Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phillips, Watts

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PHILLIPS, WATTS (1825–1874), dramatist and designer, of Irish extraction, was born in November 1825, his christian name being that of his mother's family. His father is vaguely described as ‘in commerce.’ sessing some knowledge of the Elizabethan dramatists, and having obtained an intimacy with John Baldwin Buckstone [q. v.], Mrs. Nisbett [q. v.], and other actors, he conceived the idea of going on the stage, and selected Edinburgh as the scene of his début. He had shown, however, a taste for caricature, and, yielding to the solicitations of his father, became a pupil, it is said the only pupil, of George Cruikshank. After benefiting considerably by tuition, and forming acquaintance with men such as Phelps, Jerrold, Mark Lemon, the Broughs, Mayhews, &c., he went to Paris, where he rented a studio, took lessons, and sought to sell his sketches. The revolution of 1848 drove him to Brussels, but he returned to Paris, and does not seem to have definitely taken up his abode in London until 1853–4. He had become intimate with very many French artists and writers of position, and had acquired a knowledge of the French stage which afterwards stood him in good stead. For David Bogue he designed the ‘History of an Accommodation Bill’ [1850?], ‘How we commenced Housekeeping,’ ‘The Bloomers,’ ‘A Suit in Chancery,’ &c. To ‘Diogenes’ (1853–4), a not very long-lived rival of ‘Punch,’ he supplied many cartoons, writing in it under the signature ‘The Ragged Philosopher;’ and he also wrote ‘The Wild Tribes of London’ (1855), an account of London slums and their inhabitants. This, dramatised by Travers, was given at the City of London Theatre.

In 1857 Phillips's play ‘Joseph Chavigny’ was accepted by Benjamin Webster, and produced at the Adelphi in May, with Webster and Madame Celeste in the principal characters. Neither this piece nor ‘The Poor Strollers’ which followed was very popular, though the merits of both won recognition. A complete success was, however, obtained by the ‘Dead Heart,’ produced at the Adelphi on 10 Nov. 1859, with Webster, Mr. Toole, David Fisher, and Mrs. Alfred Mellon in the principal parts. Charges of indebtedness, in writing the ‘Dead Heart,’ to ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and other works were brought, with no great justice. The play held its own, and was revived by Mr. Irving at the Lyceum in 1893. Other plays, some of them even yet unproduced, were written for and purchased by Webster. Phillips wrote at this period in the ‘Daily News;’ and to ‘Town Talk’ he contributed a novel, ‘The Honour of the Family,’ afterwards issued as ‘Amos Clark’ (1862), and dramatised later. Innumerable novels by him also appeared in the ‘Family Herald’ and other periodicals. After visiting Edinburgh, where he supplied illustrations to Charles Mackay's ‘Whiskey Demon’ (1860), he returned to Paris, where he frequently resided, principally, it would seem, on account of financial difficulties.

Phillips's ‘Paper Wings,’ a comedy of city life, was played at the Adelphi by Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Wigan on 29 Feb. 1860; ‘The Story of the '45,’ with Webster, Toole, and Paul Bedford, followed at Drury Lane on 12 Nov. ‘His Last Victory,’ a comedy, was given at the St. James's on 21 June 1862. ‘Camilla's Husband,’ Olympic, on 14 Dec., is noteworthy, as the last piece in which Robson, who played Dogbriar, appeared; ‘Paul's Return,’ a domestic comedy, was seen at the Princess's on 15 Feb. 1864; ‘A Woman in Mauve’ was produced by Sothern at the Haymarket on 18 March 1865; ‘Theodora, Actress and Empress,’ came next, at the Surrey, on 9 April 1866, and was succeeded on 2 July by ‘The Huguenot Captain’ at the Princess's, with Miss Neilson as the heroine. The same actress also appeared in ‘Lost in London’ on 16 March 1867. ‘Nobody's Child’ appeared at the Surrey on 14 Sept.; ‘Maud's Peril’ at the Adelphi on 23 Oct.; ‘Land Rats and Water Rats’ was produced at the Surrey on 8 Sept. 1868; and ‘Amos Clark’ at the Queen's in October 1872. Phillips also wrote ‘The Ticket-of-Leave Man’ (not the drama of that name, but a farce played at the Adelphi), ‘On the Jury,’ Princess's (on 16 Dec. 1872), ‘Not Guilty,’ ‘The White Dove of Sorrento,’ ‘By the sad Sea Wave,’ ‘Dr. Capadose's Pill,’ ‘The Half-Brother,’ ‘Black-Mail,’ and ‘A Rolling Stone,’ mostly unacted. ‘Marlborough,’ by which he set great store, was given at Brighton on 21 Oct. 1872. His dramas show both invention and command of dialogue.

Phillips's work as illustrator had long been sacrificed to his occupation as novelist and dramatist. As a draughtsman he will be remembered by the quaint and pretty designs with which he illustrated letters sent to his friends. Many of these are reproduced in the ‘life’ written by his sister; others are still unpublished. Phillips, who was hospitable and somewhat improvident, lived at different times in Eton Terrace, Haverstock Hill, at 48 Redcliffe Road, and elsewhere. He died on 3 Dec. 1874, and is buried in Brompton cemetery. A portrait from a photograph is prefixed to his sister's ‘Memoir.’ His own caricatures of himself in the same work are tolerable likenesses. Most of his plays were printed in Lacy's ‘Acting Edition of Plays.’

[Personal knowledge; Watts Phillips, Artist and Playwright, by E. Watts Phillips; Scott and Howard's Blanchard; Dutton Cook's Nights at the Play; Era Almanack.]

J. K.