Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Liston, John

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LISTON, JOHN (1776?–1846), actor, the son of John Liston, according to one account a watchmaker, and to another the occupant of a subordinate post in the custom house, was born in or about 1776 in the parish of St. Anne, Soho. His age at death was nevertheless stated to be 72 (Gent. Mag. 1846, i. 661). He was educated under Dr. Barrow at Soho school. Dr. Doran states that he was for a while, under the name of Williams, an usher in the Rev. Dr. Burney's school at Gosport. In 1799 he was master at the grammar school of St. Martin's in Castle Street, Leicester Square. Some amateur efforts at a private theatre in the Strand preceded an appearance in public at Weymouth as Lord Duberley in the ‘Heir-at-Law,’ which was a complete failure. After visiting Dublin, and meeting presumably his future wife, he visited York, where he is said to have acquired a portion of the method of an actor named Kelly, and joined Stephen Kemble on the Newcastle circuit, including Sunderland and Durham. Many comic stories, probably narrated by himself, are told by Mrs. Mathews of his efforts in serious characters, in some of which he supported Mrs. Siddons. He was finally induced by his manager to play old men, and ultimately, as Diggory in ‘She Stoops to Conquer,’ won Kemble's approval. From that time he began to play bumpkins.

In the north Liston acquired a social respect which he never forfeited. Charles Kemble [q. v.] vainly recommended him to the management of Covent Garden. Colman, however, engaged him for the Haymarket, where, as Liston from Newcastle, he appeared on 10 June 1805 in the part of Sheepface in the ‘Village Lawyer.’ His success was not immediate. During the season he played many other parts: Zekiel in the ‘Heir-at-Law,’ Lump in the ‘Review,’ Dan in ‘John Bull,’ Stephen in the ‘Poor Gentleman,’ Robin Roughhead in ‘Fortune's Frolic,’ Jacob in the ‘Chapter of Accidents,’ John Grouse in the ‘School for Prejudice,’ Farmer Ashfield in ‘Speed the Plough,’ Abel in ‘Honest Thieves,’ Sir George Thunder in ‘Wild Oats,’ the Tailor in ‘Katharine and Petruchio,’ Zachariades in the ‘Tailors,’ Fustian in ‘Sylvester Daggerwood,’ Frank in ‘Three and Deuce,’ and Frank Oatland in ‘A Cure for the Heartache,’ besides being the original Antony in Cherry's ‘Village, or the World's Epitome,’ 18 July 1805. Next season, 1806, he was no less busy, playing, among other comic parts, the First Gravedigger in ‘Hamlet.’ His dancing seems to have commended him to the public. On 15 Oct., as Jacob Gawky in the ‘Chapter of Accidents,’ he made his first appearance at Covent Garden, where on the 18th he was the original Memmo in ‘Monk’ Lewis's ‘Rugantino, or the Bravo of Venice,’ and on 28 Jan. 1806 the first Gaby Grim in Colman's ‘We fly by Night, or Long Stories.’ On 16 July 1807 he was the original Vincent in Theodore Hook's ‘Fortress.’ In ‘Music Mad,’ by Hook, Haymarket, 27 Aug. 1807, Liston, who played a comic servant, took a hold of his audience, which was strengthened by his performance of Lord Grizzle, and by his Caper in Allingham's ‘Who Wins? or the Widow's Choice,’ Covent Garden, 25 Feb. 1808. An endless round of comic parts, new and old, was now assigned him. During his stay at Covent Garden, which lasted until 1822, or at the Haymarket, his connection with which as a summer theatre was with few breaks maintained until 1830, he played, among innumerable parts, Polonius, Slender, Pompey in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Bottom, Cloten, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Octavian in the ‘Mountaineers,’ Justice Greedy in ‘A New Way to Pay Old Debts,’ the Humorous Lieutenant in the piece so named, Bob Acres, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and Tony Lumpkin. In adaptations from Scott he was, so far as Covent Garden is concerned, the original Dominie Sampson, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Jonathan Oldbuck, Wamba, and Captain Dalgetty. One of the earliest original characters in which his special qualities were shown was Apollo Belvi, a dancing-master, in ‘Killing no Murder,’ by Theodore Hook. The success of the piece was attributed to the acting of Mathews and Liston, who were much together, and learned to play into each other's hands. His Bombastes Furioso at the Haymarket on 7 Aug. 1810 was a highly popular ‘creation,’ as was his Log in ‘Love, Law, and Physic,’ Covent Garden, on 20 Nov. 1812. For his benefits Liston ventured on singular experiments. He played Romeo on 16 June 1812, Ophelia in Poole's ‘Hamlet Travestie’ on 17 June 1813, and, after the fashion of Joe Haines and subsequent comedians, delivered an epilogue from the back of an ass. On 31 May 1822 Liston took his last benefit at Covent Garden. On 28 Jan. 1823, as Tony Lumpkin, he made his first appearance at Drury Lane. The same class of parts was assigned him, and the number of original characters he took in plays by Pocock, Dibdin, Kenney, and other writers of the day was very numerous. He seems to have been better suited to the Haymarket than to larger houses, and his chief triumphs belong to that stage. Greatest and most enduring among these is his ‘Paul Pry,’ 13 Sept. 1825. Genest speaks of this as a perfect piece of acting. Memories of it survive, and the costume and method of Liston in the part are repeated to the present day. Engaged by Madame Vestris for the Olympic, he remained at that theatre until his retirement in 1837. His last appearance was for the benefit of George Herbert Bonaparte Rodwell [q. v.], composer, who married his daughter Emma. At this period Liston was living at Penn, near Windsor. Subsequently he removed to London to a house facing Hyde Park Corner, whence, crutch in hand, in his later years he watched the omnibuses pass, exhibiting signs of distress if any happened to be late. Something like softening of the brain appears to have set in; he fell into a state of lethargy, and died on 22 March 1846. He was buried at Kensal Green. He left 40,000l. His son, Captain John Terry Liston, was residuary legatee.

