Of Irish extraction, James Quin was born in King Street, Covent Garden, on 24 February 1693, virtually next door to London’s two major theatres, where he spent so much of his career. He was the son of James and Elizabeth Grindzell Quin; the elder Quin had studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and Lincoln’s Inn, London, and had pretensions to poetry. Young James was taken by his parents to Dublin in 1700 or 1701 and may also have been a student at Trinity College. He sought employment in the theatre and his first appearance may have been at Smock Alley as Abel in "The Committee" in 1714. By February 1715 he was in London acting, at Drury Lane, Vulture in "The Country Lasses". He continued playing such small parts as Guildenstern in "Hamlet", Gloucester in "King Lear", Voltore in "Volpone" and Aaron in "Titus Andronicus". In September 1717 he turned up at Southwark Fair acting Vincent in "Twice Married", and in the middle of the 1717-18 season he joined John Rich’s troupe at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where he was seen in more important parts: Hotspur in "Henry IV part 1", Horatio in "The Fair Penitent" and Antony in "Julius Caesar". From that point on he seems to have gravitated toward heavy parts in both comedy (Sir John Brute in "The Provok’d Wife") and tragedy (Claudius in "Hamlet"). Over the years he played many important roles under John Rich, among them Pinchwife in "The Country Wife", Falstaff (his best character) in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" and "Henry IV part 1", King Lear and the Ghost in "Hamlet". At Drury Lane again (from September 1734) he was seen in many of his standard characters and also Othello, Richard III, Brutus in "Julius Caesar", Sullen in "The Stratagem" and the title role in "Volpone". His majestic manner and declamatory style he must have learned from Barton Booth, who had learned it from the best Restoration actor, Thomas Betterton. And that style served him well and gained him fame until the arrival on the theatrical scene of Charles Macklin and David Garrick in 1741.
The playwright Richard Cumberland left us in his "Memoirs" the most vivid description of Quin and Garrick onstage together, playing Horatio and Lothario respectively in "The Fair Penitent": Quin, ‘with very little variation of cadence, and in a deep full tone, accompanied by a sawing kind of action, which had more of the senate than of the stage in it … rolled out his heroics with an air of dignified indifference, that seemed to disdain the plaudits, that were bestowed upon him.’ Then, ‘when after long and eager expectation I first beheld little Garrick, then young and light and alive in every muscle and in every feature, come bounding on the stage … heavens, what a transition! – it seemed as if a whole century had been swept over in … a single scene.’ Cumberland, like many of the discerning playgoers, accepted Garrick’s new style almost at once, but many playgoers found Quin perfectly satisfactory, because he was what they were used to, and his style seemed appropriate for the kinds of characters he usually played. One might have expected Quin to either change with the times or retire and give the stage to the new generation. But, as some critics noted, Quin by the 1740s was too set in his ways. And there were many, including Garrick, who appreciated Quin’s style and respected his talent. Indeed, Quin and Garrick became good friends.
It is significant, however, that from 1741, Quin began changing the even tenor of his ways. He gave up his engagement at Drury Lane after the 1740-41 season, appeared at Smock Alley in the summer of 1741 and signed on again at Covent Garden for the 1740s. He began spending more time relaxing and indulging himself at Bath and less time treading the boards. His last appearance was on 15 May 1751 at Covent Garden as Horatio in "The Fair Penitent", after which he undertook only benefits for friends. He lived out a life of pleasure at Bath, dying there on 23 January 1766, not long after a visit with the Garricks