Playwright. Actor. Theatre manager. David Garrick stands out as a towering figure of the theatrical world in the 18th century and is remembered, at least in part, for his friendship with the irrepressible lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

Born on 19th February, 1717, in Hereford to an army officer (with French Huguenot roots) as the third of five children, Garrick attended school in Lichfield, north of Birmingham, including, at the short-lived Edial Hall School where Dr Johnson himself taught Latin and Greek. It was during his youth that he first took an interest in the stage, appearing in George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer.

When the school closed due to lack of funds, Garrick accompanied Dr Johnson to London (they had become friends) and there he and his younger brother Peter established a wine business (Peter eventually went back to Lichfield to run part of the business from there). While the business wasn’t a great success, Garrick took to acting in amateur theatricals and eventually – according to Peter Thomson, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – made his professional debut acting incognito in a pantomime in London in March, 1741, although Garrick apparently said placed his debut in Ipswich that summer when he was acting in Thomas Southerne’s Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave (meanwhile the first performance of one of his dramatic works – Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades – had taken place at Drury Lane the previous year).

His breakthrough role came later that year – in October – when he appeared in London on the stage of the unlicensed Goodman’s Fields Theatre in the title role of Richard III. Soon acclaimed by the likes of Alexander Pope and William Pitt as the greatest actor of his time, further roles followed at Goodman’s Fields and at the famous Drury Lane Theatre as well as in Dublin (where he started an ultimately ill-fated love affair with Irish actress Peg Woffington who returned with him to London where he continued acting at Drury Lane).

Having also performed for a season, at the rival Covent Garden Theatre, in April 1747, Garrick entered into a partnership with James Lacy for the ownership of the Drury Lane Theatre. The first performance was apparently by Garrick himself, reading Ode to Drury Lane Theatre, on dedicating a Building and erecting a Statue, to Shakespeare – a piece written by Dr Johnson.

It was two years later – on 22nd June, 1749 – that he married a German dancer Eva Marie Veigel. They lived at a house at 27 Southampton Street and Garrick’s increasing wealth led him to buy a country property in Hampton, today in south west London, in 1754 which became known as “Garrick’s Villa”. Considerably altered, the Grade I-listed property still stands there today (albeit having suffered extensive damage in a 2008 fire) along with the summerhouse he built to house his collection of Shakespearian memorabilia – known as Garrick’s Temple to Shakespeare, it’s open to the public over from April to October.

Meanwhile, as well as managing the theatre, Garrick continued acting and writing plays. In September, 1769, he staged the Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon-Avon, celebrating 200 years since the playwright’s birth – even though it was five years too late and was ultimately a bit of a disaster, he took his celebration of Shakespeare back to Drury Lane and there it was a huge success.

Garrick, who moved from Southampton Street into the newly built Adelphi Terrace in 1772, remained manager of Drury Lane until his retirement in 1776 during which time it became widely acknowledged as the country’s leading theatre. He died at home on 20th January, 1779. His wife outlived him by 43 years. The couple had no children. Garrick was subsequently interred in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey – the first actor to receive the honour.

Garrick’s legacy was enormous – not only is he famed for bringing a new ‘realistic’ style to the profession he so loved, he set new standards in the arts of public relations and was also an instrumental figure in having Shakespeare recognised as England’s national icon. Legend goes that he was also the actor responsible for the phrase “Break a leg!” – apparently so engrossed in a performance of Richard III that he overlooked the fact he’d fractured his bone.

Garrick’s name lives on in the Garrick Theatre (still operating in Charing Cross Road) and the Garrick Club, and there’s memorial to him on his former home in Adelphi Terrace.

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Stuart-masque-at-Banqueting-HouseThe sights and sounds of the elaborate masques of the early Stuart Court – described as a cross between a ball, an amateur theatrical, and a fancy dress party – are being recreated at the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Historic Royal Palaces have joined with JB3 Creative to create an “immersive theatrical experience” for visitors to the building – one of the last surviving parts of the Palace of Whitehall – with the chance to try on costumes, learn a masque dance and witness performance rehearsals for Tempe Restored, last performed in the building in 1632. Inigo Jones will be ‘present’ as masque designer to talk about his vision for the performance. Weekends will also see musicians performing period music and on 27th July there will be a one-off evening event at the Banqueting House based on Tempe Restored. Admission charge applies. Performing for the King opens tomorrow and runs until 1st September. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/BanquetingHouse/. PICTURE: HPR/newsteam.

A new exhibition looking at how some of London’s great Georgian and Victorian buildings were lost to bombs and developers before, after and during World War II – and how people such as poet John Betjeman campaigned to save them – opened in the Quadriga Gallery at Wellington Arch near Hyde Park Corner yesterday. Pride and Prejudice: The Battle for Betjeman’s Britain features surviving fragments and rare photographs of some of the “worst heritage losses” of the mid-20th century. They include Robert Adam’s Adelphi Terrace (1768-72) near the Strand, the Pantheon entertainment rooms (1772) on Oxford Street, and Euston Arch (1837). The English Heritage exhibition runs until 15th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wellington-arch/.

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On Now: Club to Catwalk – London Fashion in the 1980s. This exhibition at the V&A explores the “creative explosion” of London fashion during the decade and features more than 85 outfits by designers including John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Katherine Hamnett as well as accessories by designers such as Stephen Jones and Patrick Cox. While the ground floor gallery focuses on young fashion designers who found themselves on the world stage, the upper floor focuses on club wear, grouping garments worn by ‘tribes’ such as Fetish, Goth, High Camp and the New Romantics and featuring clothes such as those worn by the likes of Boy George, Adam Ant and Leigh Bowery. The exhibition also includes a display of magazines of the time. Entry charge applies. Runs until 16th February, 2014. For more, see www.vam.ac.uk. Meanwhile, tomorrow (Friday) night the V&A will celebrate the 25th anniversary of designer Jenny Packham with a series of four free catwalk shows in its Raphael Gallery. Booking is essential. Head to the V&A website for details.