Samuel De Wilde, 1751 - 1832
Portrait of Richard Butler Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816)
Portrait of Richard Butler Brinsley Sheridan
Oil on Canvas
71 x 47 cm. (28 x 18.1/2in.)


Sheridan, Richard Brinsley (1751–1816), playwright and politician, was born in September or October 1751 at 12 Dorset Street, Dublin, the third child of Thomas Sheridan (1719?–1788), actor and orthoepist, and his wife, Frances Sheridan, née Chamberlaine (1724–1766), novelist and playwright. He was baptized at St Mary's Church on 4 November, the register listing him as ‘Thos. Brinsley’, Thomas also being the Christian name of his grandfather Dr Thomas Sheridan (1687–1738). His parents, however, called him Richard. Their eldest child, Thomas, died in 1750, the year when their second son, Charles Francis (d. 1806), was born.

Early years and upbringing

When his parents went to London in 1754, after a riot in the Smock Alley Theatre (then managed by Thomas Sheridan), Richard and his elder sister Alicia, later Alicia Le Fanu (1753–1817) [see under Le Fanu, Philip], stayed in Dublin, looked after by a nurse. The parents were back in Dublin from 1756 to 1758 and Thomas then began his son's education, but when they left for London again Richard and his sister lived with Samuel Whyte, attending his famous school in Grafton Street. Richard had two years with his family when he and Alicia joined them in Windsor in 1759; he never returned to Ireland.

In 1759 Frances Sheridan taught both her sons, concentrating largely on English. In 1762 Richard was sent to Harrow School where he remained until 1767 or 1768, his parents having decided ‘to accustom him early to shift for himself’. Though befriended by a member of the staff, Dr Samuel Parr, he was lonely, missing his parents, who had moved to France to escape creditors. His mother died there when he was fourteen; he was not reunited with the family in London until he was seventeen.

In London, Lewis Ker, a former physician, tutored Sheridan in Latin and mathematics, Domenick Angelo teaching him fencing and horsemanship. Angelo's son became his friend: both boys were also educated by Richard's father, who moved the family to Bath in 1770, teaching elocution and giving his Attic entertainments there.

Richard enjoyed the social life of Bath. He corresponded with Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a friend at Harrow, now at Oxford; they wrote a farce, Ixion, later called Jupiter, offered in vain to Garrick and Foote. Their verse translation of the Love Epistles of Aristaenetus, published in 1771, was reissued in 1773. They planned a literary periodical to be calledHernan's Miscellany, of which Sheridan wrote a draft first issue. Two of Sheridan's poems were published in the Bath Chronicle, ‘The Ridotto of Bath’, a skit, and ‘Cleo's Protest, or, The Picture Varnished’, addressed to a Bath beauty; both poems were reprinted in pamphlet form.

Halhed's letters praised Elizabeth Ann (Eliza)Linley (1754–1792), who had sung superbly in oratorios at Oxford. Strikingly beautiful, with a magnificent soprano voice, she was painted at least four times by Gainsborough, and Reynolds described one of his two paintings of her as St Cecilia as the best he had ever painted. She was the daughter of Thomas Linley, a musician whom Thomas Sheridan first met in 1764 and had hired to take part in his Attic entertainments. By 1771 Eliza had become engaged to Walter Long, a Wiltshire squire many years her senior who gave her father £3000 for breach of promise when she told him she could never be happy as his wife. Ensuing gossip prompted Samuel Foote's satiric play The Maid of Bath. Pursued by a Captain Mathews, a married man, she confided her anxieties about this situation to Sheridan's sisters. Sheridan's brother Charles was in love with her but withdrew from Bath for fear of displeasing his father, then acting in Dublin, who thought the Linleys socially inferior.

Romantic hero

Eliza decided to withdraw from public life as a singer and retire to a convent in France. Richard offered to conduct her there, and, borrowing money, organized their journey to Lille, proposing to her en route. They were married by a Roman Catholic priest at a village near Calais but did not consummate the marriage, Eliza taking a place in a convent in Lille; her father, having followed them, insisted she should return to Bath and fulfil some singing engagements. Mathews had attacked Sheridan as ‘a L[iar] and a treacherous S[coundrel]’ in a letter in the Bath Chronicle but when Sheridan, who had returned from France with the Linleys, called on him in London he tried to blame Richard's brother Charles. Back in Bath, Sheridan read the letter, dashed to London, defeated Mathews in a duel and compelled him to retract and apologize in the Bath Chronicle. A second duel was fought on 2 July, Mathews having lied about the details of his defeat in the first one; this time Sheridan was seriously wounded.

Both fathers strongly objected to Richard and Eliza marrying, Linley not wanting Eliza to give up her very successful musical career and thinking Sheridan's extravagance likely to ruin her, Thomas Sheridan sending Richard to friends, Mr and Mrs Parker, at Waltham Abbey in Essex to study law before entering the Middle Temple, hoping to keep him out of further quarrels with Mathews and from seeing Eliza. At first Richard kept his promise not to communicate with her, and studied a wide range of subjects, aiming to fit himself for public life. She wrote to him, however, and he managed to meet her secretly; the upshot was that they were married on 13 April 1773, Thomas Linley, apparently acquiescent, attending the service. But Thomas Sheridan now considered he had no son but Charles—whom he had always favoured.

After a blissful time at East Burnham, the young couple bought a London house, in Orchard Street, using some of Eliza's £1000 dowry, taken out of the £3000 paid to her father by Walter Long. After fulfilling her two engagements Eliza never sang professionally again: Sheridan thought it unbecoming for a gentleman's wife to sing for money and she disliked performing in public. But what were they to live on?

