Johnston Forbes-Robertson was born in London on 16 January 1853, the eldest son of the Aberdeen art critic and journalist John Forbes-Robertson and his wife Frances (née Cott). His three younger brothers, Ian (1858-1936), Norman (1859-1932, q.v.) and Eric (1865-1935) were also actors. Educated at Charterhouse School and the Royal Academy of Arts, he received some elocution lessons from Samuel Phelps and turned to the stage. His first appearance was on 5 March 1874 at the Princess’s Theatre, where he played Chastelard in “Mary Queen of Scots”. Subsequently he acted numerous roles on tour in England and in various London venues, including the Gaiety, Olympic and Haymarket. He joined the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales’s in 1878 and later at the Haymarket and remained with them until July 1885. In 1889 he worked under John Hare at the Garrick Theatre and then under Irving at the Lyceum. Among his memorable portrayals were Romeo (to the Juliet of Mrs Campbell, 1895), Macbeth and Othello. His portrayal of Hamlet, which he first played in September 1897 at the Lyceum, was thought the greatest of his time. His ascetic appearance rendered him ideal for self-examining roles. Among other notable portrayals were Dunstan Renshaw in Pinero’s “The Profligate” (Garrick, April 1889), Aubrey in “The Second Mrs Tanqueray” and Golaud in “Pelléas and Mélisande”.
In 1895 he took over the management of the Lyceum, where with Mrs Campbell he produced a number of successes. Subsequently he managed at the Prince of Wales’s and the Comedy. In 1900 he married the actress Gertrude Elliott, who became his leading lady. They appeared together in Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra, The Light that Failed” (February 1903), in which he played Dick Heldar (G0998), and the highly successful “Passing of the Third Floor Back” (September 1908). During his final year at Drury Lane, in 1913, he offered a retrospective of his finest roles, closing the season with Hamlet on 6 June. That week he was knighted.
Sir Johnston then went back to America, where he had toured several times during his career. He took his repertory company all over the United States, and gave his last professional performance at Harvard University as Hamlet on 26 April 1916. Back in England he appeared in some charity performances and lectured on Shakespeare at the Wigmore Hall. He also was seen in several films, including “Hamlet” (1912), “Masks and Faces” (1916) and “The Passing of the Third Floor Back” (1917). His book of reminiscences, “A Player Under Three Reigns”, was published in 1925. Forbes-Robertson was awarded honorary degrees from Columbia University (MA) and Aberdeen (LLD). He became a member of the Garrick Club in May 1888 and was also a member of the Athenaeum and Beefsteak. He died on 6 November 1937 at St Margaret’s Bay, near Dover.
Forbes-Robertson’s handsome features may be seen in Harcourt’s portrait of him (G0230). His daughter Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905-1962) became a distinguished actress (see K. A. Burnim and Andrew Wilton, “The Richard Bebb Collection in the Garrick Club”, No. B20). Robertson’s first ambition had been to be a painter, as evidenced by his early training at the Royal Academy. The Garrick Club has his painting of Samuel Phelps as Cardinal Wolsey (G0665). He had played alongside Phelps as Cromwell in “Henry VIII”. (OCT, WWWT)