Henry Erskine Johnston (1777-1845)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

Johnston at the Theatre Royal Glasgow

After being closed one month, this theatre was reopened, August 26th, with the tragedy of Douglas, Young Norval by Mr Henry Johnston. This gentleman was engaged for six nights, but had only performed three, when we received the melancholy news that His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester had entered

That undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns - -

And upon receipt of this intelligence, our dramatic entertainments were suspended for eight days. The remainder of his engagement Mr Johnston has since fulfilled.

With his abilities as an actor, the readers of the Monthly Mirror are in general well acquainted. I may, however, remark, that his success here was by no means commensurate with his exertions, the curtain being sometimes drawn up to twelve, fifteen, and twenty pound houses: but out of respect to him as an individual, his benefit was well attended; the receipts amounted to £190.   On this occasion, (in the character of Sylvester Daggerwood) he gave imitations of Messrs. Cooke and Kemble.

[From The Monthly Mirror, October 1805]


Portrait of Henry Erskine Johnston (1777–1845), in the title role of Douglas in the play by John Home. Stipple and line engraving by Edward Mitchell, after Henry Singleton, published 1806. Original in the collection of National Portrait Gallery, London. [Copyright expired on the original image.]   Johnston played young Norval in Dublin and London in 1796-7.

Henry Erskine Johnston, 1777-1845

Legend surrounds the origins of the actor Henry Erskine Johnston, who may or may not have been the son of a hairdresser, his real name may or may not have been Somerville, and he may or may not have been apprenticed to a writer to the signet and then to a linen draper.

He did, it seems certain, make his stage debut as Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Shakespeare Square, Edinburgh, on 9 July 1794, under Stephen Kemble’s management. When he acted Young Norval in 'Douglas', in full Highland attire on 23 July, he received a warm reception. Johnston acted in Edinburgh and in Irish towns until he made his London debut on 23rd October 1797 as Young Norval, at Covent Garden.

Among his excellent notices was the 'Monthly Mirror's' praise of his ‘finer qualities, figure excepted, for any actor on the stage.’ He remained engaged in capital roles at Covent Garden most years from then until 1816. He was then at Drury Lane from 1817-18 through 1820-21, acting such roles as Pierre in 'Venice Preserv’d' and the original Rob Roy in an adaptation from Scott by Isaac Pocock.

Johnston also managed various theatres: Astley’s Amphitheatre in Dublin, 1811-12, and at Ayr, Aberdeen, Green cock and Glasgow. In 1823 he opened the Caledonian Theatre in Edinburgh but gave it up after several months. Though his application for an engagement at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia was rejected, Johnston went to America. He obtained a position at the National Theatre in New York, where he made his American debut on 7 November 1837 as Sir Archy Macsarcasm in 'Love-à-la Mode'. After a few more appearances he returned to London, where he died on 9 February 1845 at his residence in Gillingham Street, Vauxhall Road, and was buried in the Lambeth parish church.

Johnston was a popular and versatile actor, if not an excellent one. The critic Gilliland called him ‘highly useful.’ In June 1796 he married Nannette Parker (b. 1782), the daughter of the equestrian producer William Parker. But Johnston and his wife were estranged for many years and were divorced in 1820. He then married Magdalen Johnson. As his widow, she presented the portrait by Allan (G0332) of Johnston as Young Norval to the Garrick Club. (BDA)

[From a biography published by the Garrick Club , London, with corrections. The club possesses two portraits of Johnston, one donated by his widow, Magdalen Johnson.]


Mr. Johnston as Sir Callaghan in Love a la Mode. Mezzotint by William Ward (1766 - 1826) depicting Henry Erskine Johnston as Sir Callaghan in the production Love a la Mode, 1803. Mezzotint Height: 400 mm sheet, Width: 301 mm sheet, published by Messrs. Wards and Co., 6 Newman Street, London. Collection of University of Illinois. [Copyright in the original image expired.]

Johnston assaults the Prince of Wales

The ever-popular Harry Johnston gained notoriety as the man who thrashed the Prince of Wales.

The future George the Fourth had presumed to force his way into Mrs. Johnston's dressing-room at Drury Lane.  Johnston followed him quietly, and administered a sound horse whipping. He was placed in custody, but managed to escape; then, disguised as an old soldier, he left London on foot for Newcastle.


Prince regent
The Prince of Wales, later George IV of the United Kingdom (1762-1830; r. 1820-1830) by Salomon Jomtob Bennett, after Sir William Beechey. Line engraving, published 1805 (1798). Original in the National Portrait Gallery London.  [Copyright expired on the original image.]

Johnston's errant wife

Twelve months after the Drury Lane escapade, Johnston's wife figured in the Divorce Court, the co-respondent being the celebrated orator and Deputy Master of the Rolls, Richard Curran.

The case called in Dublin, on May 11th 1807.   Johnston, the plaintiff is described as an actor of celebrity, of the London and Dublin Stages; and Mr Richard Curran, the defendant as a barrister, the eldest son of John Phillip Curran and a deputy master of the rolls in Ireland..

It is reported that the defendant had abandoned his appointment in Ireland and had fled to England.

The court did not grant the application.  The marriage between Johnston and his wife was annulled by an ecclesiastical court in England some twelve years later.

Johnston and his wide were estranged for many years prior to the annulment. During those years she was associated with various figures in London including a manager of Covent Garden Theatre.

[Annual Register of History, Politics and Literature, 1807]


Portrait of Nannette Johnston (nee Parker), 1812. Stippled Etching Border 4 1/4 x 5 1/2 inches by J Hopwood after M. Haughton. Published by J. Bell. Collection of University of Illinois. [Copyright on the original image now expired.]

Johnston Anecdotes

Top   ~ Challenging the Covent Garden Management  ~  Johnston at Theatre Royal, Glasgow  ~  Drury Lance 1805  ~  Ayr, October 1812

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