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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Henry Johnston, Actor, at the Edinburgh Theatre


This gentleman was born in Edinburgh in the year 1774. His father, Robert Johnston, was for many years keeper of an oyster tavern in Shakspeare Square, where he died on 21st January, 1826. The original occupation of this venerable personage was a barber. His shop, in the High Street, was much frequented, from its proximity to the Parliament House, by gentlemen of the long robe. One morning while operating, as was his wont, upon the chin of the Hon. Henry Erskine, intelligence was brought that his wife had been safely delivered of a son—the subject of the present memoir. From this circumstance he was named after the learned gentleman.

On leaving school, Henry Reskine Johnston was placed by his father in the office of a writer to the signet; but, finding Erskine's Institutes not such pleasant reading as Shakspeare's dramas, he soon abandoned the profession, and was for three years afterwards in the shop of a linen draper, from which he stepped on the boards of the Theatre Royal. When twenty years of age he recited "Collins' Ode on the Passions" for the benefit of a friend, with his manner of delivering which Mr. Stephen Kernble was so much struck, that he immediately offered him an engagement. He now made his appearance in the characters of Hamlet and Harlequin, to the great delight of an overflowing audience, attracted by the novelty of such an attempt. His success was complete; and in order to distinguish him from his Irish namesake, lie was shortly afterwards endowed with the sobriquet of "The Edinburgh Roscius." In 1797, while he was the nightly attraction of the Scottish playgoers, Miss Parker, daughter of the proprietor of an exhibition called "The Storming of Seringapatam," saw him act; and seeing, fell desperately in love; and after a very short, albeit impassioned courtship, she became Mrs. Johnston, although at that period only about fifteen. After playing at different theatres in the northern circuit, he went to Dublin to perform twelve nights, seven of which were devoted to the representation of Home's egotistical hero, Douglas. Mrs. Johnston having prevailed on her husband to allow her to make one appearance, she did so, for the first time, on the occasion of his benefit, in the characters of Lady Contest, in the Wedding-Day, and Josephine in The Children in the Wood, and was enthusiastically received.

After Johnston had appeared with great success in Ireland, and most of the English provincial towns, Mr. Harris offered him an engagement, which he accepted, and appeared on the boards of Covent Garden in the character of Douglas, when he met with a most flattering reception. He next trode the Haymarket stage, at which theatre Mrs. Johnston made her appearance as Ophelia and Boxalana, and immediately rose into the favour of the town. She became the rage; and, unhappily for Mr. Johnston's domestic comfort, and her own happiness and reputation, she yielded to the many temptations thrown in her way, and a separation ensued—she to blaze for a few short years in the theatrical hemisphere of London, and then to sink into comparative insignificance, and he to become a houseless, heart-broken wanderer. For sometime he was manager of the Glasgow theatre ; and on the 27th of December, 1823, he opened the Caledonian Theatre, Edinburgh, where he remained some short time; but his repeated losses at length caused him to give up the speculation. He did not return to Edinburgh till the autumn of 1830, when he appeared for four nights at the same theatre, then under the management of Mr. C. Bass.

While in London he was universally admired for his performance of pantomimic characters, such as Oscar, Don Juan, Raymond, Perouse, Brazen Mask, Bravo of Venice, Three-Fingered Jack, etc.; and no part came amiss to him. He enjoyed the acquaintance of several eminent literary men, among whom was Monk Lewis.

Mr. Johnston, we believe, went to the United States in 1838, having gone out in the same vessel with Ducrow and his company of equestrians.


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