Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Robson, Thomas Frederick
ROBSON, THOMAS FREDERICK (1822?–1864), actor, whose real name was Thomas Robson Brownhill, was born at Margate, according to his own assertion, on 22 Feb. 1822. Apprenticed in 1836 to a Mr. Smellie, a copperplate engraver in Bedfordbury, Covent Garden, he amused his fellow-workmen by imitations and histrionic displays, and, finding his occupation distasteful and, as he complained, hurtful to his sight, he turned his attention to the amateur stage. After the failure of his master, who removed to Scotland, Brownhill carried on business as a master engraver in Brydges Street, Covent Garden. At the end of twelve months he gave up business and accepted a theatrical engagement. When and where he made his first effort as an amateur cannot be traced. His first recorded appearance as such was in a once well-known little theatre in Catherine Street, Strand, where he played Simon Mealbag in a play called ‘Grace Huntley.’ Other parts were taken, and he obtained reputation with the limited public that follows such entertainments by his singing of the well-known song ‘Lord Lovel.’ His first professional engagement was as ‘second utility man’ in a small theatre on the first floor of a private house in Whitstable. After acting in the country at Uxbridge, Northampton, Nottingham, Whitehaven, Chester, and elsewhere, he came to London, and played a three months' unprosperous engagement at the Standard. This was followed by an engagement under Rouse at the Grecian Saloon, where his reputation was to some extent made. There he stayed five years. He is said by Mr. Hollingshead (My Lifetime, i. 27) to have made his first appearance there as John Lump in the ‘Wags of Windsor.’ This was probably about 1845—certainly not in 1839, as Mr. Hollingshead states. At the Grecian, besides appearing in accepted characters in comedy, such as Mawworm, Zekiel Homespun, Justice Shallow, and Frank Oatland, he was first heard in many comic parts, and sang songs, by which his fame was subsequently established at the west end. In 1850 he was engaged for the Queen's theatre, Dublin, to play leading comic business. Here or at the Theatre Royal he remained three years. On 8 Nov. 1851, at the Theatre Royal in Dublin, he was Bottom in a revival of the ‘Midsummer Night's Dream.’ Engaged by W. Farren to replace, at the Olympic in London, Henry Compton (1805–1877) [q. v.], he appeared for the first time at that house on 28 March 1853 as Tom Twig in the farce of ‘Catching an Heiress.’ In Frank Talfourd's travesty of ‘Macbeth,’ produced on 25 April, he displayed for the first time his marvellous gifts in burlesque. These he revealed to even greater advantage in the ‘Shylock’ of the same author in the following July. During the same season he showed his power in serious parts, as the original Desmarets in Tom Taylor's ‘Plot and Passion.’ He played also in the ‘Camp’ of Planché at the Olympic, and carried away the town by his performance of Jem Bags in Henry Mayhew's ‘Wandering Minstrel,’ in which character he sang ‘Villikins and his Dinah,’ by E. L. Blanchard.
At the close of 1853 the Olympic, which had passed under the management of Alfred Wigan, was at the height of its popularity, Robson was regularly engaged there, and was recognised as the greatest comic actor of his day. In June 1854 in ‘Hush Money,’ a revived farce by Dance, he played Jaspar Touchwood; and in Palgrave Simpson's ‘Heads or Tails’ he was the first Quaile. On 17 Oct. he was the first Job Wort in Tom Taylor's ‘Blighted Being,’ and at Christmas obtained one of his most conspicuous successes in Planché's ‘Yellow Dwarf.’ In January 1855 he was Sowerby in ‘Tit for Tat,’ an adaptation by F. Talfourd of ‘Les maris me font rire.’ Among other performances may be mentioned the ‘Discreet Princess,’ April 1856, in which Robson's Prince Richcraft was painful in intensity, and Gustavus Adolphus Fitzmortimer, in ‘A Fascinating Individual,’ 11 June. In Brough's ‘Medea,’ 14 July, Robson's Medea was one of his finest burlesque creations. His Jones, in Talfourd's ‘Jones the Avenger’ (‘Le Massacre d'un Innocent’), was seen on 24 Nov. Zephyr, in ‘Young and Handsome,’ followed in January 1857. His Daddy Hardacre, in an adaptation so named of ‘La Fille de l'Avare,’ 26 March 1857, was one of his earliest essays in domestic drama. On 2 July he was Massaniello in Brough's burlesque of that name.
