James Quin was the greatest and highest paid of his generation and should have enjoyed a lengthy career at the top of his profession but was instead cast into the shadows by the man that came to define 18th century theatre, David Garrick.
James Quin was born in King Street, Covent Garden, London in 1693 but grew up in Ireland where his father, a lawyer, had moved the family to when James was a toddler. There he remained until his late teens when, after studying the law at the university of Dublin, he was sent to London so that he might continue his education in the chambers of Temple, as his father had done.
London may well have enjoyed a greater reputation than Dublin for studying law but young James soon found himself distracted from his legal tomes and could instead be found reading Shakespeare and socialising with players and playwrights rather than his legal brethren.
Quin’s father had died in 1710 leaving a very modest estate which James quickly calculated would mean that he would have to work for a living, something of a shock and disappointment to the 13 year old. Now in London following in his father’s footsteps he realised that the law was fine a subject to study but the prospect of having to earn a wage at the Bar filled James with dread. He ditched his studies and turned to the stage, using his connections to gain introduction to the manager of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane who employed him to join the company for the 1718 season.
Quin’s theatrical debut didn’t make the headlines but at the time it was accepted that superior talent came with age and therefore a 20 year old newcomer was never likely to be given more than a few lines, if he was lucky.
And Quin was indeed lucky, at least in some things. In July 1718 he was tried for murder at the Old Bailey.
On the 17th April, Quin was in the Fleece Tavern with William Bowen, a fellow actor, and after a few drinks too many the two men got into a quarrel, which according to court reports was along the lines of ‘I’m a better actor than you are’. The argument then centred on Bowen’s honesty as an individual and as things came to a head Bowen stormed out of the Inn and headed for his lodgings, the Pope’s Head Tavern. Once there, Bowen instructed a porter to find Quin and summon him. Quin duly arrived at the Pope’s Head and found Bowen supping more ale. The two men adjourned to a sideroom where they continued their argument in private culminating in each drawing their sword. Moments later Quin burst from the room announcing that he’d struck Bowen and feared that the wound was fatal. Indeed it was and three days later Bowen died of his injury, which was described by as a stab wound 1″ wide and 4″ deep into the side of the belly. Fortunately for Quin, Bowen remained conscious for much of the time and was heard repeatedly saying that “It is done fairly, the Gentleman has done it fairly.” The jury also heard that Bowen had a reputation for being quarrelsome and drawing his sword at the slightest provocation. In light of such evidence they found Quin guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and his theatrical career continued.
For the next three years Quin played in the shadows of his more senior colleagues and waited patiently for the greater roles to come his way. At the time the two main theatres in London were the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which was under the management of Colly Cibber, and the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, which was run by John Rich, who would go on to open the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1732. Quin’s good friend Lacy Ryan was employed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in 1720 and informed Quin that John Rich was planning to revive The Merry Wives of Windsor but hadn’t yet found a suitable actor to play the part of Sir John Falstaff. Quin orchestrated a meeting with Rich and put himself forward for the part of the lovable rogue but Rich rejected the idea out of hand. However, Ryan persuaded Rich that it would be useful for Quin to play the part while they rehearsed to which he reluctantly agreed. As the opening date drew closer it became clear that either Rich needed to cancel the performance or let Quin play the role. He did the latter and Quin made his name.
His first night performance as Falstaff made such an impression that for the rest of his life it was considered his part and his alone. From that moment on Quin’s career was in the ascendency and by the 1730s many argued that Quin was the greatest actor of the time. Then in 1741 a 24 year old called David Garrick entered stage left in the part of Richard III and in doing so knocked Quin off his pedestal.
Quin, known for his sarcasm, declared that
“Garrick was a new religion, and that Whitefield was followed for a time but they would all come to church again.”
Garrick responded in poetic fashion:
Pope Quin who damns all churches but his own,
Complains that heresy corrupts the town:
That Whitefield Garrick has misled the age,
“Schism” he cries “has turned the nation’s brain,
But eyes will open and to church again!”
