James Quin, Actor and Foodie

Quin by and published by John Faber Jr, 1744

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.

James Quin

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.


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Portable Theatres

Today we would call them pop-up theatres but in the late 1700s and early 1800s they were referred to as portable theatres or ‘portables’. Portables were mainly family run travelling theatres that toured towns and cities often coinciding with local fairs. The entertainment offered was mainly a variety of circus acts including: clowns, musicians, tumbling, high-wire walkers and mind reading horses.

portable theatres
A travelling theatre family

The portable structure was comprised of timber and canvas and they varied in size according to the popularity of the act and the success of the business. It wasn’t uncommon for several portables to be in competition in the same town and they would each take to the streets in costumes to drum up business, hand out leaflets and frequently decorated the exterior of their booths to ensure that it stood out.

By the early Victorian period a new generation of family members were starting to perform plays, ‘the drama’, in portables, one such family were the Wild’s and Samuel Wild, son of the proprietor, went on to take over Old Wild’s portable theatre but recalled the first time that his parents included plays into their repertoire.

“Our first launch into theatrical life was during one of our visits to Halifax. An old actor, Henry Douglas, a friend of my father’s, persuaded him to try the sock and buskin [comedy and tragedy]. He agreed and Douglas joined us. We lodged then in a house…and in that house our first scenery was painted by a native of this town call Wilson. We had three scenes – a street scene, a room or parlour, and a wood or shady grove. With such fertility of scenic resources we could play a great many pieces. We were indoors, out of doors and in a wood directly.”

Old Wild’s first performance was William Macready’s The Village Lawyer. Sam himself appeared ‘behind the footlights’ when he was 10 or 11 years old and described the portable structure as:

“The size of it at the time was if I can remember some 80ft long and 45ft wide…Along the outside were painted shutters with canvas for the roof. The inside was lined with green baize. Our footlights were candles…At one end of the booth was the stage and immediately before it a circle brilliantly illuminated…in the shape of a chandelier of forty candles…On one side of the booth was the pit, upon the other side the boxes, the seats of which were carpeted.”

Sam recalled that performances usually started about 8pm but Old WIld’s opened their doors at 6.30pm to avoid any unpleasant jostling and they finished about 10.30pm or slightly later. “I think we treated our audiences well and gave them their money’s worth.”

portable theatres
Portable theatre for sale

Portables were run along the same lines as other theatres, there was a company of performers, scene painters, costumiers and musicians that travelled with the theatre sleeping in caravans or local lodgings. During the Spring and Summer months the company might travel 200 miles in all stopping at towns and villages for a week or two before moving on. During the winter months they would find a more permanent place to stay or, in later years, would lease a building.

The repertoire consisted of popular and contemporary plays of the period by authors such as Bulwer-Lytton, Sheridan and Knowles, and of course Shakespeare. However, very few of these plays were presented in their entirety, dialogue was cut short and only the most dramatic or comical scenes were included, which meant that within 2 or 3 hours an audience would be treated to music, song a tragedy and a comedy.

For Old Wild’s the shift away from circus acts to the drama took place in earnest upon the death of Sam’s father in 1838. At that time Sam’s mother took over the management of the portable theatre and continued to do so until her ill health forced her to hand over the management to Sam in 1850.

Following a failed partnership with his elder brother, Tom, Sam became the sole proprietor of Wild’s in 1856 “I did not at all time confine myself to things dramatic. The performances of the acrobat on some occasions came in for a fair share of attention.”

Sam wanted to create a spectacle and give his audiences something they couldn’t see elsewhere. He had always trained dogs to be part of the performance and even commissioned playwrights to devise plots that would that would give him the opportunity to demonstrate what tricks the dogs had learned. In the early 1850s he also purchased two camels, that had been brought back from the Crimean War, knowing the stir that they would generate as they led the procession of caravans into town. By the time the theatre was erected and the doors were open the queues had formed and a full house was guaranteed.

These stunts didn’t always have the desired effect. On one occasion an actor known for being drawn to the river led by a gaggle of geese was whipping up excitement in the town as the geese pulled him along as he sat in a bathtub on wheels. A crowd quickly gathered for the finale, which should have been to watch the geese slip into the river followed by the actor in his bathtub. In anticipation a great crowd had gathered on a bridge spanning the river but the bridge collapsed under the weight killing around 50 people.

The company of actors that Sam employed were often in scuffles with the local authorities or the owner of another establishment threatened by the presence of the portable theatre in town. These were part and parcel of life within a travelling theatre company but one incident left them all stunned.

