Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oxberry, William (1784-1824)

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OXBERRY, WILLIAM (1784–1824), actor, the son of an auctioneer, was born on 18 Dec. 1784 in Moorfields, facing Bedlam. According to a memoir supplied to Oxberry's 'Dramatic Biography,' he was well educated, and placed at the age of fourteen under the care of Stubbs, declared to be 'an artist of eminence.' Showing no aptitude for design, he was transferred to a bookseller's shop kept by one Ribeau, and thence to the office in Tottenham Court Road of a printer named Seale, an amateur actor. Here his disposition for the stage was fostered, and he is depicted studying Douglas in one corner, while in another his master was rehearsing Glenalvon. At a stable near Queen Anne Street, and subsequently at the theatre in Berwick Street, he took parts such as Hassan in the 'Castle Spectre' and Rosse in 'Macbeth.' After he had made a public appearance in a malthouse in Edgware his indentures were in 1802 cancelled, and he appeared under Jerrold, at the Watford theatre, as Antonio in the 'Merchant of Venice.' A performance of Dan in 'John Bull' revealed some talent in low comedy, and, after appearing at Sheerness, and playing Richard III at Godalming, he joined, as low comedian, the company of the Worthing, Hythe, and Southend theatres, under Trotter. For some time subsequently he made an occasional appearance in Shylock, Hassan, and other characters. More frequently he was seen in parts such as Lope Tocho in the 'Mountaineers,' and Old Frost in the 'Irishman in London.' In 1806 he married, at Southend, a young actress playing subordinate parts in the company, named Catherine Elizabeth Hewitt. In the following year he attracted the attention of Henry Siddons [q. v.], by whom he was recommended to the Kemble management at Covent Garden . At a salary rising from 5l. to 8l. a week, he made his first appearance on 7 Nov. 1807 as Robin Roughhead in 'Fortune's Frolic.' His performance was 'cold, constrained, and ineffective.’ The ‘Monthly Mirror,’ which he subsequently edited, described him as ‘a wholesale dealer in Mr. Liston's quality,’ and predicted that the public would not get used to Mr. Oxberry's face, for, ‘though he displayed some knowledge of the art of a player, it was not sufficient’ to render him ‘a desirable acquisition to the London boards’ (new ser., ii. 360). On 14 Nov. he played Lord Duberly, alias Daniel Dowlas, in the ‘Heir at Law,’ a part he substituted for that of Zekiel Homespun. After this he disappears from the bills. At the close of the season he was released from his engagement, and went to Glasgow, where he made a success as Sir David Daw in the ‘Wheel of Fortune.’ His benefit brought him 70l. 0s. 1d., and the name of Sir David clung to him in Scotland. In Aberdeen he accepted, with some reluctance, the character of Michael Ducas in ‘Adalgitha,’ with the result that he was accepted as a tragedian, and played Glenalvon, Macbeth, Shylock, and Richard. After returning to Glasgow he accepted from Raymond an engagement in London at the Lyceum, then confined to operatic performances, and known as the English Opera House, and appeared in a piece by Henry Siddons, called ‘The Russian Impostor,’ in which he made a success. He was then engaged for the Lyceum by Arnold, at a salary rising from 7l. to 9l. An engagement at Drury Lane followed, and he played for the first time with the burnt-out company at the Lyceum, 25 Sept. 1809, as the Lay Brother in the ‘Duenna.’ He was, 20 Nov., the original Cuffee, a black servant, in ‘Not at Home,’ by R. C. Dallas; and played, 24 Feb. 1810, John Lump in the ‘Review.’ The following season he was the original Laglast in Allingham's ‘Transformation, or Love and Law;’ Daniel, a country fellow, in Masters's ‘Lost and Found;’ Fabian in Dimond's ‘Peasant Boy;’ Zedekiah in Arnold's ‘Americans;’ and Timothy Scamp in Leigh's ‘Where to find a Friend;’ and in 1811–12, Sir Charles Canvas in Moore's ‘M.P., or the Blue-Stocking;’ Dick in ‘Right or Wrong;’ Gregory in Kenney's ‘Turn out!’; Abrahamides in ‘Quadruped,’ an alteration of the ‘Tailors;’ and Petro in Arnold's ‘Devil's Bridge.’ After the opening of the new Drury Lane theatre his name is not traceable until the close of the season, when he played, for Miss Kelly's benefit, Lord Listless in ‘Rich and Poor,’ and Gregory in an act of ‘Killing no Murder.’ At Drury Lane he remained until the close of the season of 1819–20, playing parts such as John Grouse in the ‘School for Prejudice;’ Graccho in Massinger's ‘Duke of Milan;’ Master Stephen in Jonson's ‘Every Man in his Humour;’ Moses in the ‘School for Scandal;’ Don Ferolo in the ‘Critic;’ Slender in the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor;’ Dominique in ‘Deaf and Dumb;’ Simon Pure in ‘A Bold Stroke for a Wife;’ Bullock in the ‘Recruiting Officer;’ and Job Thornberry in ‘John Bull.’ He ‘created’ many original parts in plays, dramatic or musical, by Arnold, Dibdin, Kenney, Soane, and others. Among the most noteworthy were Sapling in ‘First Impressions,’ by Horace Smith; Isaac in the ‘Maid and the Magpie;’ Friar Francis in ‘Flodden Field,’ an adaptation of Scott's ‘Marmion;’ Humphrey Gull in Soane's ‘Dwarf of Naples;’ Jonathan Curry in Moncrieff's ‘Wanted a Wife;’ Dominie Samson in ‘Guy Mannering;’ and Friar Tuck in the ‘Hebrew,’ Soane's adaptation of the ‘Talisman.’ Upon Elliston reducing the salaries at Drury Lane, he refused an offer of 12l. a week, and ‘starred’ at the minor theatres, the Surrey, the East London, and Sadler's Wells.

