Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cowell, Joseph Leathley

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COWELL, JOSEPH LEATHLEY (1792–1863), actor, author, and painter, was born not far from Torquay in Devonshire on 7 Aug. 1792. His real surname was Witchett. He was of good lineage, his father having been a colonel in the army; his uncle was Admiral Whitshed, whose portrait is at Greenwich; his mother was indulgent to his every whim, and he had opportunities for mingling with seamen and of seeing Nelson and Earl St. Vincent. He has told how he first saw ‘Hamlet’ performed at Carey Sands, and how he interrupted the ghost by shouting ‘That's the man who nailed up the flags,’ and startled Hamlet when hesitating, ‘whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer,’ by suggesting, ‘If I were you I'd go to sea!’ He made up his mind that he would rather be an actor like the one who played Horatio ‘than be Horatio Nelson, though he had lost an eye and banged the French.’ He entered the navy when thirteen years old, served three years as a midshipman, and when turned sixteen got three weeks' leave of absence before starting on a twelve months' cruise to the West Indies. He had been educated strictly in the Roman catholic faith, but curiosity led him into a protestant church in London, and he fell in love with a Miss Anna Creek, made acquaintance with the family, and first saw good acting, Charles Kemble as Romeo, Miss Davenport as the Nurse, and Charles Murray as Friar Laurence. He was more than half ‘engaged’ before he rejoined his ship and went to the West Indies. In a quarrel with a superior officer he forgot himself, and struck his oppressor, thus rendering himself liable to a court-martial, with the probability of being shot. On the voyage home a French ship was met, and he begged to be allowed to lose his life honourably in action. He did his duty so bravely that on arriving at Plymouth the admiral obtained his ante-dated ‘discharge by sick-list.’ Hence the change of name from Hawkins-Witchett. He took to painting portraits, but on 11 Jan. 1812 he wrote to George Sandford of New York, at the Plymouth Theatre, a short letter telling of his wish to become an actor, content with a small salary, and gave his name as Leathley Irving. He was kindly received, taught his business, and made his first appearance as Belcour in Cumberland's ‘West Indian’ twelve days later, in the presence of Admiral Calder, old shipmates, and some relatives. Though nervous at first, he achieved a brilliant success. He obtained a regular engagement, soon acted along with Incledon, Munden, Mrs. Jordan, young Betty, and Charles Young. He received offers from the elder Macready for Newcastle, from Kelly for Portsmouth, but preferred to accept an engagement from Beverley at Richmond. He took all varieties of tragedy and comedy, laboured hard, but liked best low comedy. At Woolwich he commenced scene-painting, working also at Covent Garden with the elder Grieve, under Phillips. At Brighton he got his highest salary in England as actor and painter. Tempted by better business he joined Faulkner at a lower salary on the northern circuit. Before this time he had married his first wife, a Miss Murray, and they had two children, Joseph and Maria. Ambition had led him into a ruinous struggle with difficulties, but Lord Normanby and a few other friends generously presented him with fifty guineas before he started for Shields and York, ‘the stepping-stone to London.’ Here he appeared as Crack in the ‘Turnpike Gate.’ At Wakefield he left the company and joined Thomas Robertson's at Lincoln. Stephen Kemble offered him an engagement at Drury Lane at 6l. a week, and he opened as Samson Rawbold in Colman's ‘Iron Chest’ and Nicholas in the ‘Midnight Hour.’ He was jealous of Harley, thanks to whose epileptic attack he secured the part of Goodman. On the death of Queen Charlotte, 12 Nov. 1818, theatres were closed. Drury Lane ended the season in a state of bankruptcy, so he composed and acted a three hours' olio called ‘Cowell Alone; or, a Trip to London,’ on the Lincoln circuit. Thence he returned to London for the Sans Pariel (sic), otherwise the Adelphi. His daughter Maria died, aged five years. Engaged by Elliston at Drury Lane, he opened as James in ‘Blue Devils,’ but he soon returned to the Adelphi on a three years' engagement. While drawing from memory a portrait of Charles Kemble as Romeo for his friend Oxberry, he was brought to the notice of Stephen Price, the American manager, arranged with him to sail for the States, being engaged at 10l. a week the first season, 12l. the second. He was then acting at Astley's in ‘Gil Blas,’ and did not scruple to escape on the plea of indisposition. He left behind his sons, Joseph and Samuel, sailed from the Downs on 8 Sept. 1821, and arrived at New York 24 Oct., to begin at the Park Theatre in ‘The Foundling of the Forest’ and his ever-successful Crack. He took the audience by storm. From this date onward, until long after he published his clever and amusing autobiography in 1844, his career was prosperous, and he was a favourite in all the chief cities of the Union. Clever as he was, a delightful companion, brimming with anecdote, mirth, and song, sarcastic but not revengeful, he was frequently in quarrels owing to quick temper. The second of his three wives was Frances Sheppard, by whom he was the father of Sidney Francis, known afterwards as Mrs. Bateman [q. v.] On 24 July 1823 he left the Park Theatre. Early in February 1826 he was receiving warmest welcome at Charleston. In September 1827 he opened the Philadelphia Theatre at Wilmington, Delaware. In 1829 his son Samuel [q. v.], nine years old, appeared for his benefit at Boston. His other son, Joseph, distinguished himself as a scene-painter, but died in early manhood. When in 1844 Messrs. Harper Brothers of New York published the record of Joe Cowell's ‘Thirty Years of Theatrical Life,’ he was still a favourite among all classes. But he became weary of his profession, and desired nothing so much as a return to England and a retired life near London, at Putney, ‘up the Thames.’ This was the calm evening that he looked forward to with hope, and it was fulfilled in 1863. He had previously returned in 1846 and 1854. No man ever was more unselfishly and affectionately proud of the genius of his descendants than he was of Kate Bateman's ‘Leah.’ He married a third time in London, 1848 (Harriet Burke, who survived until 1886). He loved to welcome the younger actors, and sometimes painted or sketched for amusement. His own portrait was a convincing proof of his rare talent. The old man lingered until 13 Nov. 1863, and lies buried in Brompton cemetery, near London. A stone was erected by his son-in-law, H. L. Bateman [q. v.]

[Personal knowledge; obituary notice in the Era, by Leigh Murray; Thirty Years passed among the Players in England and America, theatrical life of Joe Cowell, comedian, written by himself, 1844.]

J. W. E.