Thou great Infalliable, forbear to roar
Thy bulls and errors are revered no more;
When doctrines meet with general approbation.
It is not heresy but reformation.
The ‘Whitefield’ referred to by both men was George Whitefield, an American preacher of the First Great Awakening who was famous for his oratory skills and attracted audiences in the tens of thousands. Garrick was an admirer of Whitefield’s skills as a preacher.
Garrick played at Drury Lane and Quin at Covent Garden. The two men sparred from the stage, each trying to outdo the other but the older man struggled against the energy of youth and Garrick’s reputation started to soar.
It took several years but eventually the squabbling was set aside and the two great men met to discuss the possibility of performing together. This happened in 1746 when they both appeared in The Fair Penitent, Quin as Horatio and Garrick as Lothario. The audiences were so excited at seeing both men together that their applause and cheers disrupted the flow of the play to such an extent that both men stood embarrassed on the stage while waiting to proceed. From that point forward there was a healthy respect between the players although it could not be denied that Quin had already been eclipsed by Garrick, and more young talent was emerging each year.
The ageing actor made his home in Bath, Somerset and travelled up each season to appear on stage. He was also close to the Prince of Wales and appointed elocution tutor for the Prince’s children. Quin and Garrick remained firm friends and Quin spent a week or more at Garrick’s home in Hampton each summer where the pair discussed plays, playwrights and techniques.
Quin was also well known as a foodie with a particular fondness for John Dory fish and a talent for creating his own dishes. One such concoction he called Siamese Soup but the recipe was a closely guarded secret that attracted derision from some quarters to the extent that Quin invited these sceptics to his home and invited them to try his famous soup. The group politely ate the dish that was put in front of them but then pressured their host for its ingredients, at which point he revealed that the core of the dish they had just consumed was a pair of old boots, boiled and cut into very thin pieces. Needless to say the guests stormed from the room declaring Quin to be a mad man. His creation of dishes extended to developing his own sauce, as reported in The Observer in 1958 when a label came up for auction ‘Quin for instance, one discovers after painful research, is a sauce made of walnuts, mushrooms, garlic, anchovies, horseradish and cayenne pepper invented by the actor James Quin.’
James Quin made his last appearance at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden in 1753 and then went into semi-retirement. He was 56 years of age, had never married, he had made a great deal of money and had enjoyed the finer things that life had to offer. One biographer states:
‘Tis true when he drank freely, which was often the case, he forgot himself, and there was a sediment of brutality in him when you shook the bottle; but he made you ample amends by his pleasantry and good sense when he was sober.’ ‘He was sensual and loved good eating, but not so much as was generally reported with some exaggeration, and he was luxurious in his descriptions of those turtle and venison feasts, to which he was invited. He was in all dealings, a very honest, fair man; yet he understood his interest and knew how to deal with the managers, and never made a bad bargain with them.’
Indeed Quin was very well paid, at one time the highest paid actor in the land. In his will he left over 2300 pounds, the equivalent of over £150,000 today, not including what he left to his two executors who received the remainder of his estate to split between them.
Quin had been ill for some time and whilst at Garrick’s residence in Hampton his ‘hand had erupted’. The prognosis from his doctors wasn’t good and in time Quin predicted his own demise, downing a bottle of claret the evening and taking his final bow in the early hours of 21st January 1766. He was 73 years old.
Garrick wrote the following epitaph:
That tongue which set the table on a roar
And charm’d the public ear, is heard no more!
Clos’d are those eyes, the harbingers of wit,
Which spoke, before the tongue, what Shakespeare writ,
Cold are those hands, which living were stretch’d forth,
At friendship’s call to succour modest worth.
Here lies James Quin! design, reader, to be taught,
Whatever thy strength of body, force of thought,
In nature’s happiest mound however cast,
To his complexion thou must come at last.