in 1774 and published with a dedication to ‘Detraction.’ In 1778 he produced the ‘Battle of Hastings,’ the chief part in which was written for Henderson's first appearance in London. Garrick's retirement probably weakened his connection with the stage. At the end of 1775 Lord George Germaine (afterwards Lord Sackville) became colonial secretary. Through his favour Cumberland was appointed soon afterwards to succeed John Pownall as secretary to the board of trade. In 1780 he obtained some private information which led to his being sent on a secret mission to Spain in combination with an Abbé Hussey. A long account of his adventures on the voyage to Lisbon and his negotiations in Spain is given in his ‘Memoirs,’ and a volume of papers relating to it, left by him to his daughter, is in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 28851). The purpose was to induce the Spanish authorities to agree to a separate treaty with England. The great difficulty, according to Cumberland, was that he was forbidden even to mention a cession of Gibraltar, while the Gordon riots in 1780 excited the distrust of the Spanish ministers at a critical moment. In any case the mission was a failure. Cumberland returned to England, after a year's absence, in the spring of 1781, having incurred an expenditure of 4,500l., for which he could never obtain repayment. Soon afterwards the board of trade was abolished and Cumberland sent adrift with a compensation of about half his salary. He had to reduce his expenditure, and settled for the rest of his life at Tunbridge Wells. Here he was a neighbour of Lord Sackville, of whom he gives an interesting account in his ‘Memoirs.’ He became a commander of volunteers during the war. He continued to display a restless literary activity, prompted partly by the need of money. Soon after his return (1782) he published ‘Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain,’ in 2 vols. He returned to play-writing. His first drama, the ‘Walloons’ (performed 20 April 1782), was apparently a failure. Johnson tells Mrs. Thrale that he made 5l. by it and ‘lost his plume’ (to Mrs. Thrale, 30 April 1782). He produced many other plays, of which the ‘Jew’ (acted twelve times) and the ‘Wheel of Fortune’ seem to have been the most successful. The first is praised for the intention to defend the Jewish character. Besides his play-writing, which only ceased with his death, he wrote two novels, ‘Arundel’ (1789) and ‘Henry’ (1795) (in imitation of Fielding), and a periodical paper called the ‘Observer,’ almost the last imitation of the ‘Spectator.’ The second volume of the reprint in Chalmers's ‘British Essayists’ contains a continuous history of the Greek comic dramatists, with translations of fragments, founded on his youthful studies. It was first printed at Tunbridge Wells in 1785, and in a later edition (1798) formed 6 vols., including a translation of the ‘Clouds’ of Aristophanes. Cumberland's translations were included in R. Walpole's ‘Comicorum Græcorum Fragmenta’ (1805) and in Bailey's edition of the same (1840). His translation of the ‘Clouds’ is included in Mitchell's Aristophanes. He published in 1801 ‘A few Plain Reasons for believing in the Christian Revelation,’ and in 1792 a poem called ‘Calvary.’ This poem was analysed by Dr. Drake in his ‘Literary Hours’ (Nos. 18 to 21), according to the precedent of Addison upon ‘Paradise Lost.’ Drake thinks that Cumberland has happily combined the excellences of Shakespeare and Milton, of which he has certainly made pretty free use. In consequence of Drake's praise seven editions were published from 1800 to 1811. In conjunction with Sir James Bland Burges [q. v.] he wrote an epic called the ‘Exodiad’ (1808). Of some odes to Romney (1776), Johnson observed (Boswell, 12 April 1776) that they would have been thought ‘as good as odes commonly are’ if he had not put his name to them. He also took part in various controversies, defending Bentley against Bishop Lowth (1767) in a pamphlet on occasion of a remark in Lowth's assault upon Warburton, assailing Bishop Watson's theories about church preferment in 1783, and attacking Dr. Parr in a pamphlet called ‘Curtius rescued from the Gulph’ (1785). He left the care of his literary remains to his three friends, S. Rogers, ‘Conversation’ Sharp, and Sir J. B. Burges. He had four sons: Richard, who married the eldest daughter of the Earl of Buckinghamshire and died at Tobago; George, who entered the navy and was killed at the siege of Charleston; Charles, in the army, and William, in the navy, who both survived him; and three daughters: Elizabeth, who married Lord Edward Bentinck (an alliance which, according to Mrs. Delany, was likely to produce serious consequences to the health of the Duchess of Portland); Sophia, married to William Badcock; and Frances Marianne, born in Spain, who lived with her father and married a Mr. Jansen. To her he left all his property, which was sworn under 450l.
Cumberland died at Tunbridge Wells 7 May 1811, and was buried at Westminster Abbey 14 May, when an oration was pronounced after the service by his old friend Dean Vincent. It is reported in the ‘European Magazine,’ lix. 397. Two volumes of ‘posthumous dramatic works’ were printed in 1813 for the benefit of his daughter, Mrs. Jansen. A list of fifty-four pieces, with some inaccuracies, is given in the ‘Biographia Dramatica.’ Genest (viii. 394) reckons thirty-five regular plays, four operas, and a farce; besides adaptations of ‘Timon of Athens’ (Memoirs, i. 384), in 1771, and others. Six of the later plays are printed in the fifth volume of Mrs. Inchbald's ‘Modern Theatre’ (1811). An engraving of a portrait by Clover is prefixed to his ‘Memoirs.’
[Memoirs of Richard Cumberland, written by himself, 2 vols. 1807 (a very loose book, dateless, inaccurate, but with interesting accounts of Bentley, Dodington, Lord G. Germaine, and other men of note); Critical Examination of the writings of R. Cumberland, by William Mudford, 2 vols. 1812 (an impudent piece of bookmaking, founded upon the last to such an extent that an injunction was procured for the suppression of many appropriated passages); Davies's Life of Garrick (1808), ii. 289–304; Garrick Correspondence, i. 380–2, 387, 425, 427, 551–2, ii. 126, 282–286; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xi. 504.]