Oxberry was for a long time manager of the Olympic, but the experiment collapsed. In December 1821 he took the Craven's Head chophouse at Drury Lane, a house of literary and theatrical resort. Oxberry told his guests, ‘We vocalise on a Friday, conversationise on a Sunday, and chopise every day.’ Here he died 9 June 1824, of an apoplectic fit, due in part to free living; according to another account, of delirium tremens. His remains are in a vault in St. Clement Danes Church, Strand.

Oxberry was a useful comic actor, second only to John Emery [q. v.] in Tyke, John Lump, Robin Roughhead, &c. His Slender, Sir David Daw, and Petro are held to have been unsurpassed. His brogue was not very effective, and in many parts he failed to rise above mediocrity.

Oxberry was author of: 1. ‘The Theatrical Banquet, or the Actor's Budget,’ 1809, 2 vols. 18mo. 2. ‘The Encyclopædia of Anecdote,’ 1812, 18mo. 3. ‘The History of Pugilism, and Memoirs of Persons who have distinguished themselves in that Science,’ 1814, 12mo. 4. ‘The Flowers of Literature,’ 2nd edit., London, 1824, 4 vols., 12mo. 5. ‘Oxberry's Anecdotes of the Stage,’ London, 1827, 12mo. He also edited ‘The New English Drama,’ consisting of 113 plays, with prefatory remarks, &c., 22 vols. 1818–24; and wrote ‘The Actress of All Work,’ played in Bath on 8 May 1819, in which Mrs. Elizabeth Rebecca Edwin [q.v.] assumed half a dozen different characters; converted ‘He would be a Soldier’ of Pilon into ‘The High Road to Success,’ and produced it at the Olympic, presumably during the period of his ill-starred management. He is responsible for an adaptation of Scott's ‘Marmion,’ played at an outlying theatre. For a short period he edited the ‘Monthly Mirror,’ to which, and to the ‘Cabinet,’ he contributed fugitive pieces. Oxberry was over five feet nine inches in height, and in his later years obese, dark in complexion, and with a small and piercing eye. Passionate and unconciliatory, he was yet held, thanks to his powers of mimicry and his readiness to drink, a popular man and a boon companion. A portrait of Oxberry by Dewilde, in the Garrick Club, shows him as Petro in Arnold's ‘Devil's Bridge.’ An engraving of him as Leo Luminati in ‘Oh! this Love’ is in the ‘Theatrical Inquisitor’ (vol. i.); and a second, presenting him in private dress, is in Oxberry's ‘Dramatic Biography,’ a work projected by Oxberry, and edited after his death by his widow; it was published in parts, beginning 1 Jan. 1825. After the completion of the first volume in April 1825 the issue was continued in volumes, and was completed in five vols. in 1826 (Advertisement to the Dramatic Biography; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. i. 375, 418, 457). Among other occupations, Oxberry was a printer and a publisher.

[The best account of Oxberry is that given in Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, vol. i. 1825. Further particulars are supplied in the Theatrical Inquisitor for Nov. 1812. Lives appear in the Georgian Era and in the Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors, 1816.]

J. K.