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Johnstone, John Henry

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The DNB settles on 1 August 1749 as John Henry Johnstone’s probable birth date, though early sources are contradictory. He was apparently born in Kilkenny, the son of a military quartermaster. He was articled to a Dublin attorney but gave that up, came to London, squandered his money, spent some troublesome time in the military and, back in Dublin, was engaged as a singer at the Smock Alley Theatre. His debut was as Lionel in “Lionel and Clarissa” on 9 November 1775 and won him a salary of four guineas weekly in a variety of singing parts at several Dublin playhouses and in the county towns. At the Crow Street theatre was Maria Ann Portier, an actress and singer from a theatrical clan, who he married in 1778. In 1783 the couple came to London and were hired at Covent Garden. John Henry (called Jack) sang Lionel for his debut on 2 October 1783 and demonstrated ‘excellence of person, voice and deportment’ to the “Theatrical Review” critic. His first seasons were auspicious, bringing him on as Macheath in “The Beggar’s Opera”, Lord Aimworth in “The Maid of the Mill” and, most importantly, Dermot in O’Keeffe’s new comic opera “The Poor Soldier”, on 4 November 1784, with music by Shield. Thereafter Shield provided Johnstone with more stage Irishmen and insured his popularity. Jack stayed at Covent Garden in the winters and the Haymarket in the summers, specializing in onstage Irishmen and offstage mistresses, through 1802-3. He made occasional trips to the provinces, especially Ireland, where he was a great favourite. He was a fair enough singer, though Haydn found him ‘most unmusical.’ His last 17 years in London were spent at Drury Lane (and at the Lyceum with the Drury Lane company), beginning on 20 September 1803; his peak salary was £17 weekly. He died in December 1828. Though described as handsome and convivial, Johnstone was called by Oxberry ‘tyrannical at home, inconstant abroad – mean at his table, and an interloper at the table of others.’ (BDA) [EAL]
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