Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mathews, Charles James

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MATHEWS, CHARLES JAMES (1803–1878), actor and dramatist, son of Charles Mathews [q. v.], was born in Basnett Street, Liverpool, on 26 Dec. 1803, and christened at St. Helen's Church, York. After attending preliminary schools at Hackney and Fulham, he went to Merchant Taylors', where he boarded with the Rev. Thomas Cherry, the head-master, who is said to have taken a strong dislike to him. Mathews was then removed to a private school in the Clapham Road, kept by Richardson the lexicographer, where he formed friendships with John Mitchell Kemble and Julian Young, and was one of Richardson's assistants in copying extracts for the dictionary. On 4 May 1819 he was articled to Augustus Pugin [q. v.] as an architect, and designed the picture gallery for his father's cottage in Kentish Town, where he subsequently met Byron, Scott, Moore, Coleridge, Colman, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, the Smiths, Campbell, and other men of eminence. In company with his master he visited York, Oxford, and various country towns, executing sketches, some of which were inserted in architectural works.

A visit with Pugin to Paris, in which he saw the principal French comedians, fostered a lurking disposition towards the stage, and he made after his return his first appearance as an amateur at the Lyceum Theatre on 26 April 1822, playing, under the name of M. Perlet, Dorival, a comedian in ‘Le Comédien d'Etampes,’ a French piece subsequently adapted by him under the title of ‘He would be an Actor,’ singing a song as M. Emile of the Porte Saint-Martin Theatre, and acting in his own name as Werther in the ‘Sorrows of Werther,’ by John Poole, in which his mother took the part of Charlotte. His imitations of French actors were received with much favour. His father urged him to adopt the stage, but he liked his profession. Refusing a renewed invitation to join John Nash [q. v.], the architect, he went over in 1823 to Ireland, when his articles had expired, for the purpose of building for Lord Blessington a house at Mountjoy Forest, co. Tyrone. Very little progress, or none at all, was made with the scheme. Mathews stayed hunting, shooting, fishing, &c., and discussing details of the house, never to be built, and then accepted an invitation from his patron to accompany him to Italy. In Naples he stayed a year at the Palazzo Belvedere, the party including his host and hostess, Miss Power, the sister of Lady Blessington, and Count D'Orsay, with whom he had a misunderstanding almost leading to a duel. His imitations of Italian life and manners were the delight of a fashionable world, English and foreign. Madden, in his ‘Life of Blessington,’ describes him at the period as an admirable sketcher and a close student of his profession, ‘full of humour, vivacity, and drollery, but gentlemanlike withal, marvellously mercurial, always in motion,’ but steady and well conducted.

After a couple of years spent in Wales as architect to a Welsh iron and coal company at Coed Talwn, North Wales, where he built Hartsheath Hall, an inn, a bridge, and some cottages, he entered the employ of Nash, but kept on an office in Parliament Street as a practising architect. His leisure time he occupied in writing songs and trifling pieces for the theatre. Among the latter were ‘Pong-wong,’ ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘My Wife's Mother,’ ‘The Wolf and the Lamb,’ and ‘The Court Jesters.’ On 30 April 1827, in company with D'Egville, he started once more, on an allowance from his father, for Italy. Milan and Venice were visited, and in the former city the travellers, who exhibited some paintings, were admitted members of the academy. From Trieste they proceeded to Florence, where Mathews caught the small-pox. At the Palazzo San Clementi Lord Normanby had erected a private theatre, in which Mathews played comic characters, such as Peter in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ Launcelot Gobbo, and Falstaff in the ‘First Part of King Henry IV.’ From Rome, where Mathews suffered much from malaria, they returned to Venice, and at the close of 1830 Mathews arrived home on crutches. Five years of a desultory life, spent in visiting at the houses of noblemen and the like, followed, and included his acceptance of the post of district surveyor at Bow.

His father's failure put an end to this idle career, and on 28 Sept. 1835 he turned his theatrical abilities to account, and, in conjunction with Yates, opened the Adelphi Theatre. The first piece was ‘Mandrin,’ an adaptation by Mathews of a well-known French melodrama. The speculation failed, and Mathews retired from management. On 6 Nov. 1835 he appeared at the Olympic in his own piece, the ‘Humpbacked Lover,’ in which he played George Rattleton, and in a farce by Leman Rede, called ‘The Old and Young Stagers,’ Liston, who recited a prologue, being the old stager, and Mathews the young. His performance was fashionable, though his success was not triumphant.

