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 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 23 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.
Johnston also managed various theatres: Astley’s Amphitheatre in Dublin, 1811-12, and at Aberdeen, Greencock and Glasgow. In 1823 he opened the Caledonian Theatre in London 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)