Author and theatre proprietor

Sheridan, who had given up his studies at the Middle Temple, thought writing the answer, informing his father-in-law in November 1774 that there would be a comedy of his in rehearsal at Covent Garden within a few days. The Rivals was withdrawn after the first night, 17 January 1775, but Sheridan rewrote it in ten days and its popularity has lasted ever since. Set in Bath, it owes not a little to his mother's novel Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761; 1767) and her unfinished play A Journey to Bath, in which her Mrs Tryfort anticipated her son's Mrs Malaprop. The play possesses the originality of true comedy, though it contains many deliberate echoes of other plays. There are many references to and caricaturings of events in Sheridan's own life, Sir Anthony Absolute, mirroring Congreve's Sir Sampson Legend in Love for Love, being a father as domineering and opinionated as Sheridan's own. Sir Lucius O'Trigger, toned down in the rewritten version of the play, became more than the blustering stage Irishman, originally acted by John Lee, being now better portrayed by Laurence Clinch, for whose benefit performance Sheridan wrote, reputedly in two days, St Patrick's Day, an amusing farce reflecting not only his interest in the American War of Independence but pride in his Irish ancestry. He liked to give the impression of dashing off his writing, Thomas Moore alleging in his discussion of The School for Scandal that Sheridan's policy was to gain credit for excessive indolence and carelessness, while few people of such brilliant talent ‘ever used more art and circumspection’ (Moore, 1.241, 192, 209).

The Duenna, a highly successful comic opera, with songs and music provided by the Linley family, which ran for seventy-four nights, opened on 2 November 1774—four days after the birth of a son, Thomas. Two daughters elope, outwitting tyrannical fathers; a duenna outsmarts her master by marrying the rich suitor chosen for his daughter: here is the intricate plotting of classic comedy, with appearances exposed by reality.

Sheridan was already negotiating to buy David Garrick's controlling share of the Drury Lane Theatre for £35,000. His father-in-law and Dr James Ford, a fashionable ‘man-midwife’, joined him in the complicated financing, Sheridan's £10,000 share obtained largely by borrowing £7700 and raising £1000 by mortgages. The other share, owned by Willoughby Lacy, was sold to Sheridan in 1778 for 30,000 guineas and an annuity of £1000 per year. On 21 September 1776 Drury Lane opened under Sheridan's management. He staged three revised versions of Congreve's comedies and rewrote Vanbrugh's The Relapse as A Trip to Scarborough (staged on 24 February 1777), giving it ‘a little wholesome pruning’ (R. B. Sheridan, A Trip to Scarborough, II.i). Such Restoration comedies might have seemed too coarse for current taste, but Sheridan was preparing for his own highly successful The School for Scandal, with its contrast between the Surface brothers, its exposure of the moralizing Joseph's hypocrisy and the generosity of Charles the ‘wild spark’. While mocking excessive sensibility, the play, first staged on 8 May 1777, drew genuine feeling in Lady Teazle's transformation, and reflected current political issues in its reference to the Annuity Act, which necessitated Sheridan's persuading the lord chamberlain that the money-lending scene was general satire, not an attack on Benjamin Hopkins, a respectable rival of the raffish politician John Wilkes for a public office.

The Camp, satirizing military manners and current events, staged on 30 October 1779, ran for fifty-seven performances. Sheridan followed it with The Critic, exposing dramatic conventions and clichés, in effect teasing the audience into thinking about the issues involved while mocking contemporary journalism and well-known individuals.

The social man and the politician

The Sheridans' social life expanded rapidly; they had given private concerts, and, as Fanny Burney's diary records in April 1773, ‘the whole town seems distracted about her. Every other diversion is forsaken. Miss Linley alone engrosses all eyes, ears, hearts’ (The Early Diary of Frances Burney, ed. A. Raine Ellis, 1907, 1.210). The youthful playwright and manager of Drury Lane conversed wittily and had a charm of manner complementing his wife's attractiveness. They were accepted in aristocratic circles, welcome guests at Devonshire House and Chatsworth, at Holland House, Burlington House, and Carlton House.

Sheridan particularly admired Charles James Fox for desiring political reform and opposing the American war. They became friends, Fox thinking Sheridan the wittiest of men. Proposed by Dr Johnson in 1777, Sheridan became a member of the Literary Club, where he met Edmund Burke. The next year he was elected to Brooks's Club.

Sheridan was now living beyond his means, many of his new friends and acquaintances setting him examples of extravagance supported by vast debts. Gaming and drinking were part of their social life, which condoned sexual irregularity. Sheridan, though happy to make wagers, did not gamble. Optimistic about his ability to repay debts, he spent freely, frequently moving residences and entertaining lavishly.

Sheridan had always wanted a public career. He began it by drawing up a manifesto for the Westminster committee's campaign to promote electoral reform. The next step was to obtain a seat in parliament, but depending on a patron or buying a borough were not possible methods for him; besides, he was determined to be independent; he was elected in Stafford in 1780. Though aided by the duchess of Devonshire and her mother, Lady Spencer, his election depended on the votes of the burgesses, an expensive business, costing him over £1000, probably largely borrowed against his share in Drury Lane. Sheridan envisaged achieving distinction and fortune as an MP and prepared his early speeches carefully, gradually consolidating a reputation for eloquence and wit. He supported the whig opposition, concerning himself frequently with the encroachment of the state on public liberties. When the Rockingham administration came to power in March 1782 it had a liberal, reformist policy, Fox becoming secretary of state for the northern department (foreign affairs) and Sheridan under-secretary.

