Of all villages Dulwich deserves an award as the most commemorative - lucky in its resident local historians! Dulwich derives from theatre history, the estate bought with entertainment industry wealth. Alleynians celebrate the quatercentenary of Alleyn’s Foundation; Burbagites remind us that in 1619 also Richard Burbage died. Of these two actors, far and away the most celebrated in the golden age of English drama, Burbage died at the age of fifty, the younger by two years. The Burbage Road enterprise is called ‘Exit Burbage’ - tersest obituary of all time, reputedly on his grave-stone.
Both had fathers involved in court entertainments and acted young, Burbage at sixteen. Unlike Alleyn, Burbage’s whole career was on the stage, and very demanding it was. Burbage was star of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men), creating the great rôles Shakespeare wrote for him, a famous Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, King Lear and Richard III, at the Globe on Bankside and (in winter) at the roofed Blackfriars. His sinister Ferdinand in The Duchess of Malfi was famous. Alleyn, leader of the Admiral’s Men, created the parts Marlowe wrote for him, at the Rose on Bankside and at the Fortune in Golden Lane. Both men regularly played at court, and in masques. When James I arrived from Scotland, the City of London in 1604 chose Alleyn, its most famous lungs, to welcome him with words by Ben Jonson, from a triumphal arch in Fenchurch Street for The Magnificent Entertainment: music and actors on a series of decorated structures, King and entourage processing through the streets. Likewise Burbage, during a City water pageant in 1610, on the back of a great wooden fish on the Thames addressed the promising Stuart heir, Prince Henry, who died so young soon after. The two actors’ styles must have been markedly different, Alleyn thespian - swaggering, mannered and orotund - a virile presence as Tamburlaine and Faustus, his strutting walk imitated by young men on the streets. In the pub scene in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part II the low-life braggart Pistol comically rants select famous Alleynian phrases, such as “Holla, ye pampered jades of Asia!” from Tamburlaine (while he whipped kings on all fours pulling his chariot). Burbage’s range was wider, his diction more ‘natural’ and subtle to deliver ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’, or indeed ‘To be or not to be.’ At Christmas 1598 Burbage and his actors carried the wood and timbers of their theatre at Shoreditch, when the ground landlord would not renew the lease, across London Bridge for the frame of the first Globe, built by Peter Street who put up the Fortune Playhouse and Alleyn’s large riverside home.
Burbage perhaps played at the Rose in his early days: in the Archives is a piece of paper called a ‘Platt’, a very rare plot outline, hung in the wings for the actors’ entrances, for a lost play of 1590-92, The Seven Deadly Sins. A named actor performs two main parts - ‘R. Burbadge’. Preserved by Alleyn, it was recycled as a book-cover for a much later manuscript play. Another actor is named ‘Ned’, but Ned was clearly a boy actor, and Alleyn too old by that date. In Shakespeare in Love, Tom Stoppard made much of a scabrous legend to present Martin Clunes as a lecherous Burbage, but Geoffrey Rush made of Alleyn’s father-in-law Philip Henslowe a magnificent eccentric character, after a visit to Dulwich to study the theatre papers. Ben Affleck played Edward Alleyn as little more than a callow American College kid.
One might imagine that as Lord of the Manor Alleyn chose the names of our own roads that were just fields, hedges and stiles in his day, and that Burbage Road was his tribute to a great rival; or that he called another road by his surname backwards (or almost: droll Eynella). But Burbage Road was built and partly developed as suburban dormitory in the 1880s, from a lane or cart-track. Once it had been the idyllic habitual walk of young John Ruskin from Herne Hill; a mile of chestnut, lilac and apple trees among the meadows of the Dulwich valley, with cows and buttercups. The great odour of hay in summer there was famous. Arrived at the Gallery he brooded ideas, then on to the woods by Croxted Lane (with its streamlet) composing paragraphs for Modern Painters. Ian MacInnes kindly sent me an article from the South London Press dated 2 February, 1886. It was Burbage Road by that date: ‘the long talked of new road from Half Moon Lane to Dulwich College has been constructed and opened’. It was crossed by ‘one of the finest pieces of railway architecture anywhere to be seen’, Barry’s viaduct of red and white brick and Portland stone balustrade, with monograms of ‘AC’ (Alleyn’s College) dated 1866, in which year ‘the road was already contemplated’. It was just half of the ‘magnificent thoroughfare…to be called Burbage Road’. Ian McInnes’ article on the extended road and building developments can be read online in the Dulwich Society Newsletter Archive (Winter 2004).
