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date: 21 August 2019

Barry, Richard, seventh earl of Barrymorefree

(1769–1793)
  • Richard Davenport-Hines

Barry, Richard, seventh earl of Barrymore (1769–1793), rake and actor, was born on 14 August 1769, probably in London, the second child and eldest of three sons of Richard Barry, sixth earl of Barrymore (1745–1773), and Lady Emily Stanhope (1749–1780), daughter of William Stanhope, second earl of Harrington [see under Stanhope, William, first earl of Harrington]. On his father's death on 1 August 1773 he succeeded to the title and 140,000 acres in co. Cork shortly before his fourth birthday and was orphaned at eleven. He was tutored from 1774 by the Revd John Tickell at Wargrave, Berkshire, before entering Eton College in 1784, where he developed pronouncedly spendthrift habits. He left Eton in 1786. He was introduced on the turf at Newmarket by Katharine Powlett (née Lowther), duchess of Bolton, in 1787, soon afterwards started buying horses, and began racing under his own colours in 1788. His considerable winnings on horses were lost by playing cards, and he borrowed heavily on the expectations of his majority.

Barrymore was tall, slender, and agile, with an aquiline nose, high forehead, and prominent chin. As a fencer, pugilist, cricketer, and gentleman jockey he excelled. Well read and often amusing, he showed many intuitive gifts, but was fickle, with a blackguard side. He became one of the Brighton cronies of George, prince of Wales (afterwards George IV), who bestowed on him the nickname of Hellgate in recognition of his harum-scarum antics. His brother Henry, who had a club foot, was known as Cripplegate, and his sister Caroline, whose language was notoriously uncultivated, as Billingsgate. Some of his exploits, such as going round the countryside at night exchanging the name-signs on village inns, were merely mischievous pranks. He enjoyed impersonating menial servants, or arranging elaborate jokes involving confused identities, but his countryside rampages with a hired mail coach by night were alarming, and other diversions were bullying or destructive. Barrymore relished watching seamy behaviour in slum districts such as St Giles's, and joined several bacchanalian clubs, but was not notably lecherous.

Barrymore had returned to live at Wargrave on leaving Eton, and in 1786 staged a performance of David Garrick's farce Miss in her Teens in a barn. Barrymore played Flash, his brothers, Henry and Augustus, were Puff and Fribble, and villagers took other parts. Shortly afterwards he rented a small house on a picturesque site near the banks of the Thames, and began transforming the environs of Wargrave into his pleasure grounds. He bought a pack of hounds, and organized balls and fêtes. Once he arrayed his hunting establishment in imitation of Louis XIV's at Fontainebleau with four superbly mounted black men decked in scarlet and silver, while a French horn player wafted the music of Handel through the woods.

At Wargrave in 1788 Barrymore built the most conspicuous private theatre of the eighteenth century. Earlier he had partly financed the Royal Circus theatre in St George's Fields, London, and despite its failure, Carlo Delpini, who wrote and produced its comic pantomimes, remained his collaborator. The cost of £60,000 given for the Wargrave playhouse may be exaggerated, but certainly it was a sumptuous and extravagant toy. Its inaugural performance on 26 January 1789 was of John Vanbrugh's comedy The Confederacy. A year later, after a successful season, Barrymore ordered his theatre's enlargement on the model of Vanbrugh's King's Theatre in the Haymarket, which could seat 400. The extended building was completed in time for Barrymore's coming-of-age celebrations, which lasted a week from 21 September 1790, and were attended by the prince of Wales. Among other performances at Wargrave he played Acres in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Rivals in April 1791.

