John Bannister was born on 12 May 1760 at Deptford, where his father Charles Bannister (q.v.) was employed in the government victualing office. Shortly after John’s birth, his father took up acting and eventually became a leading comic actor whose career in London extended some 42 years. Young John had a talent for drawing and in 1777 was placed in the Royal Academy Schools, where he became a close friend of Thomas Rowlandson; but insufficient funds required his withdrawal, and he, too, turned to acting. He played Dick in Murphy’s “The Apprentice” at Drury Lane on 27 August 1778, and then appeared as Palmira in “Mahomet” on 11 November 1778. It is said that Garrick (who was in retirement) coached him line by line. In 1779-80 Bannister began a regular engagement at Drury Lane, where his father was a leading actor. In the 1790s he gradually assumed many of his father’s parts and soon commanded a higher salary – £16 per week to his father’s £6. His popularity extended through 1814-15. He also played summers at the Haymarket for 17 consecutive years, until 1797, acting at that theatre some 150 different characters. Thereafter he spent his summers touring the provinces in the three kingdoms. His repertoire at Drury Lane was remarkable in that it consisted of over 425 characters, although many were in short comic afterpieces or skits.
He is seen in some of his favourite and best characters in paintings now in the Garrick Club, where there are nine depictions of him. (“See Pictures in the Garrick Club” for details on those characterizations.) Among other roles in which he demonstrated his comic abilities were Bob Acres in “The Rivals”, Bobadil in “Every Man in his Humour”, Colonel Oldboy in “Lionel and Clarissa”, Lovewell in “The Clandestine Marriage”, Scrub in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”, Touchstone in “As You Like It” and Tony Lumpkin in “She Stoops to Conquer”.
He was as popular offstage as on. Among his many influential friends were the Duke and Duchess of Bedford, Lord and Lady Holland, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Lawrence, the musician William Linley, the banker Thomas Coutts, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. He was a member of the club called ‘The School of Garrick’ (G0037).
Bannister died at his house at No 65, Gower Street, Bedford Square, on 7 November 1836, and was buried in the family vault at St Martin-in-the-Fields. In addition to the pictures of him in the Garrick Club, there are numerous other portraits of him in private and theatrical character. (BDA)