In May 1782 this Westminster government repealed the Declaratory Act (6 Geo. I c. 5; which asserted the right of the king and Westminster parliament to make laws binding the kingdom of Ireland), Poynings' law, and the Mutiny Act, Henry Grattan having carried a motion for legislative independence in the Dublin parliament in accord with the resolutions of the Irish Volunteers, about which Sheridan had been informed by his brother Charles, now an MP in the Irish parliament. Sheridan, however, thought that Shelburne, secretary of state for the southern department (which included Irish affairs) was conceding Irish legislative independence rather than regarding it as a right. After Rockingham's death in June 1782, Shelburne was asked by the king to replace him, and Fox, at odds with Shelburne, withdrew from the government, Sheridan and Burke following him. When Shelburne lost office in February 1783 Fox, despite Sheridan's powerful pleas against this, allied himself with Lord North. Sheridan was appointed by them as joint secretary to the Treasury with Burke's son Richard.

Burke, influenced against Warren Hastings, then governor general of Bengal, by Sir Philip Francis, persuaded Fox to introduce bills for governmental supervision of the East India Company. Sheridan supported these bills which were passed in the Commons but rejected in the Lords, largely through the influence of the king, who then dismissed the Fox–North administration, requesting Pitt to form a government.

By 1782 Sheridan was concentrating on politics, leaving the management of Drury Lane largely to his father-in-law, ably aided by Eliza, for over six years. His antipathy to excessive monarchical authority, his increasing dislike of Pitt for representing it—and for having taunted him, in February 1783, for being a dramatist and theatre proprietor, something rebutted by Sheridan's dubbing Pitt, in a phrase from Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, the ‘Angry Boy’—and his own sympathy for an India under the East India Company's autocratic rule led him, despite the break between himself and Nathaniel Halhed, one of Hastings's lieutenants in India, to attack Hastings after he resigned and returned from India in 1784.

Sheridan, having cross-examined the resident of Lucknow skilfully beforehand in the debate on 7 February 1787, supported the impeachment of Hastings for robbing the begums of Oudh of their treasure and allowing the seizure of their lands. In this five-and-a-half-hour speech, Sheridan showed a masterly ability to handle minute legal detail as well as making general statements which appealed to the sensibility of his audience, the motion being passed by 175 votes to 68. His oratorical powers were further demonstrated at Hastings's trial, begun on 3 June 1789, in a carefully prepared speech lasting over several days and ending with the famous phrase, uttered as he swooned dramatically into Burke's arms, ‘My Lords, I have done’.

Personal relationships

Sheridan became more directly embroiled with Pitt in February 1785 when Pitt's Irish resolutions for a commercial union, put to the Irish parliament, seemed a denial of Irish independence. He opposed Pitt's plans rigorously in a speech of 20 May which marked his increasing political interest in Irish affairs.

Further differences arose through Sheridan's friendship with the prince of Wales who, opposed to his father in most matters, sympathized with the aims of Fox's party, hoping the Foxites would grant him a handsome income if they came to power. Sheridan, now a habitué of Carlton House, grew closer to the prince after his secret marriage in December 1785 to Mrs Fitzherbert, a Roman Catholic, an action illegal under the Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act, glossing over the situation skilfully in the house. His influence increased when the king, suffering from porphyria in October 1788, was thought to have become mad. In the ensuing political crisis—the prince would become regent if the king were declared insane, king if his father died—Sheridan acted as a link between the prince and the politicians, Fox being in Italy. He gave the prince subtle independent advice, drafted his diplomatic reply to Pitt's offer of a conditional regency, and manipulated the press in the manner of some contemporary prime minister's spokesman. The whig leaders Fox and Lord Grey, jealous of Sheridan's position, wasted energy intriguing about the potential allocation of ministries. The prince understood Sheridan's proud nature, his concept of honour, his Anglo-Irish insistence on the importance of being a gentleman, accentuated by awareness of his descent from the O'Sioradain chiefs of co. Cavan, his conscientious scruples, his willingness to grant but not receive favours for himself.

Thomas Sheridan, acting Cato in Covent Garden, had deeply upset Richard by refusing to see him, although he did attend a performance of The Rivals with his daughters in 1775. They were reconciled later but he was offended by the terms Richard offered him in 1776 to manage Drury Lane. One condition was that he stop acting, Richard not wanting to be known as a player's son. Thomas nevertheless accepted the position in 1778 and resigned in 1780 in the expectation of being reappointed. When he was not he refused to speak to his son until his last illness when Richard sat by his bedside for his last four days at Margate, where he died on 14 August 1788.

Sheridan's relationships with other women drove Eliza to contemplate separating from him. The romantic marriage had become a mere formality. Sheridan, smitten by his ‘Amoret’, a whig hostess, Frances Anne Crewe, then married for two years to John Crewe, had sent her ‘A portrait’ as the dedication of The School for Scandal, probably the last copy he revised. His wife seems to have tolerated this affair, which lasted until the middle or late seventeen-eighties, she and Mrs Crewe remaining on friendly terms. But Sheridan's passionate relationship with the duchess of Devonshire's sister Lady Harriet Duncannon (Lady Bessborough after 1793 when her husband Viscount Duncannon succeeded to the earldom) deeply wounded Eliza. In 1789 Harriet's husband decided to divorce her and sue Sheridan but was persuaded out of this by the duke of Devonshire. While Fox was urging Eliza to forgive Sheridan, the prince of Wales was attempting to persuade his brother the duke of Clarence, hopelessly in love with her, not to pester Eliza with his attentions. An absurd situation ensued at Crewe House where Sheridan, pleading for his wife's forgiveness, was discovered locked in a bedchamber with the governess. Eliza was furious but finally agreed to take Sheridan back.