In August 1857, in partnership with Emden, he undertook the management of the Olympic, speaking, on the opening night, an address written by Robert Brough, and appearing both as Aaron Gurnock in Wilkie Collins's ‘Lighthouse,’ and as Massaniello. On the first production of the ‘Lighthouse’ by amateurs, at Tavistock House, Robson's part had been played by Charles Dickens. ‘The Subterfuge,’ an adaptation of ‘Livre troisième chapitre premier,’ was also given. After playing a country engagement he reappeared at the Olympic in the ‘Lighthouse,’ and was seen in Brough's ‘Doge of Duralto, or the Enchanted Isle.’ In June 1858 he was the first Peter Potts in Tom Taylor's ‘Going to the Bad,’ and on 13 Oct. the first Hans Grimm in Wilkie Collins's ‘Red Vial.’ On 2 Oct. he created one of his greatest characters as Sampson Burr in the ‘Porter's Knot.’ This piece by Oxenford was founded to some extent on ‘Les Crochets du père Martin’ of Carmon and Grangé. At Christmas he played Mazeppa in an extravaganza so named. Pawkins, in Oxenford's ‘Retained for the Defence’ (L'avocat d'un Grec), was seen on 25 May 1859, and Reuben Goldsched in Tom Taylor's ‘Payable on Demand’ on 11 July. Zachary Clench in Oxenford's ‘Uncle Zachary’ (L'Oncle Baptiste) was given on 8 March 1860, and Hugh de Brass in Morton's ‘Regular Fix’ on 11 Oct. On 21 Feb. 1861 there was produced H. T. Craven's ‘Chimney Corner,’ in which Robson's Peter Probity was another triumph in domestic drama. Dogbriarin Watts Phillips's ‘Camilla's Husband’ was given on 14 Nov. 1862. This was the last play in which Robson appeared.
In addition to the parts named the following deserve mention: Boots in ‘Boots at the Swan,’ Poor Pillicoddy, Mr. Griggs in Morton's ‘Ticklish Times,’ Alfred the Great in Robert Brough's burlesque so named, B. B. in a farce so called, Timour the Tartar in a burlesque by Oxenford and Shirley Brooks, Wormwood in the ‘Lottery Ticket,’ and Christopher Croke in ‘Sporting Events.’ At the close of 1862 Robson's health failed, in part owing to irregular living. Although ceasing to act, he remained a lessee of the Olympic until his death, which took place unexpectedly on 12 Aug. 1864. He was married, and two sons became actors.
During his short career Robson held a position almost if not quite unique. With so much passion and intensity did he charge burlesque that the conviction was widespread that he would prove a tragedian of highest mark. A report prevails that he once, in the country, played Shylock in the ‘Merchant of Venice’ without success, but this wants confirmation. A statement made in print that he played it in London is inaccurate. It is none the less true that he conveyed in burlesque the best idea of the electrical flashes of Kean in tragedy, and that there were moments in his Macbeth and his Shylock when the absolute sense of terror—the feeling of blood-curdling—seemed at hand, if not present. He may almost have been said to have brought pathos and drollery into association closer than had ever been witnessed on the stage. Nor in parts such as Peter Probity, Sampson Burr, and the like belonging to domestic drama, has he known an equal. In farce, too, he was unsurpassable. It is impossible to imagine anything more risible than was, for instance, his Slush in Oxenford's ‘A Legal Impediment.’ In this he played a lawyer's bemused outdoor clerk, who, visiting a gentleman, is mistaken for an unknown son-in-law-elect expected to arrive in disguise; and the manner in which he ‘introduced into the drawing-room of his astonished host all the amenities, refinements, and social customs of the private parlour of the Swan with Two Necks’ will not be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have seen it. In his later days, however, in farce and burlesque, he took, under various influences, serious liberties with his audience and his fellow-actors. So great a favourite was he with the public that proceedings were condoned which in the case of any other actor would have incurred severe and well-merited condemnation. Robson was small in figure, almost to insignificance, and was, it is said, of a singularly retiring disposition. In vol. v. of the ‘Extravaganzas of J. R. Planché’ are two lithographed portraits of Robson, one after a photograph by W. Keith, and the other after a grotesque statuette of Robson as the Yellow Dwarf. The cover of Sala's scarce memoir (1864) had a design of Robson as Jem Bags in the ‘Wandering Minstrel’ of Henry Mayhew.
[Personal recollections; Robson, a Sketch by G. A. Sala, 1864, reprinted from the Atlantic Monthly, with an unsigned preface by the publisher, John Camden Hotten; Sunday Times, 21 Aug. 1864 and various years; Era Newspaper and Almanac, various years; Theatrical Times, iii. 365; Hollingshead's My Lifetime; Scott and Howard's E. L. Blanchard; History of the Theatre Royal, Dublin, 1870; Morley's Journal of a London Playgoer; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Daily News, 26 Dec. 1892.]