On 18 July 1838, at Kensington Church, he married his manager, Madame Vestris [see Matthews, Lucia Elizabeth]. A visit to America which followed was unsuccessful. Mathews then reappeared at the Olympic in ‘Patter versus Clatter,’ to the end a favourite piece. On 30 Sept. 1839 Mathews and his wife opened Covent Garden with an elaborate revival of ‘Love's Labour's Lost,’ the company including Robert Keeley, Bartley, Meadows, Anderson, Mrs. Nisbett, and Mrs. Humby. This was a failure. ‘Love’ by Sheridan Knowles followed, introducing Miss Ellen Tree, with little better result, and Mathews found himself involved in debts from which he was unable to free himself. The ‘Beggar's Opera,’ with Harrison as Macheath and Madame Vestris as Lucy Lockett, was more successful, and the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ with Mathews as Slender and Mrs. Nisbett and Madame Vestris as the wives, proved a draw. During the period in which he held possession of Covent Garden he produced over a hundred plays, operas, interludes, farces, melodramas, and pantomimes, including ‘Hamlet,’ ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the ‘School for Scandal,’ ‘A Midsummer-Night's Dream,’ given seventy times, the ‘Rivals,’ ‘Twelfth Night,’ an alteration of the ‘Spanish Curate,’ &c. Among the novelties were Leigh Hunt's ‘Legend of Florence,’ 7 Feb. 1840, given thirteen times; the ‘Baronet,’ a comedy by Haynes Bayly, hissed from the stage; the ‘Bride of Messina,’ subsequently known as ‘John of Procida,’ by Sheridan Knowles, 19 Sept. 1840; the ‘Greek Boy,’ a musical afterpiece by Samuel Lover [q. v.]; the ‘White Milliner;’ Boucicault's ‘London Assurance,’ in which Mathews played Dazzle; ‘Old Maids,’ by Sheridan Knowles, a failure; and several farces, some of them, as ‘You can't marry your Grandmother,’ ‘He would be an Actor,’ &c., his own works. Charles Kemble accepted an engagement and reappeared. On 2 Nov. 1841 Adelaide Kemble appeared as Norma, with a success that drew on Mathews the attention of the proprietors of Covent Garden, who pressed him for arrears of rent, and so sealed his ruin. His management finished on 30 April 1842. An arrest for debt followed, and Mathews was lodged in the Queen's Bench, whence, after an act of bankruptcy, he was released, under conditions with regard to his creditors that deprived him of all chance of shaking off the burden. A flight to Paris was followed by a fresh bankruptcy.

In October 1842 Mathews and his wife were engaged for Drury Lane by Macready, but they soon quarrelled with him, and transferred their services to the Haymarket. There they appeared 14 Nov. 1842, respectively as Charles Surface and Lady Teazle. On 29 Aug. 1843 Mathews made a great hit as Giles in Planché's ‘Who's your Friend?’ and 6 Feb. 1844 a still greater success as Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used up.’ On 22 Feb. 1843 Mathews, with his wife, made his first appearance in Edinburgh, playing Mr. Charles Swiftly in ‘One Hour’ and in ‘Patter versus Clatter.’ After performing at the Surrey and at the Princess's, and in various country towns, Mathews opened the Lyceum 18 Oct. 1847 with the ‘Light Dragoons,’ the ‘Two Queens,’ and the ‘Pride of the Market,’ the company including Harley, Buckstone, Leigh Murray, Charles Selby, and Mrs. Stirling. For seven years the theatre was remuneratively conducted, without enabling Mathews to get free from debt, and a whip upon the part of some friends and a ‘bumper’ public benefit followed unavailingly a new bankruptcy. Management was resigned, and Mathews, after playing in the country, was lodged for a month, beginning 4 July 1856, as a common prisoner in Lancaster Castle.