In 1791 Eliza and Lord Edward Fitzgerald became lovers. He was the father of her daughter Mary, born in spring 1792. With her pregnancy Eliza's tendency to tuberculosis returned and she died on 28 June, Sheridan, grief-stricken and guilty, attending her to the last. The daughter was treated as a Sheridan, Sheridan and Fitzgerald remaining on friendly terms, both seeing Eliza reborn in Mary, who died in October 1793. The lives of the two men were further entangled when Madame de Genlis and Pamela (reputedly the daughter of the duc d'Orléans, actually Nancy Sims, an English orphan) came to England. They were Sheridan's guests at Isleworth. Both he and Fitzgerald thought Pamela the image of Eliza, and Sheridan seems to have proposed to her but characteristically did not ensure his letters reached her. After Madame de Genlis and Pamela had returned to France, Fitzgerald married Pamela at Tournai and they moved to Ireland where Fitzgerald became active in the United Irishmen.

Sheridan had been involved in the rebuilding of the Drury Lane Theatre from 1791 to 1794; he intended to finance it by £150,000 of debentures but the cost, which overran the estimates, and the need to purchase a third dormant patent meant £90,000 more had to be found. He became involved in a morass of mortgages, the trustees increasingly impatient with his failure to meet financial liabilities. The strains involved made him aware of his loneliness at forty-three. On 27 April 1795 he married again. His second wife was Hester Jane Ogle (whom he called Hecca), the lively nineteen-year-old daughter of the dean of Winchester. Her father insisted on a trust being established for her, made up of her £5000 dowry and Sheridan's £15,000.

They had a son, Charles, born on 14 January 1796, and bought Polesden Lacey, a manor house with 340 acres, in Surrey, Sheridan raising the money by selling 3000 renters' shares in the theatre. He proved a generous landlord to his tenants. Careless rather than grossly extravagant, he would leave letters unopened, plays unread, and bills, often for more than was owed, unpaid—though they did get paid, he told Hecca in reply to her complaints of neglect and indifference to her well-being, which he blamed on his sanguine temper, that his confidence could meet any difficulties. There were many: his chaotic financial arrangements led to borrowing from his associates in the theatre, John Grubb and Thomas Shaw in particular, and urgent letters to Richard Peake, the under-treasurer of Drury Lane, frequently requested small advances, sometimes against his subsistence money of 5 guineas a day (his annual salary in 1807 was £2000). Peake also received many letters covering the administrative expenses of the theatre as well as the salaries of actors and actresses, often in arrears. Letters to Hecca, generally energetic accounts of buoyant activity, convey his regard for her—he can assure her he loves her ‘more and more dearly if possible every hour’ (letter of 6(?) Oct 1796 from the House of Commons, Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, 2.53)—as well as expressing concern for his children and telling her of his own occasional fits of low spirits and melancholia.

The complexities of politics

Sheridan, like Fox a supporter of the French Revolution after the fall of the Bastille, argued strongly against the execution of Louis XVI. James Gillray's satirical etching ‘The hopes of the party prior to July 14th—from such Crown and Anchor-dreams, good Lord deliver us’ refers to the radicals' annual celebration of the taking of the Bastille in 1791—which neither Sheridan nor Fox attended. In it Gillray shows Fox about to chop off King George's head, who is uttering ‘What! What! What! What's the matter now’ while Sheridan holds him down by the ears. Fox deferred to the views of Burke, then writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke attacked the innovations and abuses of the revolution in a speech of February 1790, accusing some of the whigs of forming cabals to alter the British constitution, an allegation Fox denied, while Sheridan, on whom Burke was casting suspicion, taunted Burke in return, comparing the revolution to the English one of 1688, saying what Burke deplored in France was the result of despotism. This provoked Burke's memorable reply that he and Sheridan were now separated in politics.

Sheridan now sought to ally the whigs' desire for political reform with popular radicalism. With several whig leaders he joined the committee of the Society of Friends of the People which opposed Burke's ideas. It made contact with the Society of United Irishmen, founded in 1791 to unite all religions in Ireland, to make it an independent and democratic country, an aim with which Sheridan strongly sympathized.

After Pitt declared war on France, on 12 February 1793, Sheridan's personal position became hazardous when the increasingly reactionary government instituted a series of prosecutions for treason. But he did not cease to be independent, strongly supporting Thomas Walker, president of the Manchester Constitutional Society, when he was tried—and acquitted. After visiting them in prison, he complained strongly about the treatment of the Scottish radicals Thomas Muir and the Revd Thomas Palmer. And he was in contact with the very radical London Corresponding Society.

After the arrests in April 1794 of the Revd William Jackson in Dublin (he had been sent from Paris to test likely support in England for a French invasion) and of William Stone in London (probably also involved in espionage) in May, Sheridan, who had been visited by Stone, was questioned by the secretary of state's office on 8 May and by the privy council the next day. Pitt was obviously hoping to incriminate him, but Sheridan must have regarded Stone as an agent provocateur in this period of increasing repression, with the government using informers and spies, and opening letters. Sheridan called it ‘a system calculated to engender suspicion and to beget hostility … where it does not find suspicion it creates it’. Stone was acquitted, but Jackson, found guilty of high treason, committed suicide. Sheridan's self-confidence was not shaken, and in January 1795 he proposed, unsuccessfully, the repeal of the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. In the trial of Horne Tooke, he humiliated Pitt by forcing him to admit his earlier evidence was wrong, thus gaining Tooke's acquittal. To associate with and defend the democratic radicals of the London Corresponding Society was brave. Sheridan's courage was acknowledged by the society in a large public meeting of 25 June 1795 which, in a vote of thanks, praised ‘Citizen Sheridan’, who had made his final brilliant speech against Hastings four months earlier. Hastings, however, was acquitted. The political climate had changed, but Sheridan's fight had not. He was at once encouraging popular radicalism and supporting the prince of Wales, whose massive debts of £630,000 Pitt agreed to pay—a proceeding to which Sheridan agreed, but not, he argued, as something to be met out of public funds, but, rather, by abolishing sinecures and selling royal forests and crown lands.

