Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Johnstone, John Henry

JOHNSTONE, JOHN HENRY (1749–1828), actor and vocalist, was probably born on 1 Aug. 1749, in the horse-barracks in Kilkenny, where his father, a quartermaster in a dragoon regiment, was then quartered (cf. Kilkenny Moderator, 1829; Thespian Dictionary, 1805). The story that he was the son of a farmer of Cashel or Clonmel is doubtless a mistake (cf. Gent. Mag. 1828, p. 183).

Johnstone joined a cavalry regiment, and won some reputation among his comrades for his sweet tenor voice. It is said that on his discharge Colonel Brown, who had once heard him sing, provided him with a letter to Ryder, manager of the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. Here Johnstone made his first appearance, about 1773, as Lionel in ‘Lionel and Clarissa,’ and was engaged forthwith for three years at a salary of four guineas a week. He remained from seven to ten years on the Irish stage, singing principal tenor parts with great success.

On the recommendation of Macklin, Johnstone and his wife were engaged by Thomas Harris at Covent Garden Theatre for three years, at a weekly salary of 14l., 16l., and 18l. Johnstone was enthusiastically received at his début as Lionel on 2 Oct. 1783, and his subsequent appearances established his reputation as a singer and actor. From 1783 to 1803 he remained at Covent Garden, with an occasional summer season at the Haymarket. He sang in the parts of Inkle (‘Inkle and Yarico’), Captain O'Donel (‘The Woodman’), Macheath (‘Beggar's Opera,’ and once as Lucy at the Haymarket, when the male and female parts were reversed), and took other operatic first tenor parts, besides Irish characters in both comedy and opera, like Sir Lucius O'Trigger, Major O'Flaherty (‘West Indian’), Brulgruddery (‘John Bull’), and Teague (‘Committee’). His singing voice did not wear well, and he gradually abandoned operatic parts. In 1803 he visited Dublin, and was heartily welcomed as a representative of genuine Irishmen, such as Sir Callaghan O'Brallaghan in Macklin's ‘Love à-la-Mode.’ He soon became known as ‘Irish Johnstone,’ from his superiority to all his contemporaries in Irish parts (cf. article on Irish characters in Gent. Mag. August 1890, p. 182). Genest is of opinion that Moody's Teague was better than Johnstone's; but Donaldson said that Johnstone was the ‘one comedian who could delineate the refined Irish gentleman.’

Johnstone joined Holman's protest against the new regulations at Covent Garden Theatre, and accepted an engagement ‘on better terms’ at Drury Lane in 1803. He appeared for the first time on that stage on 20 Sept. 1803 as Murtoch Delany (‘Irishman in London’), and acted there constantly during the remaining seventeen years of his public life, though he returned to the boards of Covent Garden as Sir Callaghan on the occasion of Mathews's benefit, 8 June 1814, and again in 1820. At Covent Garden his benefit and last appearance (as Brulgruddery) took place on 28 June 1820. He bade farewell to the stage at Liverpool in August, but appeared once again at a charity performance at Drury Lane on 18 May 1822. He died at his house in Tavistock Row, Covent Garden, on 26 Dec. 1828, and was buried in a vault in the eastern angle of St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden. Among several portraits of Johnstone, one (as Sir Callaghan) by Shee was engraved by Ward.

He married, first, the daughter of Colonel Poitier, governor of Kilmainham gaol, an accomplished lady, who instructed him in music and entered the operatic profession; she died a few months after marriage. Secondly, Miss Boulton, the daughter of a wine merchant. Their only daughter became Mrs. Wallack (d. 1851), and to her children Johnstone left the bulk of his property (12,000l.) in trust, with a few other legacies (Gent. Mag. 1829, pt. i. p. 183). Her eldest son, John Johnstone Wallack, known as ‘Lester Wallack,’ was author of ‘Memories of Fifty Years,’ New York, 1889.

[Genest's English Stage, vols. vi–ix. passim; Parke's Memoirs, pp. 33, 44, 114; Bannister's Memoirs; Wallack's Memories, pp. 6, 7, with portrait of Johnstone from a miniature; authorities cited.]

L. M. M.