Edwin, John (1749-1790) (DNB00)

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EDWIN, JOHN, the elder (1749–1790), comedian, born 10 Aug. 1749 in Clare Street, St. Clement Danes, was the only son of John Edwin, a watchmaker, by Hannah, daughter of Henry Brogden, a statuary in York. He had two sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. He was sent at nine years of age to a farmhouse near Enfield, and obtained a moderate education, including a good knowledge of music, Before, at the age of fifteen, he left school to fill a post at the pension office of the exchequer, he had acted with some amateur associates in a stable. He joined in 1764 a 'spouting club' meeting at the French Horn tavern in Wood Street, Cheapside, and made the acquaintance of Wilbam Woodfall, whose representation of Old Mask in Colman's 'Musical Lady' induced him to become an actor. His first essay was made at an amateur performance at the Falcon tavern in Fetter Lane. He became known to Shuter, who predicted his future success, and to Lee of Drury Lane Theatre, who engaged him at a salary of a guinea a week for a summer season in Manchester. Before leaving London Edwin played at the Haymarket at a benefit performance Quidnunc in Murphy's farce 'The Upholsterer.' A distant relative named John Edwin of George Street, Hanover Square, died, leaving to charities a fortune of near 60,000l. 'Mr. Way, a sub-governor of the South Sea House, and one of twelve executors to the will, appointed Edwin secretary to the trust, with a salary of 30l. This post Edwin held a year. Way appears also to have given him 500l. for the purpose of his entry as accountant into the South Sea House. In 1765, on starting for Manchester, Edwin made over this sum to his father. In Manchester he played characters belonging to Shuter, whom he was accustomed to mimic. In the autumn Edwin went to Dublin, appearing for the first time at the Smock Alley Theatre as Sir Philip Modelove in Mrs. Centlivre's 'A Bold Stroke for a Wife.' His other parts included Lord Trinket in the 'Jealous Wife.' When as Lord Trinket he had to speak the words, 'I cut a mighty ridiculous figure here,' a reply was received from the audience, 'You do indeed.' Things theatrical in Dublin were at the lowest ebb. Edwin's salary was rarely paid in full, and after a vagabond life in Ireland he ran away from his engagement and returned to England. After various adventures in country towns he appeared at the Bath theatre on 7 Oct. 1768 as Periwinkle in Mrs. Centlivre's 'Bold Stroke for a Wife.' Here he formed a connection with Mrs. Walmsley, a milliner in Horse Street, the subsequent abandonment of which, after twenty years' continuance, caused him to be occasionally hissed from the stage. To this connection was due the birth of his son, John Edwin [q. v.] The connection with the Bath theatre, at which he became a favourite, was maintained during many years. Among the characters in which he was seen were Dogberry, First Gravedigger, Launcelot Gobbo, Sir Hugh Evans, Mawworm in 'The Hypocrite,' and Sir Anthony Absolute. His first appearance at the Haymarket took place on 19 June 1776 as Flaw in Foote's comedy 'The Cozeners.' His first reception was but moderately favourable, and though as Billy Button in Foote's 'Maid of Bath' he established his reputation, Foote gave him comparatively few opportunities. Edwin did not appear in London until his great model, Shuter, had disappeared from the stage. George Colman, on whom the management of the Haymarket devolved in 1777, allowed Edwin to play characters such as Hardcastle in 'She stoops to conquer,' Launcelot Gobbo, Justice Woodcock, and he 'created' the part of Lazarillo (Figaro) in the 'Spanish Barber.' From this period Edwin was a main- stay of the Haymarket, which was only allowed to be open during the summer. In the seasons of 1776-7, 1777-8, and 1778-9 he reappeared in Bath. On 24 Sept. 1779, as Touchstone in 'As you like it,' and as Midas in the piece of that name, he made his first appearance at Covent Garden. His success at Bath as Punch in 'Pleasures of the Town,' a piece extracted from Fielding's 'Author's Farce,' was the cause of his engagement at Covent Garden, where, in 'The Mirror, or Harlequin Everywhere,' assigned to Dibdin, he 'created' the same character (Punch). Still appearing during the summer season at the Haymarket, Edwin played at Covent Garden from this date until his death in 1790. The list of his characters at one or other of these houses is inexhaustible. He 'created ' very many parts in pieces now all but forgotten of Miles Peter Andrews, Mrs. Cowley, Pilon, Holcroft, &c., and played Cloten. Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Speed in 'Two Gentlemen of Verona,' Dromio of Syracuse, Ben in 'Love for Love,' and man v other characters in works of established reputation. His association with O'Keeffe was eminently beneficial to both actor and dramatist. In a supplement to his 'Recollections' O'Keeffe supplies, in some doggerel verses, a list of two-and-twenty characters in pieces of his own in which Edwin had appeared. The comic songs, in the delivery of which Edwin obtained perhaps his highest popularity, and which were reprinted with the name of Edwin, were mostly written by O'Keeffe. In his 'Recollections' O'Keeffe bears frequent testimony to the merits of Edwin. A joke current at the time was that 'when Edwin died O'Keeffe would be damned.' Edwin's last appearance was at the Haymarket on 6 Aug. 1790 as Gregory Gubbins in the 'Battle of Hexham.' He died on 31 Oct. in the same year, and was buried on Sunday, 7 Nov., at 8 p.m., on the north side of St. Paul's, Covent Garden,between between Dr. Arne and Edwin's great prototype Shuter. The pall-bearers were O'Keeffe, Shield the musician, Quick, 'Gentleman' Lewis, Holman, Wilson, Hull, and Johnstone. Edwin left a widow. Miss Mary Hubbard, whom he married on 13 June 1790 at St. John's Church, Westminster, and who, according to Reed's manuscript 'Notitia Dramatica,' died 8 Jan. 1794. Colman classes Edwin as the best burletta singer that ever had been, or perhaps will be, and adds that 'Nature in gifting him with the viscomica had dealt towards him differently from low comedians in general, for she had enabled him to look irresistibly funny, with a very agreeable, if not handsome, set of features, and while he sung in a style which produced roars of laughter, there was a melody in some of the upper tones of his voice that was beautiful' (Peake, Memoirs of the Colman Family, ii. 10-11). Reynolds, the dramatist, says that Edwin, disdaining buffoonery, 'established a sort of entre-nous-ship... with the audience, and made them his confidants' (Life and Times, 1826, ii. 61), and did it so neatly as 'frequently to enrich the business of the stage.' He says that he was present at a performance of the 'Son-in-Law,' when in the scene in which Cranky, objecting to Bowkitt as a son-in-law, observes, 'Besides, you are such an ugly fellow!' Edwin thereupon, as Bowkitt, came to the front of the stage, and pointing to Reynolds, said, 'Now I submit to the decision of an enlightened British public which is the ugliest fellow of the three — I, old Cranky, or that gentleman in the front row of the balcony box.' John Bernard (1756-1828) [q. v.], who claims to have supplied Anthony Pasquin with materials for his biography of Edwin, speaks repeatedly of Edwin, calling him the 'greatest genius' he 'ever encountered' (Retrospections, i. 180) and 'the most original actor... in the old world or the new' (ib. ii. 249). He says also that he wanted variety. Boaden, 'Life of Mrs. Siddons,' i. 117, also compares Edwin to Liston, and says that neither was fully enjoyed except in a small theatre. In his private life Edwin was a boon companion and a wag and the hero of many questionable adventures. In his 'Life of Bannister,' i. 247, Boaden says that he drank, and was 'the absolute victim of sottish intemperance.' Edwin used to reach the theatre drunk at the bottom of a chaise. The clothes were thrust upon him and he was pushed on to the stage when he was able to collect himself, and 'his acting seemed only the richer for the bestial indulgence that had overwhelmed him.' His merits, which were high, fail to justify the system of gagging to which he resorted. Under his name were published: 1. 'The Last Legacy of John Edwin,' 1780, with portrait. 2. 'Edwin's Jests,' 12mo (no date). 3. 'Edwin's Pills to Purge Melancholy,' 2nd edition, with additions, 1788, 8vo. 4. 'Eccentricities arranged and digested by John Williams, alias Anthony Pasquin,' 1798, 2 vols. 8vo. This work has at least three different title-pages. In these volumes nothing seems to be his. The 'Eccentricities' contains the particulars of his life, told with insolent amplitude and comment by Williams. From this book subsequent biographers have taken all that is preserved. The Mathews collection of portraits in the Garrick Club contains pictures of Edwin as Peeping Tom and as Justice Woodcock, by Beach, one by Gainsborough (?), an early work, and one by Edridge.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage. In addition to the Eccentricities of Edwin by Williams, of which the first volume is partly occupied by his life and the second by the adventures, jests, and sayings fastened upon him, the theatrical biographers of Boaden, of Kemble, Mrs. Inchbald, Mrs. Jordan, and Bannister supply most particulars. The Oracle, a periodical issued by Boaden about 1790, has been seen by Genest. Not being in the British Museum it is now in-accessible.].]

J. K.