Tension in Ireland, increased by the sacking in 1795 of Earl Fitzwilliam, the liberal viceroy who had vainly encouraged Grattan to introduce a bill for Catholic emancipation, was added to by General Lake's repressive measures. The United Irishmen began to plan their revolution, seeking French aid, Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Arthur O'Connor acting as emissaries. A large French fleet sailed into Bantry Bay in 1796 with over 14,000 troops aboard, but bad weather meant the postponement of French plans for an invasion. Naval mutinies in England moved Sheridan to propose a committee to look into the sailors' grievances. After the mutiny—apparently defused by some of the sailors' demands being met—had spread he withdrew his proposal, not wanting any French invasion of England. The movement for reform was now in abeyance, Fox and Grey having virtually seceded from parliament after Grey's motion for reform failed to be carried. Sheridan, however, now became more deeply involved in Irish affairs. Arthur O'Connor, back in England in February 1798 en route to seek further French aid for an Irish revolution, was arrested with four others at Margate. At their trial in Maidstone, Sheridan, Fox, and Whitbread gave evidence; the trial ended with only one defendant found guilty. Sheridan said he would never permit Ireland to be seized as a post from which England could be attacked, a view he repeated later. In the riot that followed O'Connor's attempt to escape (possibly organized by Sheridan), Sheridan asked the judges why O'Connor, acquitted, was still being held, and was praised by them for his restoration of order in the courtroom. It was an action which made it unlikely he would himself be prosecuted later.

The rising of the United Irishmen virtually coincided with this trial and Sheridan defended the rebels in the House of Commons, arguing that the struggle in Ireland was between people and government and that a fair presumption was that the government was to blame. He called for an end to the repressive methods used to crush the rising, but after it was over his hopes for a non-sectarian independent Ireland were over too. He continued none the less to state his political beliefs openly, and did so most effectively through the symbolism of Pizarro, his adaptation of several translations of August von Kotzebue's Die Spanien in Peru, staged on 24 May 1799. Kotzebue was regarded as subversive, but Sheridan, while echoing his own speeches in the Hastings trial, managed to make this play patriotic. In effect, it opposed a French invasion yet supported the United Irishmen with a new definition of treason, not warring against one's native land but against ‘those who have usurped its power’. The play was immensely successful, running for thirty-one nights. Acting in it were John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons, whose acting had so benefited the theatre at a time when all Sheridan's persuasive charm was needed to offset frequent failures to pay the players' salaries. His own high spirits inspired practical joking in which he was joined by his friends Joseph Richardson and Richard Tickell, husband of Eliza's sister Mary.

Sheridan next battled against the Act of Union, speaking against it five times in 1799. He also pressed for peace with France, something achieved in 1802. This year he defeated a bill brought against him in the chancery court by his creditors. Two years later he was appalled by Napoleon's remorseless progress towards creating an empire. Now liberty seemed the concern of the English alone, and Sheridan, by 1803, became a strong supporter of the volunteer corps.

When his son Tom was offered a place in the household of the duke of York in 1803 Sheridan refused this offer which had been prompted by the king, who wanted Sheridan to join Addington's ministry, which had succeeded Pitt's when he failed to carry Catholic emancipation. Both Fox and the prince of Wales urged Sheridan to accept it, but he told them quixotically that he wanted nothing for himself or his family because this would curtail his freedom of speech and action. He feared Fox would join Pitt in a coalition, a fear that led to a decline in his friendship with Fox. His manoeuvring to create a reforming ministry in Ireland under the prince of Wales as lord lieutenant perturbed his whig associates. In 1804, however, the prince appointed him receiver-general of the duchy of Cornwall; and, having shown his independence by opposing the prince's wish for a military command, Sheridan accepted it, regaining his influence as the prince's adviser when the king again became ill.

The money must have been very welcome. The Sheridans, presumably beset by bailiffs, had moved from their George Street house to lodgings in 3 Cork Street in 1803. And Drury Lane, on which Sheridan relied for his personal finance, on which he based his political career, had reached the end of its golden age in 1802 when Kemble, who had raised its receipts by more than a quarter when manager, moved to Covent Garden, taking Mrs Siddons with him. Now only Mrs Jordan, the high-spirited, exuberant mistress of the duke of Clarence, who had joined the company in 1782, remained of the stars, though the thirteen-year-old William Betty, known as the Young Roscius or the Boy, who first appeared at Drury Lane in 1804, was to prove an asset for a while, despite the high salary he commanded. ‘The theatrical bubble’ (1805), yet another Gillray cartoon, shows Sheridan dressed as Punch blowing bubbles from which Master Betty emerges. Sheridan was enthusiastic about the boy, betting on his drawing £50 or more in one night, describing him to his wife as ‘the most lovely creature’ and, so as not ‘to destroy him’, arranging he should only appear three times a week.