Though one of the most comic of actors, a man unjustly charged with a mere power of grimace, he was of a nervous temperament, and subject to fits of depression. When acting he is said to have not seldom fortified himself with brandy, and to have at times taken a bottle. He was a special favourite with George IV. He obtained the largest salary ever in his time paid to a comedian, and was provident. Forty pounds a week was paid him at Drury Lane when he first joined it, 10l. a night was given him at the Haymarket, and 60l., or, according to another account, 100l. a week when he joined the Olympic. When acting on sharing terms he is said to have made from 250l. to 350l. a week. Liston was five feet eleven in height, and shapely in proportions. The gravity of his face added to the effect of his comedy. Hazlitt describes him as Sir Peter Pigwiggin in ‘Pigeons and Crows.’ ‘His jaws seem to ache with laughter, his eyes look out of his head with wonder, his face is unctuous all over, and bathed with jests.’ He adds that Liston ‘does not play so well to any one else as he does to himself.’ Lamb says: ‘There is one face of Farley, one face of Knight, one—but what a face it is!—of Liston.’ Mrs. Mathews speaks of him as ‘the exquisite Liston.’ Colman, comparing him with Edwin, says that he cannot conceive a ‘greater comic treat than the performance of either when in his element.’ Boaden writes: ‘Other actors labour to be comic. I see nothing like labour or system about Liston. In his person he is stately, and even grave in his expression, nervous, and rather remote from popular habits’ (Life of Mrs. Jordan, ii. 198). Leigh Hunt praises Liston as natural, says that his happiest performances are his ignorant rustics, his most inaccurate his old men. A comparison between Emery and Liston follows, in which it is said that ‘the former is more skilled in the habits and cunning of rusticity, and the latter in its simplicity and ignorance.’ His performances of Jacob Gawky in the ‘Chapter of Accidents’ and Humphrey Grizzle in ‘Three and Deuce’ are specially commended. He was fond of punning, and acquired from intimates such as Mathews and Hook a tendency to indulge in practical jokes.