Jane Hope was the daughter of John Hope who was the band leader and scene painter for the company. Jane was a dancer and actress with the company and married a young actor called William Banham who promptly deserted her when he emigrated to America. Jane Banham then met a young tailor in Manchester called John Hannah. Hannah was 10 years younger than Jane and they had three children together although Jane continued to work at Wild’s which involved travelling around. The strained relationship turned sour when Jane refused to live with Hannah in Manchester and then denied him access to their children. Wild’s were in Halifax in September 1856 and Hannah made the journey from Manchester to make one more attempt at reasoning with the mother of his children. At Halifax, Hannah was met by Jane’s father who said he would arrange for his daughter to meet Hannah at the nearby Malt Hill Inn. Jane arrived at the time arranged and the couple retreated to the parlour room to discuss matters in private. Words were exchanged, voices raised and the crashing of furniture brought patrons in to see what was happening. They found Hannah with his hands around Jane’s throat which he then slashed with a razor. She survived two hours before dying from her injuries. Hannah was found guilty of murder and hanged in front of 5,000 spectators a week before Christmas.

Wild’s was one of the most successful portable theatres in the country and its reputation guaranteed full houses wherever the travelling company turned up. However, Sam Wild’s first passion was performing animals:

“The horses was, like the love of the drama, nothing short of a national characteristic and to be able to alternate scenes in the circle with the attractions of the stage was, I imagined, to be equal to the production of an entertainment which could be no less than a consummation perhaps not devoutly, but certainly to be wished by the pleasure-seeking public; and that was sure to open a new and shorter path to fortune for the person could so provide it.”

As such Sam commissioned a portable amphitheatre to be constructed and set about organising the transition of his company through the purchase of new horses and the termination of employment for a number of the actors.

By 1860 Sam took delivery of his amphitheatre, the only portable one that anyone had ever seen. For months he had been training horses and putting together a schedule of entertainment that showed the very best of his animal’s skills that would alternate with the most popular scenes and acts from the drama.

Audiences didn’t respond well to the change. Bad weather and ill luck were how Sam put it but within a few months he realised that his venture was an expensive mistake, by the time he decided to resurrect the old portable and return to the repertoire that audiences had come to expect, he had lost £1,000, a huge sum given that a full house would gross £27 a night.

Mr Charles Matthews

With his savings depleted and nothing to invest in the business the once glorious spectacle of Old Wild’s started to look faded and passed its prime. What’s more, by the 1860s theatre buildings were being constructed that offered more comfort for the players and audience alike. Having struggled on for two more seasons Sam had a semi-permananent wooden structure built in Huddersfield for the winter season and called it Wild’s New Theatre. It cost £125 to build but by then Sam’s finances were so depleted that he had to pay in instalments. He prepared some publicity material and promised to employ ‘star’ talent to make guest appearances at the New Theatre and for a few months had some success. The biggest star that was booked was Charles Matthews and his wife and both were due to appear at Wild’s New Theatre in May 1863. However when Mr and Mrs Matthews turned up for rehearsal they realised that the theatre was in fact a wooden structure and not a new theatre building as they had been led to believe. They duly withdrew despite all tickets having been sold at double the usual price and their withdrawal proved to be “nothing more or less than the death blow to Old Wild’s.”

Without audiences it wasn’t long before Sam fell behind with his instalment payments and had little choice but to sell the structure for the value of its timber, which still left him with a debt of £54.

Ever the optimist Sam hit the road again with his portable, but bricks and mortar theatres were in the ascendancy and it wasn’t long before Sam sold his business to a competitor for “£70 or £80” and found himself an employee rather than a proprietor. Living hand to mouth Sam and his wife got by until his debt of £54 was called in. He simply didn’t have the money and was escorted to the debtors prison in York.

Sam only spent a few months in prison and was soon back on the road looking for employment as a player but the portable theatres had all but disappeared and although Sam picked up work here and there he relied on the generosity of his friends and admirers to make ends meet. Samuel Wild died 26th May 1883 aged 67 years having spent his last years living with his daughter.

Sam Wild leaves a legacy, portable theatres brought the drama to towns and villages long before built theatres were established. It was the portables and the families who ran them that created the demand for the ‘sock and buskin’ and the spread of theatres and theatre companies beyond the big cities. Portables were also a training ground for young actors and a way to truly understand the workings of a theatre. 

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