On 8 Aug. following his wife died, and Mathews, a year later, after playing at Drury Lane, where he was acting-manager, revisited America, where he met and married his second wife, who survived him, Mrs. (Lizzie) Davenport, an actress at Burton's Theatre, New York. He played sixty nights at Burton's Theatre. In October 1858, with his wife as Lady Gay Spanker, he reappeared at the Haymarket as Dazzle in ‘London Assurance.’ He played a round of his favourite characters, including, for the first time, Paul Pry and Goldfinch in the ‘Road to Ruin.’ In 1860–1 he was again at Drury Lane, where he played Will Wander in a wild melodrama adapted by himself, and called ‘The Savannah,’ and on 25 Nov. 1861 appeared with his wife at the concert-room (then called the Bijou Theatre) in Her Majesty's Theatre in an entertainment called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Mathews at Home,’ illustrated by pictures by John O'Connor, from sketches by Mathews. ‘My Wife and I,’ and a burlesque by H. J. Byron, the ‘Sensation Fork, or the Maiden, the Maniac, and the Midnight Murderers,’ were also given. In 1863 he was again at the Haymarket, and the same year played in Paris, at the Théâtre des Variétés, in ‘Un Anglais Timide,’ a French version of ‘Cool as a Cucumber.’ This experiment was repeated in the autumn of 1865, when, at the Vaudeville, he played in ‘L'Homme Blasé’ (‘Used up’). Both engagements were successful, but were not renewed, though Mathews in July 1867 played ‘Un Anglais Timide’ at the St. James's, for the benefit of Ravel, and gave ‘Cool as a Cucumber’ the same night at the Olympic. Between these performances Mathews had acted at the St. James's in ‘Woodcock's Little Game’ and in ‘Adventures of a Love-Letter,’ his own adaptation of M. Sardou's ‘Pattes de Mouche.’ A scheme for a journey round the world led to a benefit at Covent Garden, 4 Jan. 1870, in which, in scenes from various plays, the principal actors of the day took part, and a dinner at Willis's Rooms on the 10th, over which Mathews, contrary to custom, presided. Mathews himself played, on the 4th, his favourite character of Puff in the second act of the ‘Critic,’ Mrs. Mathews appearing as Tilburina.

On 9 April 1870 he made his first appearance at the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, in ‘Patter versus Clatter’ and ‘Married for Money.’ Various parts were played, and Ballarat, Sydney, and Adelaide were visited, the Australian trip ending 31 Jan. 1871, when he set sail for Auckland. He gave there a performance of ‘Used up’ and ‘Cool as a Cucumber’ at 11 A.M. on 7 Feb., and sailed three hours later for Honolulu, where he acted for one night. On the 12th he arrived at San Francisco, where he performed, then proceeded to New York, and fulfilled a six weeks' engagement. A tour in the United States and Canada followed, and on 1 June 1872 he took, at Wallack's Theatre, New York, as Sir Simon Simple in H. J. Byron's ‘Not such a Fool as he looks,’ his farewell of America. On 7 Oct. 1872 he appeared at the Gaiety Theatre, London, in ‘A Curious Case’ and the ‘Critic.’ A second engagement at the same house began 26 May 1873, and a third, 29 Sept. of the same year. In 1874 he was again at the Gaiety, and 13 Sept. 1875 produced there his own adaptation, ‘My Awful Dad’ (‘Un Père Prodigue’). This was his last new part. The periods between these performances had been spent in the country. In November 1875 he went to India, and played at Calcutta before the Prince of Wales. In 1876 he was again at the Gaiety, and in 1877 at the Opera Comique, where, in the ‘Liar’ and the ‘Cosy Couple,’ he reappeared 2 June 1877. In 1878 he started on a country tour with a company under the management of Miss Sarah Thorne. On 8 June he made his last appearance, playing at Stalybridge in ‘My Awful Dad.’ He died 24 June, at the Queen's Hotel in Manchester. His body was removed to 59 Belgrave Road, S.W., his last London residence, and was on the 29th buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Mathews played some 240 characters, very many of them in his own pieces. His most conspicuous successes were obtained in light comedy and farce. Passion and pathos seemed wholly alien from his nature, and even on those occasions when he obtained the most flattering homage an actor can receive and found himself compelled to speak words of gratitude, he remained ‘cool as a cucumber,’ conveying sometimes the idea that the seriousness of those around him perplexed as much as it pleased him. The motto of the dial was held to apply to him in acting—‘Horas non numero nisi serenas.’ He was, within limits, an admirable comedian. In his early days he was a model of grace, brightness, and elegance. George H. Lewes tells how the youth of the day were wont to worship him, and says of his Affable Hawk that its artistic merit was so great ‘that it almost became an offence against morality, by investing a swindler with irresistible charms, and making the very audacity of deceit a source of pleasurable sympathy.’ Lewes saw M. Got in the same part, and says that he prefers Mathews. Lewes owns, however, that Mathews was ‘utterly powerless in the manifestation of all the powerful emotions: rage, scorn, pathos, dignity, vindictiveness, tenderness, and wild mirth are all beyond his means. He cannot even laugh with animal heartiness. He sparkles; he never explodes.’ Mathews had, however, airiness, finesse, aplomb, and, in spite of an occasional tendency to jauntiness, repose and good breeding, which are rare on the English stage, and he had powers of observation and gifts of mimicry. His popularity was indescribable, and at times embarrassing. His frequent imprisonment and the class of parts he played gained him a character he did not wholly deserve of ‘a gay dog.’ He was not at all the reckless character popularly supposed, was the least possible of a gourmet, and was a little shy in the presence of strangers. His greatest parts were Sir Charles Coldstream in ‘Used up,’ Affable Hawk in ‘A Game of Speculation,’ Lavater, the hero of ‘Cool as a Cucumber,’ Puff in the ‘Critic,’ and the Chorus in Planché's ‘Golden Fleece.’

