Born in 1756 at the Portsmouth Naval Station, the son of a navy lieutenant John Bernard and his wife Ann (the daughter of a naval captain), young John was sent to a Latin grammar school near Chichester. After leaving school and determined to become an actor, he had an aborted engagement at Farnham and then was taken on by the eccentric country manager Henry Thornton, who sometime in 1773 presented him as Jaffeir in “Venice Preserv’d” at the village of Chew Magna. Bernard had assumed the name of Mr Budd for his debut, and then took on the name of Mr Barnett for his subsequent country campaigns. He bounced about several provincial companies playing in Taunton, Weymouth, Braintree, Needham, Dedham and Norwich. At the last place in 1774 he married his first wife, an actress named Mrs Cooper, and they acted as the Barnetts. Eventually they assumed the name of Bernard, and continued on their peregrinations at Norwich, York (under Tate Wilkinson), Bath, Exeter and elsewhere until they joined Daly’s company in Ireland in 1782, playing at Cork and then at the Capel Street Theatre, Dublin, in 1782-83. Back in England Bernard became a ‘ruling favourite’ of the Bath Theatre in 1785-86. He then signed articles with Harris at Covent Garden and made his debut there on 19 October 1787 as Archer in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”. At that theatre through November 1795, he acted such roles as Flutter in “The Belle’s Stratagem”, Jack Meggot in “The Suspicious Husband” (G0064) and Gratiano in “The Merchant of Venice”. The “Candid and Impartial Strictures” in 1795 called him ‘A performer of merit in many parts … but not so good as a London audience ought to expect.’
After failing as manager at Hull and Dover and elsewhere, he set sail for America in 1797 (now accompanied by his second wife, a Miss Fisher of the Guernsey company) and made his debut at the Greenwich Street Theatre in New York as Goldfinch in “The Road to Ruin”. His subsequent career in America was successful and he was popular with audiences. He had a useful stint as manager (with Snelling Powell and James Dickson) of the Federal Street Theatre in Boston between 1806 and 1811, and his touring took him throughout the United States and Canada. His second wife died in 1806 and he soon had a third, the former Miss Wright, also an actress.
Bernard’s main contribution to the American Theatre was his two-volume “Retrospections of the Stage” (1830), brought out after John’s death by his son Bayle Bernard. (The parts about America were edited by Laurence Hutton and Brander Matthews and were published in 1887 as “Retrospections of America 1797-1811”.) Soon after 1819, Bernard returned to England where he died destitute on 29 November 1828.
While he was acting in London, Bernard was a clubable fellow, having been made an honorary member of the Anacreontic Society; he also founded a comedians’ club called ‘The Strangers at Home.’ His social acceptance is testified to by his having been made secretary of the Beefsteak Club. His portrait for his appointment in that club was painted by P. Marshall; it was presented to the Garrick Club in 1900 by his daughter-in-law Mrs Bayle Bernard, but the picture is missing. See also K. A. Burnim and P. H. Highfill, Jr, “John Bell, Patron of British Theatrical Portraiture”, No. 110.