Pictures of him by De Wilde as Gaby Grim in ‘We fly by Night,’ as Diggory in ‘All the World's a Stage,’ as Solomon in the ‘Quaker,’ and as Caper in ‘Who Wins?’ are in the Garrick Club, a chief ornament of which is the picture by Clint of a scene from ‘Love, Law, and Physic,’ with Liston as Lubin Log, and Mathews and Emery in other characters. A picture of Mrs. Liston as Queen Dollalolla in ‘Tom Thumb,’ by De Wilde, is in the same collection. A picture of Liston by Clint as Paul Pry, with Madame Vestris and others, was in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1868, and now belongs to the Science and Art Department, South Kensington. A portrait of him by Harlow in ‘No Song, no Supper,’ with Emery, Fawcett, and others, is on a panel in the Beef-steak Club room, Lyceum Theatre. Portraits and caricatures of Liston abound. Upon the death, in 1854, of his only son, Liston's effects were sold. These included his favourite portrait, showing him with a horse and dog, and six plates of him in various characters. His library contained many volumes of biblical criticism.

Mrs. Liston, whose stature was diminutive, was a delightful singer in ballad operas and a matchless performer in burlesque. She was a pupil of Kelly and Mrs. Crouch, and is first heard of as Miss Tyrer in Dublin, playing at the concerts at the Rotunda. She is said, probably in error, to have made in 1800, as Josephine in ‘Children in the Wood,’ her first appearance at the Haymarket. Her name is first recorded in connection with the theatre on 21 Aug. 1801, as Winifred in Morton's ‘Zorinski.’ On 21 May 1801, at Drury Lane, as Fidelia in the ‘Pirates,’ a comic opera by James Cobb [q. v.], she is announced to make her first appearance on this, and second on any stage. Her name also appears to Madge in ‘Love in a Village’ on 2 June 1801, to Mysis in ‘Midas’ on 25 Oct. 1802, and a few other parts. Her famous character of Queen Dollalolla in ‘Tom Thumb,’ a burletta extracted from Fielding by Kane O'Hara, was given (third time) at the Haymarket on 27 July 1805. On 18 Sept. 1805, as Lucy in the ‘Review,’ she made her first appearance at Covent Garden, where on 15 Nov. 1806 she was the original Minna in Dimond's ‘Adrian and Orilla,’ and on 11 Dec. 1806, as Mrs. Liston, was Mrs. Chequer to the Chequer of Liston in ‘Arbitration,’ attributed to Reynolds. Her biographers, one and all, assign her marriage to the following year. She played very many parts, including Tilburina in the ‘Critic,’ Anna, an original character, in Reynolds's ‘Exile,’ Mrs. Sneak in the ‘Battle of Hexham,’ Pink in the ‘Young Quaker,’ Audrey, &c. When Liston took, on 31 May 1822, at Covent Garden his farewell of that theatre, Mrs. Liston, whose appearance on the stage had become infrequent, took her farewell of the stage, reciting a valedictory ode by Colman. She died in 1854.

[The accounts of Liston's early life are untrustworthy and contradictory. No full particulars are obtainable. The preceding account is extracted from the generally accurate records of Genest's Account of the English Stage, from the biographical sketch by Benjamin Webster in the Acting National Drama, that in Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, vol. i., and the rather fantastic account supplied by Mrs. Mathews in her Tea Table Talk. See also Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe, Barton Baker's Our Old Actors, Clark Russell's Representative Actors, E. Stirling's Old Drury Lane, the Georgian Era, also the works of Lamb, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, the Era Mag. and newspaper, Gent. Mag., and various theatrical magazines. Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. iv. 145, gives an imaginary letter to Liston, furnishing the names of many of his principal characters; see also 8th ser. ii. 107, 178, 257, 332.]

J. K.