The Gillray caricature preceded the better-known ‘Uncorking old-Sherry’, a comment on Pitt's sharp reply of 6 March 1805 to Sheridan's long and somewhat rambling speech opposing Pitt's Additional Force Bill. Gillray's depictions of Sheridan are cruel, but his by now mottled complexion, the effect of his drinking to excess (‘an abominable habit’ according to his first wife in a letter to him of 1790) and his irregular life, made him easy to caricature.

The political and private roller-coaster: final years

Sheridan's private life was as turbulent as his political. His obsession with Harriet Bessborough continued to plague him—and her. Replaced as her lover by Granville Leveson Gower, Sheridan continued to attract and repel and he tried to force his attentions on her. His attitudes were contradictory: high ideals, even puritanical (like his father he wanted to improve the moral and social status of the theatre), warred against the laxity of sexual morals he met in aristocratic circles. His second wife had an affair with Lord Grey, and Sheridan was beset by melancholia in 1806. His heavy drinking was beginning to affect his speeches in parliament, but, between January 1806, when Pitt died, and 1807, his political career seemed to be taking off again.

In the ‘ministry of all the talents’ Sheridan became treasurer of the navy and was made a member of the privy council. When Fox died on 13 September 1806 Sheridan might have expected to succeed him as head of the party but the whig grandees did not trust him; they supported Lord Percy instead for Fox's Westminster seat. Sheridan withdrew; the young man held the seat for the seventeen days the government stayed in office; and then Sheridan won it after a disorderly election. But after the subsequent dissolution of parliament he lost it, largely because of William Cobbett's attacks on him. Cobbett described Sheridan's ‘agony of mortification’, his ‘rage too violent to admit of concealment’ (Weekly Political Register, 8 Nov 1806, 715), at the result. These emotions were portrayed in Gillray's savage etching ‘View of the hustings in Covent Garden’, published for the History of the Westminster and Middlesex Elections in the Month of November 1806 (1807).

This defeat meant, Sheridan said afterwards, his ‘total ruin as a public man’ (The Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 8 vols., 1963–71, 6.68). He stood for Wexford as joint candidate with John Colclough, killed in a duel by one of the tory candidates, William Congreve Alcock, subsequently elected with 875 votes to Sheridan's 729 and acquitted at his trial for murder. In 1803 Sheridan had suggested to the prince of Wales that he should become president of a new Irish council of which Sheridan would be a member, a manoeuvre (scotched by Lord Grenville) which would have enabled him to introduce Catholic emancipation. In 1807, having accepted the seat for Ilchester, in the gift of the prince of Wales—not the kind of seat he wanted, but one which meant he could oppose a repressive Irish Insurrection Bill—he continued to put his views about Irish affairs strongly. In advance of his time in sympathizing with Irish farmers and tenants, in realizing the need for reform of land tenure and in wanting to alleviate the condition of the poor, and, as a protestant, consistently seeking Catholic emancipation for all levels of Irish society, he deplored the ignorance of Ireland displayed by government ministers.

The energy required to fight the elections of 1806 and 1807 was followed by a need for stoic resilience, for his son Tom's affair with a Mrs Campbell meant her husband was awarded £1500 as a result of his bringing a case against Tom for criminal conversation, and, somehow, Sheridan had to find the money. There followed the destruction of the new Drury Lane Theatre by fire. Sheridan refused to accede to the suggestion in the house that proceedings should be adjourned. He later watched the blaze from the Piazza Coffee House, reputedly saying, ‘A man may surely take a glass of wine by his own fireside’ (Moore, 2.368).

This was a devastating blow for Sheridan. He agreed to Samuel Whitbread taking charge of funding the rebuilding and dealing with the theatre's complex debts. Sheridan and his son were excluded from any share in the management of the new theatre which opened in 1811; Sheridan deeply resented the end of the Sheridan family's connection with it. He told the prince of Wales, however, that his debts would be met by the payment of the £40,000 for his half share of the patent (£24,000) and of Tom's quarter share (£12,000) and the fruit shops (£4000). But Whitbread cautiously withheld the money until the claims against Sheridan, some of them patently false, were met, so that the duchy of Cornwall funds became the Sheridans' only income. When an unexpected £1300 turned up in this account, he and Hecca, in a typically feckless way, took a house in Barnes Terrace, where they blew the money in two or three months' lavish living.

Once the prince became regent in 1811—Sheridan having offended Grey and Grenville by redrafting the prince's reply to a deputation from the two houses—he showed himself lukewarm to Catholic emancipation and reluctant to bring in a whig government. Sheridan, still determined to be independent, giving a ‘disinterested denial’ to Lord Wellesley's offer of a place in a potential administration, decided to abandon his Ilchester seat. Overestimating likely support, he stood for Stafford again but was defeated in October 1812. The prince offered him an apartment in his palace, but his friendship had cooled, though he sent £3000 to Sheridan's solicitor for the purchase of the Wootton Bassett seat. Sheridan failed to go there to arrange matters, and the money disappeared, probably taken by the solicitor to pay Sheridan's debt to him. The prince later told Croker that he had spent over £20,000 on Sheridan. He had financed, to the extent of £8000, Tom's three failures to be elected an MP, as Sheridan told Hecca in a letter of April 1810, declaring that even in the greatest distress he had refused the offer of even a modest loan for himself from the prince.