Of Mathews's plays, mostly adaptations, no full catalogue seems to be in existence. A list of his own pieces and of those in which he had appeared was contributed to the ‘London Figaro,’ whence it was, with additions, transferred as an appendix to Mr. Dickens's ‘Life of Mathews.’ Such of the plays as are printed are included in Lacy's ‘Acting Edition’ and the collections of Cumberland, Webster, &c. The British Museum collection is meagre. In the ‘Chain of Events,’ a drama in eight acts, Mathews collaborated with Slingsby Lawrence (LEWES, Actors). With the exception of this piece and the ‘Savannah,’ a four-act melodrama, in which he was seen at Drury Lane, his plays were generally in three acts or less. His three-act pieces included ‘Black Domino,’ ‘Dead for a Ducat,’ ‘Married for Money,’ ‘Milliner to the King,’ ‘Match for a King,’ and ‘Soft Sex.’ In two acts are ‘Aggravating Sam,’ ‘Bachelor of Arts,’ ‘Carlo,’ ‘Court Jester,’ ‘Impudent Puppy,’ ‘Kill him again,’ ‘My Awful Dad,’ ‘My Wife's Mother,’ ‘Pong-wong,’ ‘Serve him Right,’ ‘Striking Likeness,’ ‘Take that Girl away,’ ‘Who killed Cock Robin?’ In one act he wrote ‘Cousin German,’ ‘Cherry and Blue,’ ‘Dowager,’ ‘He would be an Actor,’ ‘Humpbacked Lover,’ ‘His Excellency,’ ‘Little Toddlekins,’ ‘Mathews & Co.,’ ‘Methinks I see my Father,’ ‘My Mother's Maid,’ ‘My Usual Luck,’ ‘Nothing to Wear,’ ‘Patter v. Clatter,’ ‘Paul Pry Married and Settled,’ ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ ‘Ringdoves,’ ‘Too Kind by Half,’ ‘Two in the Morning,’ ‘Wolf and the Lamb,’ ‘Why did you Die?’ ‘You're Another.’ Many of these are trifles, intended to serve a temporary purpose, and more than one is now forgotten. Into all the pieces in which he played he put sometimes so much that it is difficult to say where he is to be credited with collaboration. He translated ‘Cool as a Cucumber’ into French as ‘Un Anglais Timide,’ Paris, 1864, 12mo. One or two of his pieces were translated into German. He also wrote a ‘Lettre aux Auteurs Dramatiques de la France,’ London, 1852. A translation of this was published the same year. The burlesques which were a feature in the Lyceum management are dealt with in the biography of his wife. A complete gallery of brilliant sketches of Mathews in various characters is exhibited in the Garrick Club. The costumes are innumerable, but it is not especially difficult to trace the same man under each disguise.

[The Life of Charles James Mathews, chiefly autobiographical, with selections from his correspondence and letters, edited by Charles Dickens, 2 vols. 1879, is the principal authority. His early life is depicted in the Memoirs of Charles Mathews by Anne Mathews. Personal information, backed up by files of the Literary Gazette, the Athenæum, and the Sunday Times, has been used. See also Mr. Clark Russell's Representative Actors, G. H. Lewes's Actors and Acting, the New Monthly Magazine, and Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage.]

J. K.