Letters from Thomas Coutts to William 'Gentleman' Smith

By Viator, Timothy J.; Viator, Martha Graham | Theatre Notebook, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Letters from Thomas Coutts to William 'Gentleman' Smith


Viator, Timothy J., Viator, Martha Graham, Theatre Notebook


Among the William Smith papers in the Beinecke Library of Yale University are twelve letters from the wealthy banker Thomas Coutts (1735-1822) to the prominent actor William 'Gentleman' Smith (1730-1819). (1) Dated from April 1791 to March 1814, the Beinecke letters are filled with Coutts's interesting opinions and gossip about leading Georgian performers and information about London theatres that we extract and comment on in this essay. Especially intriguing are his accounts of and speculations about a relationship between Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) and a handsome young nephew of an Irish peer struggling to be an actor, Archibald Armar Montgomery (1783-1820). Furthermore, as no letters from Coutts to Smith have been found heretofore, the Beinecke letters help to complement the correspondence between the banker and the actor. In 'Charles Surface in Regency Retirement: Some Letters from Gentleman Smith', Philip H. Highfill, Jr. summarizes and analyzes many of the seventy-seven letters (housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library) from Smith to Coutts. Interested primarily in biography, Highfill finds Smith's letters to Coutts important because they reveal 'not only a great deal about the last thirteen years of Smith's fortunate and eventful retirement but also in many subtle ways [widen] our understanding of the changing status of the acting profession'. (2) As both sets of letters illustrate, Smith and Coutts developed a cordial relationship of two men who rose from somewhat humble circumstances to prominence. (3) They express gracious concerns, best wishes, compliments for each other's family members, share occasional jokes about growing older yet staying lively, and discuss politics and business matters (in one case an offer from Coutts to Smith to invest). Their love for theatre, wistful remembrances about great actors of the past and dissatisfaction with the current stage and 'puffing', their eagerness for gossip, especially about actors and nobility, were evidently ongoing topics. Coutts continually expresses his admiration of Smith and the fellow Drury Lane actors, yet at the same time his letters suggest a notable ongoing prejudice against actors.

Coutts remained a lifelong aficionado of theatre and he gave actors many gifts over the years. In 1815, at the age of 80 and soon after his first wife died, Coutts married his mistress, the actress Harriet Mellon (1777-1837), and by most accounts they enjoyed a pleasant marriage. A long obituary published in The Gentleman's Magazine a month after his February 1822 death notes:

   To the meritorious Actors of the day he was a most munificent
   patron, frequently sending large sums for tickets at their
   benefits. Indeed, we have heard it reported, that his intimacy with
   Miss Mellon originated from this circumstance. In matters which
   related to the Drama, his judgment and taste were generally
   acknowledged; and his Letter relative to the projected Memoir of
   David Garrick (alluded to by Murphy), in support of Barry, is a
   proof of his solicitude to render justice, and preserve the
   professional memory of an Actor, whose excellences he had so often
   witnessed. (4)

He was an ardent admirer of David Garrick's acting company at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which included William Smith, and in his opinion subsequent companies failed to match the brilliance of the Drury Lane stars. The Beinecke letters illustrate those strong opinions and that preference.

Undoubtedly the most interesting passages from the letters to Smith are the ones in which Coutts recounts a friendship between Sarah Siddons and Archibald Armar Montgomery, a handsome young Irishman hoping to be an actor. Montgomery came from a prominent family. (5) His mother Mary Acheson (1756-1799) was a daughter of the Irish peer, Arthur Acheson, the first Earl of Gosford: in 1778, she was married to Hugh Montgomery (1739-1797), of Fermanagh. The couple had three children: Hugh (1779-1838), Archibald, and Mary Millicent (1787-1868). …

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