As always deeply anxious about Tom's health, Sheridan managed to get him a post at the Cape of Good Hope in 1813. Hecca, too, was ill, in the early stages of cancer. No longer an MP, Sheridan could now be arrested for debt, and spent a week in a sponging house, raging against Whitbread's refusal to give him £12,000 owed him by Drury Lane, some of which was, however, paid on his release. Tempted by the whigs in the summer asking him to stand for Westminster, he withdrew, thinking correctly that Lord Cochrane had been unjustly expelled from his seat—he was returned unopposed. Sheridan's financial position was now dire: Hecca's trust could not be touched; he was selling or pawning treasured possessions—paintings, books, furniture; he was imprisoned again in August 1815. His moods vacillated between despondency and optimism engendered by the hope that an edition of his plays and poems to be published by John Murray would help to pay his debts, which he thought amounted to £3000; he was owed various sums, one as large as £1400.

Though young enough in mind and spirit to attract the youthful Lord Byron's admiration, Sheridan by 1814 was generally regarded as an old man, though he had survived the tough world of politics and juggled with debts longer than many contemporaries. In December 1815 he became ill, largely confined to bed, but he did manage to attend a few dinner parties and was fêted in the green room at Drury Lane. As ever, terrified of being seized by the bailiffs, ‘undone and broken-hearted’, he wrote to Samuel Rogers that ‘£150 could remove all difficulties’. Moore brought him the sum in the morning. Sheridan realized that he was dying, but could joke about his rapidly deteriorating health. On 9 May 1816 his sister ‘Lissy’ (Alicia), who had married Joseph Le Fanu, wrote him a sympathetic and understanding letter to comfort him. She had always been ‘fondly attached’ to her brother, and now praised his having:

always shown a noble independence of spirit that the pecuniary difficulties you often had to encounter could not induce you to forgo. As a public man you have been, like the motto of the Le Fanu family, sine macula [without stain]; and I am persuaded had you not been too early thrown upon the world, and alienated from your family, you would have been equally good as a private character. (Moore, 2.452–3)

A friend, Dennis O'Brien, wrote to the Morning Post calling on Sheridan's former fellow politicians to come to his aid. His friends, however, refused an offer of £200 from the prince regent but as Sheridan said to Chateauneuf, who had translated his plays, ‘quel sujet de honte pour notre régent qui m'abandonne! Non, je vais mourir et je lui pardonne’ (‘Shame on the regent for abandoning me! No, I am dying and I forgive him’).

The prince, when king, gave a vivid but third-hand account of Sheridan's last days. Though the house was stripped virtually bare and the bailiffs were installed in it although forbidden by his doctor to seize him, his son Charles described newspaper accounts as unfounded: his father had every attention and comfort which could make a deathbed easy. Others said he did not want for medical care or friendship (Lady Bessborough visited him) and Hecca, herself ill, was with him when he died at 14 Savile Row on 7 July 1816. His funeral was attended by dukes, earls, lords, viscounts, the lord mayor of London, and other notables. Sheridan would have preferred to be interred near Fox, and recognized as a statesman, but was buried on 13 July in Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Posthumous reputation

Byron's famous praise of Sheridan was a warm tribute from a much younger man; he regarded whatever Sheridan had done as ‘always the best of its kind’. Certainly Sheridan's two comedies The Rivals and The School for Scandal have amused audiences from their early, immensely successful performances up to the present day, for Sheridan is one of the great comic writers in English. He could create original characters and infuse stock ones with new vitality. Perhaps the best known of all his creations is Mrs Malaprop, whose unintentional misuse of words coined the term ‘malapropism’. Other characters reveal themselves in lively, witty dialogue. Sir Anthony Absolute and Sir Lucius O'Trigger are both foils to the two very different pairs of lovers in The Rivals, while Lady Sneerwell and Sir Benjamin Backbite balance the contrasting Surface brothers in The School for Scandal. Sheridan's screen scene in this play employs a classic device of comedy to expose most effectively and dramatically the duplicity of Joseph Surface and the silliness of Sir Peter and Lady Teazle.

Sheridan's wit, his sense of fun, and his mockery of sentimental comedy underpin his depiction of the contrast between appearance and reality. His comic invention exposes folly and hypocrisy through dramatic crises in a timeless way, and this has meant the plays remain alive, not only on stage but in radio and television productions as well. The BBC broadcast no fewer than a dozen versions of The School for Scandal between 1939 and 1978. A 1942 Home Service production featured Vivien Leigh as Lady Teazle. The play was also filmed as early as 1914 and has since been adapted for television numerous times. Scenes from The School for Scandal, featuring Greer Garson and Campbell Gullan, were televised in May 1937. Tony Britton, Joan Plowright, and Felix Aylmer were the main players in a BBC World Theatre broadcast of 1959, while Jeremy Brett, Edward Fox, and Pauline Collins were among the cast of a 1975 version. The Critic, starring John Gielgud and Nigel Hawthorne, was televised in 1984. The DuennaThe RivalsSt Patrick's Day, and A Trip to Scarboroughalso formed part of the radio and television repertoire. The unlimited appeal of the plays is demonstrated by their translation into other languages, including a Swedish version of The School for ScandalSkandalskolan (1958), and a Russian adaptation of The DuennaDuenya (1978).

Sheridan's own character has attracted many biographers since John Watkins and Thomas Moore. Among them are Margaret Oliphant, W. Fraser Rae, Walter Sichel, R. Compton Rhodes, Lewis Gibbs, William A. C. Darlington, Oscar Sherwin, and Madeleine Bingham. Others who explore and interpret the complexities of Sheridan's artistic, social, sexual, and political life include Linda Kelly and Fintan O'Toole, who cast fresh light on the apparent contradictions which often emerge. O'Toole's sparkling account of the ramifications of Sheridan's political career is particularly searching and subtle.

