LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries
Mr. Mathews.

Lord Byron.
Mr. Moore.
Mr. Shelley. With a Criticism on his Genius.
Mr. Keats. With a Criticism on his Writings.
Mr. Dubois. Mr. Campbell. Mr. Theodore Hook. Mr. Mathews. Messrs. James & Horace Smith.
Mr. Fuseli. Mr. Bonnycastle. Mr. Kinnaird.
Mr. Charles Lamb.
Mr. Coleridge.
Recollections of the Author’s Life.
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“It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.

“In the examples, which I here bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbid myself to dare to alter even the most light and indifferent circumstances. My conscience does not falsify one tittle. What my ignorance may do, I cannot say.”       Montaigne.


Among the visitors at Sydenham, was Mr. Mathews the comedian. I have had the pleasure of seeing him there more than once, and of witnessing his imitations, which, admirable as they are on the stage, are still more so in a private room. Once and away his wife used to come with him, with her handsome eyes; and charitably make tea for us. The other day I had the pleasure of seeing them at their own table; and I thought that while Time, with unusual courtesy, had spared the sweet countenance of the one, he had given more force and interest to that of the other in the very ploughing of it up. Strong lines have been cut, and the face has stood them well. I have seldom been more surprised than in coming close to Mr. Mathews on that occasion, and in seeing the bust that he has in his Gallery of his friend Mr. Liston. Some of these comic actors, like comic writers, are as unfarcical as can be imagined in their interior. The taste for humour comes to them by the force of contrast. The last time I had seen Mr. Mathews, his face appeared to me insignificant to what it was then. On the former occasion, he looked like an irritable indoor pet: on the latter, he seemed to have been grappling with the world, and to have got vigour by it. His face had looked out upon the Atlantic, and said to the old waves, “Buffet on; I have seen trouble as well as you.” The paralytic affection, or whatever it was, that twisted his mouth when young, had formerly appeared
to be master of his face, and given it a character of indecision and alarm. It now seemed a minor thing; a twist in a piece of old oak. And what a bust was Mr. Liston’s! The mouth and chin, with the throat under it, hung like an old bag; but the upper part of the head is as fine as possible: there is a speculation, a look-out, and even an elevation of character in it, as unlike the Liston on the stage, as Lear is to King Pippin. One might imagine
Laberius to have had such a face.

The reasons why Mr. Mathews’s imitations are still better in private than in public are, that he is more at his ease personally, more secure of his audience (“fit though few”), and able to interest them with traits of private character, which could not be introduced on the stage. He gives, for instance, to persons who he thinks will take it rightly, a picture of the manners and conversation of Sir Walter Scott, highly creditable to that celebrated person, and calculated to add regard to admiration. His commonest imitations are not superficial. Something of the mind and character of the individual is always insinuated, often with a dramatic dressing, and plenty of sauce piquante. At Sydenham he used to give us a dialogue among the actors, each of whom found fault with another for some defect or excess of his own,—Kemble objecting to stiffness, Munden to grimace, and so on. His representation of Incledon was extraordinary his nose seemed actually to become aquiline. It is a pity I cannot put upon paper, as represented by Mr. Mathews, the singular gabblings of that actor, the lax and sailor-like twist of mind, with which every thing hung upon him; and his profane pieties in quoting the Bible; for which, and swearing, he seemed to have an equal reverence. He appeared to be charitable to every body but Mr. Braham. He would be described as saying to his friend Holman, for instance, “My dear George, don’t be abusive,
George;—don’t insult,—don’t be indecent, by G—d! You should take the beam out of your own eye,—what the devil is it? you know, in the Bible; something” (the a very broad) “about a beam, my dear George! and—and—and—a mote:—you’ll find it any part of the Bible; yes, George, my dear boy, the Bible, by G—d;” (and then with real fervour and reverence) “the Holy Scripture, G—d d—me!” He swore as dreadfully as a devout knight-errant. Braham, whose trumpet blew down his wooden walls, he could not endure. He is represented as saying one day, with a strange mixture of imagination and matter-of-fact, that “he only wished his beloved master,
Mr. Jackson, could come down from Heaven, and take the Exeter stage to London, to hear that d—d Jew!” As Mr. Hook made his extempore verses on us, so Mr. Mathews one day gave an extempore imitation of us all round, with the exception of a fierce young critic, who happened to be present, and in whose appearance and manner he pronounced that there was no handle for mimicry. This may have been intended as a politeness towards a comparative stranger, perhaps as a piece of policy; and the laughter was not missed by it. At all events, the critic was both good-humoured and self-satisfied enough to have borne the mimicry; and no harm would have come of it. One morning, after stopping all night, I was getting up to breakfast, when I heard the noise of a little boy having his face washed. Our host was a merry bachelor, and to the rosiness of a priest might, for aught I knew, have added the paternity; but I had never heard of it, and still less expected to find a child in his house. More obvious and obstreperous proofs, however, of the existence of a boy with a dirty face, could not have been met with. You heard the child crying and objecting; then the woman remonstrating; then the cries of the child were snubbed and
swallowed up in the hard towel; and at intervals out came his voice bubbling and deploring, and was again swallowed up. At breakfast; the child being pitied, I ventured to speak about it, and was laughing and sympathizing in perfect good faith, when Mr. Mathews came in, and I found that the little urchin was he. The same morning he gave us his immortal imitation of old
Tate Wilkinson, patentee of the York Theatre. Tate had been a little too merry in his youth, and was very melancholy in old age. He had a wandering mind and a decrepid body; and being manager of a theatre, a husband, and a rat-catcher, he would speak, in his wanderings, “variety of wretchedness.” He would interweave, for instance, all at once, the subjects of a new engagement at his theatre, the rats, a veal-pie, Garrick and Mrs. Siddons, and Mrs. Tate and the doctor. I do not pretend to give a specimen: Mr. Mathews alone can do it; but one trait I recollect, descriptive of Tate himself, which will give a good notion of him. On coming into the room, Mr. Mathews assumed the old manager’s appearance, and proceeded towards the window, to reconnoitre the state of the weather, which was a matter of great importance to him. His hat was like a hat worn the wrong way, side foremost, looking sadly crinkled and old; his mouth was desponding, his eye staring, and his whole aspect meagre, querulous, and prepared for objection. This miserable object, grunting and hobbling, and helping himself with any thing he can lay hold of as he goes, creeps up to the window; and giving a glance at the clouds, turns round with an ineffable look of despair and acquiescence, ejaculating “Uh Christ!”