He was born in the master's lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, the great-grandson of the bishop of Peterborough; his father, Dr Denison Cumberland, became successively Bishop of Clonfert and Bishop of Kilmore. His mother was Joanna, youngest daughter of the great scholar Richard Bentley and the heroine of John Byrom's popular eclogue, Cohn and Phoebe. Bentley's grandson later collected all the pamphlets bearing on the Letters of Phalaris controversy, and defended the reputation of his ancestor in his Letter to Bishop Robert Lowth. His youngest sister was poet Mary Alcock. Cumberland was educated at the grammar school at Bury St Edmunds, and he relates how, when the head-master Arthur Kinsman told Bentley he would make his grandson as good a scholar as the grandfather himself, Bentley retorted: "Pshaw, Arthur, how can that be, when I have forgot more than thou ever knewest?" Bentley died during his grandson's schooldays; and in 1744 the boy was moved to Westminster School, then at the height of its reputation under Dr Nicholls. Among his schoolfellows were Warren Hastings, George Colman (the elder), Charles Churchill and William Cowper. At the age of fourteen, Cumberland went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1750 he took his degree as tenth wrangler. His account of his degree examination, as well as that for a fellowship at his college, part of which he underwent in the "judges' chamber," where he was born, is curious; he was by virtue of an alteration in the statutes elected to his fellowship in the second year of his degree.
Meanwhile his work as a classical scholar had been interspersed with attempts at imitating Edmund Spenser, and a dramatic effort modeled after William Mason's Elfrida, called Caractacus. He had just begun to read for his fellowship when the Earl of Halifax offered him the post of private secretary, first lord of trade and plantations in the Duke of Newcastle's ministry. His family persuaded him to accept, and he returned to the post after his election as fellow. It left him plenty of time for literary pursuits, which included a poem in blank verse about India. He resigned his fellowship when he married his cousin Elizabeth Ridge in 1759, to whom he had paid his addresses on receiving through Lord Halifax "a small establishment as crown-agent for Nova Scotia." In 1761 he accompanied his patron (who had been appointed lord-lieutenant) to Ireland as Ulster secretary; and in acknowledgment of his services was offered a baronetcy, which he declined. When in 1762 Halifax became secretary of state, Cumberland in vain applied for the post of under-secretary, but could only obtain the clerkship of reports at the Board of Trade under Lord Hillsborough.
When Lord George Germaine (Sackville) in 1775 acceded to office, Cumberland was appointed secretary to the Board of Trade and Plantations, a post he held till Edmund Burke's economical reform abolished it in 1782. In 1780, he had been sent on a confidential mission to Spain to negotiate a separate peace treaty; but though he was well received by King Charles III of Spain and his minister José Moñino y Redondo, conde de Floridablanca, the question of Gibraltar proved a stumbling-block. He was recalled in 1781, and was refused repayment of the expenses he had incurred, towards which only £1000 had been advanced. He thus found himself £4500 out-of-pocket: in vain, he says, "I wearied the door of Lord North till his very servants drove me from it"; his memo remained unread or unnoticed either by the prime minister or by secretary Robinson, through whom the original promise had been made. Soon after this experience he lost his office, and had to retire on a compensation allowance of less than half-pay. He took up residence at Tunbridge Wells; but during his last years he mostly lived in London, where he died. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, a short oration being pronounced by his friend Dean Vincent.
Cumberland's wrote much over the course of his long life, but is likely to be remembered only for his plays and perhaps his memoirs. The collection of essays and other pieces entitled The Observer (1785), afterwards republished with a translation of The Clouds, found a place among The British Essayists. For the accounts— given in The Observer of the Greek writers, especially the comic poets, Cumberland availed himself of Bentley's manuscripts and annotated books in his possession; his translations from Greek fragments, which are not inelegant but lack closeness, are republished in James Bailey's Comicorum Graecorum (part i., 1840) and Hermesianactis, Archibochi, et Pratinae fragmenta. Cumberland further produced Anecdotes of Eminent Painters in Spain (1782 and 1787); a Catalogue of the King of Spain's Paintings (1787); two novels—Arundel (1789), a story in letters, and Henry (1795), a "diluted comedy" on the construction and polishing of which he seems to have expended great care; a religious epic, Calvary, or the Death of Christ (1792); his last publication was a poem entitled Retrospection.