Studies of Sheridan's contemporaries, such as those dealing with the duchess of Devonshire and Lady Bessborough, have illuminated aspects of his life, while a work by one of his sisters, Betsy Sheridan's Journal, suitably edited by William Le Fanu in 1960, gives a lively, frank view of Sheridan's domestic ménage and some divagations from it.

Since Thomas Moore's edition of The Works of the Late Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1821) there have been many editions of the plays over the years, and, in particular, Cecil Price's masterly Dramatic Works of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (2 vols., 1973). This work of elegant scholarship was preceded by his scrupulously and skilfully edited Letters of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (3 vols., 1966). The amount of continuing scholarship and critical activity testifies to the appreciative, investigative interest which has always been taken in Sheridan's life and work.

A. Norman Jeffares  DNB

Artist biography

Samuel De Wilde, (bap. 1751, d. 1832), portrait painter, was baptized at the Dutch church of Austin Friars, London, on 28 July 1751, the eldest of the two sons of a Dutch woodcarver, also Samuel De Wilde (d. 1753), who had settled in England by 1748 when he married De Wilde's mother, Frances Havart, at St James's Church, Westminster, London. On 19 November 1765 De Wilde was apprenticed for seven years to his godfather, Samuel Haworth, a woodcarver in Denmark Street, Soho. However, he soon showed a talent for painting, broke his apprenticeship, and entered the newly formed Royal Academy Schools on 9 November 1769. At the Royal Academy he would have encountered artists such as Johann Zoffany, whose theatrical portraiture later became a major influence.

We know little of De Wilde's early work: etchings signed P. Paul and mezzotints inscribed S. Paul produced in the 1770s have been attributed to him, but with no real justification. He first exhibited his small portraits at the Society of Artists in 1776 and continued showing there until 1778. From that date onwards he exhibited at the Royal Academy, broadening his œuvre from 1782 onwards with scenes of banditti and fancy pictures. However, he became best-known for his theatrical portraits, which were exhibited almost every year at the academy from 1792 until 1821. He also sent three paintings to the British Institution in 1812.

De Wilde's career in theatrical portraiture began with the start of the publication by John Bell (1745–1831) of the second issue of the British Theatre in January 1791. Before this the only painting by De Wilde with a theatrical connection seems to have been William Shuttlewood, the Actor, Aged 21 (1788; Yale U. CBA), but this represents an actor in everyday dress. Each number of the British Theatre consisted of a play accompanied by a vignette and a full-length portrait of a leading actor or actress of the day as one of the characters. Bell chose De Wilde as the portraitist and puffed him in his newspaper, The Oracle, on 8 April 1791 with the statement: ‘Zoffany has hitherto been considered as the most celebrated Painter of small whole lengths, but comparison now gives DE WILDE a place as his superior’ (Mayes, ‘John Bell’, 101). He provided his protégé with a studio in the British Library, his bookshop on the Strand, and invited potential subscribers to visit the artist at work. De Wilde was extremely productive, painting no fewer than thirty-six character portraits in 1791 and thirty-three in 1792. These paintings show actors and actresses in costume with props, set against a theatrical backdrop. Thomas Blanchard as Ralph in ‘The Maid of the Mill’(engraved 1791; Garrick Club, London) is a good example of the series, inspired by Zoffany's theatrical portraits of the 1760s. In total De Wilde provided ninety-three pictures for the series before Bell ran into financial problems and both employer and employee were evicted from the British Library by George Cawthorn, a rival bookseller. The last number of theBritish Theatre to bear Bell's imprint was published in August 1795. Only two of De Wilde's plates appeared under Cawthorn's regime and it is likely that these were found in the British Library after the seizure.

By this date, however, De Wilde's career was established. In 1804 business was thriving to the extent that, despite having a studio at his home in Leicester Square, he began to rent additional rooms from the duke of Bedford at 9 Tavistock Row, Covent Garden. Many actors and actresses came from the nearby Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres to sit to him there and his theatrical portraits adorned numerous publications, including the Monthly Mirror, John Cawthorn's Minor British Theatre, and William Oxberry's New English Drama.Sarah Harlowe as Beatrice in ‘The Anatomist’ (1805; Royal Collection) is typical, representing a single figure against a plain background. These portraits were also published independently as prints and highly sought after by collectors such as Charles Mathews, whose collection now forms the basis of that of the Garrick Club. As well as painting in oil, De Wilde came to specialize in soft pencil or crayon with light washes of watercolour. His usual fee in 1810 and 1811, as noted in his diary, was £2 12s. 6d. for a watercolour drawing while oil paintings varied upwards in price from a few guineas.

De Wilde's success was clearly wavering by 1810, however, as the diary also records financial loans from friends and he stopped exhibiting at the Royal Academy almost a decade before his death. Some suggest this was due to failing eyesight while others ascribe it to old age and a sense of lack of recognition, particularly as he was never a candidate for election to the Royal Academy (Mayes, De Wildes).

Samuel De Wilde died on 19 January 1832 and was buried in the burial-ground adjoining Whitefield's Tabernacle in Tottenham Court Road, London. All that is known about his wife is that she was called Eleanor and that they had two children, Louisa Harriet (b. 1801) and George James De Wilde (1804–1871). George was born in London on 19 January 1804 and was originally intended for an artistic career. However, he soon showed a predilection for writing and, following a temporary post at the Colonial Office, began working for theNorthampton Mercury c.1830. He became editor for the paper and a major figure in Northampton society, serving as governor to the local infirmary and helping to found the Northampton Central Art Gallery. In 1825 he married Mary Caroline Butterworth, with whom he had five children; after her death he married, in 1845, Louisa Packer, with whom he had a further two children. He died in the Mercury offices on 16 September 1871.

Kate Retford  DNB