The Governors’ Minutes record no discussion of the choice of name, but say ‘The name of the road, decided on by The Metropolitan Board of Works, is to be Burbage Road’. If anyone at Dulwich had suggested Burbage, it would have been Canon Carver, as Master of the College (1858-83) still playing a major executive part in the Estate. Carver had a scholarly interest in the College’s theatre papers and other collections, and with a Christian gentleman’s fair-mindedness might have proposed Burbage. He was erudite and truthful, with a special interest in Burbage. In 1875 he sent the Picture Gallery portrait said to be Burbage (DPG 395) to Manchester for its massively popular Art Treasures exhibition for a British Portrait Gallery section, one of over two hundred pictures the College inherited in 1686 from the actor William Cartwright, son of William Cartwright, Alleyn’s theatrical colleague and Burbage’s contemporary. This collection was actually hung in Carver’s family quarters in the North Block at the New College. In 1888, with John Sparkes, ‘Head Master of the Art Department’, Carver published a catalogue of the Cartwright Bequest, Carver writing biographical entries for the subjects of the portraits, and he is not afraid of being thought a disloyal Alleynian by saying that Burbage ‘was the most eminent and popular actor of his time, not excepting even Edward Alleyn’. Sparkes began the tradition that the painting might be a self-portrait, because Burbage was said also to have been an artist. Cartwright’s rough catalogue in his own handwriting includes ‘a womans head on a bord, dun by mr burbige ye Actor’. But many pictures were lost before they reached the College, and this painting (DPG 380) is on canvas, not wood, clearly of a quite different style to the ‘Burbage’ portrait; since 1987 it has been called ‘North Italian’. Carver pointed out that ‘Mr. burbig his hed’ in Cartwright’s handwritten list does not say it was painted by Burbage himself. The only other extant documents mentioning actual painting by Burbage refer to payments for decorative heraldic work.
Looking up with awe and affection at Burbage at the Gallery it is vexing that modern scholarship won’t allow us (‘safely’ is the word) for a number of reasons to think it Burbage. No other image of him exists. Daniel Lysons in 1792 wrote the first book to call it Burbage, describing Dulwich College in his Environs of London. This was the era of excitable antiquarian ‘discoveries’, and two years earlier Silvester Harding, hunting out Shakespearean theatrical portraits had published stipple engravings of the two Dulwich portraits, Alleyn and Richard Burbage. Of the five important theatrical figures of Cartwright’s father’s day traditionally claimed among the portraits, only one is thought likely (but still not ‘safely’) truthful: Nathan Field, young King’s Man with an ear-ring, ‘in his shurt’ (DPG 385).
Dr Jan Piggott, FSA, was formerly Head of English and Keeper of Archives at Dulwich College. With Dr Nicholas Black he is the co-editor of the new DULWICH COLLEGE - The First Four Hundred Years, to be published on June 21st of this year.
Burbage Road Celebrates its Namesake
Dulwich residents have a long tradition of celebrating the anniversary of the building of their roads. This year it is Burbage Road’s turn and the difference is that it commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of actor Richard Burbage.
It will be celebrated by a street party, a talk on Burbage, a historical walk and the painting of a mural under the Burbage Road railway bridge. Generously supported by Network Rail and painted by artist Lionel Stanhope it will be unveiled in May and will be the latest addition to Dulwich’s Outdoor Gallery.