Samuel Phelps was born on February 13, 1804 in Plymouth Dock (now Devonport) and initially worked in newspaper offices.
Shortly after marrying in 1826 he accepted a theatrical post and spent a few years ‘cutting his teeth’ in provincial theatre.
He made his first London appearance on August 28, 1837 playing the character of Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Haymarket Theatre. After a short season there, he spent six years performing at Covent Garden, the Haymarket and Drury Lane.
In May 1844 he became co-lessee of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London. He took on the role of Theatrical Manager. A man called Thomas Greenwood dealt with the business side of things and Mary Amelia Warner became the leading lady.
Phelps would stay in his Theatrical Manager’s position for 20 years. During that time he raised Sadler’s Wells to an important position, revolutionised the production of Shakespeare’s plays and appeared in many varied roles himself.
Under his direction, 34 of Shakespeare’s plays were presented at the theatre. As a director it’s been said that his handling of Shakespearean plays had a great educational effect both on the public and on the players. He published an annotated edition of Shakespeare’s plays in two volumes from 1852–54.
In 1861 Greenwood retired and Phelps, unable to cope with the business management side of things on top of his existing commitments, retired the following year.
He continued to act regularly for the next 15 years however and achieved considerable success. His last appearance was in 1878 as Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.
Phelps was described by one critic as ‘a sound and capable actor‘. He had a preference for tragedy but was most successful in comedic roles.
This portrait from the city’s art collections captures him in the role of Hamlet. This famous tragedy was written between 1599 and 1602 and is set in the Kingdom of Denmark. It’s Shakespeare’s longest play and is ranked among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English literature. Hamlet was Phelps’ most frequently played role.
This portrait was painted by a Dublin-born artist called Nicholas Joseph Crowley. We believe he painted it at some point between 1835-40 – possibly just after Crowley arrived in London to work and fairly soon after Phelps undertook his first leading role.
Phelps passed away on November 6, 1878 in Essex at the age of 74.
He left Plymouth to find the fame and fortune he was destined for, but we’ll always be able to lay claim to the fact that we were the birthplace of one of the most famous actors and theatre managers of the 1800s.