Johnston, Henry Erskine (DNB00)

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JOHNSTON, HENRY ERSKINE (1777–1830?), actor, born in Edinburgh in May 1777, was apprenticed to a linendraper, and made his first appearance upon the Edinburgh stage under Stephen Kemble [q. v.] as an amateur in the part of Hamlet, 9 July 1794. The ‘Thespian Dictionary’ asserts that he also played harlequin, and states that he had previously on the same stage recited Collins's ‘Ode on the Passions.’ His success was immediate and enthusiastic; he was extravagantly feted, and dubbed the Scottish Roscius. After playing a few nights, he crossed to Dublin, where he acted twelve nights, appearing on seven of them as Norval in ‘Douglas,’ in which he was excellent. His first appearance in London took place at Covent Garden, as ‘H. Johnston from Edinburgh,’ in ‘Douglas,’ 23 Oct. 1797, not the 29th, as is stated. He was praised in the ‘European Review’ for figure, countenance, and voice, but was said to lack the art to conceal art. Romeo followed, 2 Nov.; Dorilas in ‘Merope,’ 29 Nov.; Achmet in ‘Barbarossa,’ 4 Jan. 1798; Hamlet, 28 April, and he played on 17 April an original character in ‘Curiosity,’ an unprinted play, said to have been translated from Gustavus, king of Sweden. On 23 June 1798 he was, at the Haymarket, the original Alberto in Holcroft's ‘Inquisitor.’ At Covent Garden, with summer engagements at the Haymarket, he remained until the season of 1802–3, playing Sir Edward Mortimer, Polydore in the ‘Orphan,’ Lothario, Octavian, and other parts, and being the original representative of various characters in plays by Morton, Holman, Mrs. Inchbald, T. Dibdin, and others. He had married in 1796 a Miss Parker, by whom he had six children. Mrs. Johnston, born in 1782, belonged to a theatrical family and had acted with her husband in Ireland as Lady Contest in the ‘Wedding Day’ and Josephine in the ‘Children in the Wood.’ She appeared as Ophelia to her husband's Hamlet at the Haymarket, 3 Sept. 1798, and on the 17th repeated the character at Covent Garden, where she played many parts in comedy and in tragedy, including Lady Macbeth. With Holman, Johnstone, Fawcett, Pope, Knight, Munden, and Incledon, Johnston signed the famous statement of grievances against the management of Covent Garden, and after the sacrifice of J. G. Holman [q. v.] is said to have owed his re-engagement to the loyalty of Fawcett, who refused to renew his contract without the reinstatement of Johnston. As Norval in ‘Douglas’ he made, 15 Sept. 1803, his first appearance at Drury Lane, playing on the 22nd Anhalt in ‘Lovers' Vows’ to the Amelia of his wife. Here he remained two years, playing among other characters Petruchio and Duke Aranza, and returned to Covent Garden 13 Oct. 1805, as the original Rugantino, the Bravo of Venice, in Monk Lewis's play of that name. As Sir Archy Macsarcasm in ‘Love à la Mode’ he was seen again at Covent Garden 10 Dec. 1816, ‘first appearance there for twelve years.’ Sir Pertinax Macsycophant followed, 27 Dec., and on 10 June 1817 he was the original Baltimore at the English Opera House (the Lyceum) in an operatic version of the ‘Election’ of Joanna Baillie. At Drury Lane, 9 Oct. 1817, he was Pierre in ‘Venice Preserved,’ and 25 March 1818 the original Rob Roy Macgregor in Soane's adaptation from Scott. He subsequently, 3 July 1821, played at Drury Lane Dougal in Pocock's version of ‘Rob Roy Macgregor.’ On 24 Nov. 1821 he was at the Olympic the Solitary in ‘Le Solitaire, or the Recluse of the Alps.’ This seems to have been his last appearance in London. ‘The Drama,’ ii. 98, commending his performance, speaks of him as almost a recluse from London. At the beginning of 1823 he became manager of the Caledonian Theatre (as he rechristened a building in Edinburgh previously known as the Circus). He opened on 11 Jan. 1823 with ‘Gilderoy,’ in which he played the hero, and with an address written by himself. He played Jerry Hawthorn in ‘Tom and Jerry,’ and other parts, but resigned his management 7 April 1823. On 20 Oct. 1830 he played a four nights' engagement at the same house, after which time he disappears.

Johnston conquered a provincial accent and a tendency to over-gesticulation and became a good actor. His principal parts were Douglas, Count Romaldi in the ‘Tale of Mystery,’ George Barnwell, Anhalt, Alonzo in ‘Pizarro,’ Merton in ‘Marriage Promise,’ and the Count in the ‘Wife of Two Husbands.’ He was versatile and popular. Gilliland, who in 1804 calls him ‘not only an excellent but an (sic) highly useful actor,’ complains of the withdrawal of Mrs. Johnston from the stage, speaks highly of her face and figure, and praises greatly her Lady Randolpha Lumbercourt in the ‘Man of the World,’ and her Lady Caroline Braymore in ‘John Bull.’ She was in later years separated from her husband, outlived her reputation, and in vol. vii. of Oxberry's ‘Dramatic Biography’ is said to be no longer on the stage. A Miss Johnston appeared as a singer at the Haymarket 23 June 1823, with no great success. That she was a daughter of Johnston seems possible.

Portraits of Johnston as Norval, by Singleton, R.A., and by De Wilde (two), as well as a portrait of Mrs. Johnstone by the latter artist, are in the Garrick Club.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror and Dramatic Synopsis; Thespian Dict.; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage; European and other magazines.]

J. K.