Although Barrymore did not have a strong acting voice, he usually acquitted himself well. Probably his most successful role was as Scrub in George Farquhar's The Beaux' Stratagem. In March 1790 he bought Squib's auction rooms in Savile Row, which had lately been used as a puppet theatre, and converted them into another elegant playhouse. Barrymore, who was always open-handed, especially to actors and scene painters, did not confine his appearances to his own theatres. In 1788 he appeared on the Brighton boards as Bobadil in Ben Jonson's Every Man in his Humour, and in 1790 he performed 'a buffoon dance … in a pantomime at Richmond' (Walpole, Corr., 35.399). George Selwyn similarly witnessed 'that étourdi [scatterbrain] Lord Barrymore play the fool in three or four different characters upon our Richmond Theatre' (Carlisle MSS, 681).

By 1790 Barrymore needed a seat in the House of Commons to evade his creditors, and offered himself as candidate at Reading, where he held a banquet of which the centrepiece was a turtle weighing 150 pounds. He was defeated, but in March 1791 the twenty-six voters of the rotten borough of Heytesbury, Wiltshire, elected him as their MP; Barrymore had presumably paid the seat's patron, Sir William A'Court, bt. His debts accumulated until in June 1792 the Wargrave theatre, together with its costumes, decorations, and furnishings, was seized on his creditors' behalf. Christies raised only £1127 when the scenery, machinery, and other materials were auctioned in October. The private theatre was demolished, and stables erected on its site.

In the midst of these troubles Barrymore eloped on 6 June 1792 with Charlotte Goulding (b. 1774/5), daughter of a sedan chairman. It is accepted that they were married shortly afterwards. It was probably about this time that he sold the family estates, reserving £4000 a year for himself and £1000 a year for his widow for their lives. Barrymore had enlisted as an ensign in the Berkshire militia in 1789, and was promoted captain in 1793. On 6 March 1793, when escorting French prisoners, he was killed by the accidental discharge of his fowling-piece while riding in a gig near Folkestone, Kent. To avoid his corpse being seized by creditors, he was secretly buried at Wargrave on 17 March, in the chancel of the parish church. His widow, who was only eighteen at her husband's death, married Robert Williams, a captain in the 3rd foot guards, on 22 September 1794. On the death of his brother Henry, eighth earl of Barrymore, in 1823, the earldom become extinct.

Sources

  • J. R. Robinson, The last earls of Barrymore, 1769–1824 (1894)
  • E. B. Chancellor, Old Q and Barrymore (1925)
  • A. Pasquin [J. Williams], The life of the late earl of Barrymore, including a history of the Wargrave theatricals and original anecdotes of eminent persons, 3rd edn (1793)
  • Truth opposed to fiction, or, An authentic and impartial review of the life of the late earl of Barrymore by a personal observer (1793)
  • The reminiscences of Henry Angelo, ed. H. Lavers Smith, 2 vols. (1904)
  • S. Rosenfeld, Temples of Thespis (1978)
  • Passages from the diaries of Mrs Lybbe Powys, 1756–1808, ed. E. J. Climenson (1899)
  • J. Bernard, Retrospections on the stage (1830)
  • Walpole, Corr., vols. 11, 31, 35, 43
  • The correspondence of George, prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 2: 1789–1794 (1964)
  • The manuscripts of the earl of Carlisle, HMC, 42 (1897), 681–2
  • A. Aspinall, ‘Barry, Richard’, HoP, Commons, 1790–1820
  • R. A. Austen-Leigh, ed., Eton College lists, 1678–1790 (1907)

Likenesses

  • J. Jehner, engraving, 1778 (after portrait by R. Cosway), BM
  • W. Leney and P. Audinet, engraving, 1791 (after portrait by S. De Wilde; as Scrub in The Beaux' stratagem), BL; repro. in Rosenfeld, Temples of Thespis, facing p. 30
  • engraving, 1791, BM
  • Gillray, group portrait (Les trois magots), repro. in Lavers Smith, ed., Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, vol. 2, facing p. 67
  • T. Rowlandson, portrait, repro. in Lavers Smith, ed., Reminiscences of Henry Angelo, vol. 2, facing p. 60

Wealth at Death

under £5000: 26 March 1794, GEC, Peerage

H. Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis & others, 48 vols. (1937–83)
R. G. Thorne, ed., , 5 vols. (1986)