He is also said have joined Sir James Bland Burges in an epic, the Exodiad (1807), and in a novel, John de Lancaster. Besides these he wrote the Letter to the Bishop of Oxford in vindication of Bentley (1767); another to the Bishop of Llandaff (Richard Watson) on his proposal for equalizing the revenues of the Established Church (1783); a Character of the late Lord Sackville (1785), whom in his Memoirs he vindicates from the stigma of cowardice; and an anonymous pamphlet, Curtius rescued from the Gulf, against the redoubtable Dr Parr. He was also the author of a version of fifty of the Psalms of David; of a tract on the evidences of Christianity; and of other religious exercises in prose and verse, the former including "as many sermons as would make a large volume, some of which have been delivered from the pulpits." Lastly, he edited a short-lived critical journal called The London Review (1809), intended to be a rival to the Quarterly, with signed articles.
Cumberland wrote his Memoirs in 1804-5; they were published in 1806, with a supplement added in 1807. They include a long account of his Spanish mission and some interesting reminiscences of several persons of note— especially Bubb Dodington, Single-Speech Hamilton, and Lord George Sackville among politicians, and of Garrick, Samuel Foote and Oliver Goldsmith, though the accuracy of some of the anecdotes is disputed. The book exhibits its author as an amiable egotist, careful of his own reputation, given to prolixity and undistinguished by wit, but a good observer of men and manners. The uneasy self-absorption which Sheridan immortalized in the character of Sir Fretful Plagiary in The Critic is apparent enough in this autobiography, but presents itself there in no offensive form. The incidental criticisms of actors have been justly praised.
Cumberland was hardly warranted in the conjecture that no English author had yet equalled his list of dramas in point of number; but his plays, published and unpublished, have been computed to amount to fifty-four. About 35 of these are regular plays, to which have been added four operas and a farce; about half are comedies. His favorite mode was the "sentimental comedy," which combines domestic plots, rhetorical enforcement of moral precepts, and comic humor. These plays are primarily, to borrow Cumberland's own phraseology, "attempts upon the heart." He takes great credit to himself for weaving his plays out of "homely stuff, right British drugget," and for eschewing "the vile Gallic stage"; on the other hand, he borrowed from the sentimental fiction of his own country, including Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne.
His favorite theme is virtue in distress or danger, but assured of its reward in the fifth act; his most constant characters are men of feeling and young ladies who are either prudes or coquettes. Cumberland's comic talents lay in the invention of comic characters taken from the "outskirts of the empire," and intended to vindicate the good elements of the Scots, Irish, and colonials from English prejudice. The plays are highly patriotic and adhere to conventional morality. If Cumberland's dialogue lacks brilliance and his characters reality, the construction of the plots is generally skilful, due to Cumberland's insight into the secrets of theatrical effect. Though Cumberland's sentimentality is often wearisome, his morality is generally sound; that if he was without the genius requisite for elevating the national drama, he did his best to keep it pure and sweet; and that if he borrowed much, he borrowed only the best aspects of other dramatists' work.
His first play was a tragedy, The Banishment of Cicero, published in 1761 after David Garrick rejected it; this was followed in 1765 by a musical drama, The Summer's Tale, subsequently compressed into an afterpiece Amelia (1768). Cumberland first essayed sentimental comedy in The Brothers (1769). This play is inspired by Henry Fielding's Tom Jones; its comic characters are the jolly old tar Captain Ironsides, and the henpecked husband Sir Benjamin Dove, whose progress to self-assertion is genuinely comic. Horace Walpole said, that it acted well, but read ill, though he could distinguish in it "strokes of Mr Bentley."
The epilogue paid a compliment to Garrick, who helped the production of Cumberland's second comedy The West-Indian (1771). Its hero, who probably owes much to the suggestion of Garrick, is a young scapegrace fresh from the tropics, "with rum and sugar enough belonging to him to make all the water in the Thames into punch,"—a libertine with generous instincts, which prevail in the end. This early example of the modern drama was favorably received; Boden translated it into German, and Goethe acted in it at the Weimar court. The Fashionable Lover (1772) is a sentimental comedy, as is The Choleric Man (1774), founded on the Adelphi of Terence.
Among his later comedies were:
The other works printed during his lifetime include:
His posthumously printed plays (published in 2 vols. in 1813) include:
Cumberland published his memoirs in 1806-07. His novel Henry was printed in Ballantyne's Novelists' Library (1821), with a preface by Sir Walter Scott. A Critical Examination of Cumberland's works and a memoir of the author based on his autobiography, with the addition of some more or less feeble criticisms, by William Madford, appeared in 1812. An excellent account of Cumberland is included in "George Paston's" Little Memoirs of the Eighteenth Century (1901). Hermann Theodor Hettner well characterizes Cumberland's position in the history of the English drama in Litteraturgesch. d. 18. Jahrhunderts (2nd ed., 1865), i. 520. Cumberland's portrait by George Romney (whose talent he was one of the first to encourage) is in the National Portrait Gallery.