John Philip Kemble, the leading actor on the London stage between Garrick and Kean, was born at Prescott, Lancashire, on 1 February 1757, the first son of the provincial managers Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah (née Ward). His elder sister was the famous Sarah Siddons (q.v.); many of his siblings were also actors and some are noted on these pages. He received early schooling at Worcester and in a Catholic seminary at Sedgley Park, near Wolverhampton, before being sent to the English College at Douai, intended for the priesthood. When a child he had made some appearances in his father’s company, and after Douai he returned to England in 1775 to take up the family calling. He acted at Wolverhampton, Cheltenham and Liverpool, and when he applied for a position with Tate Wilkinson at York, Kemble listed a catalogue of 86 roles he had in his repertoire. He made his debut at York on 20 January 1779 – the day that David Garrick died – as Orestes in “The Distrest Mother” and was next seen as Ranger in “The Suspicious Husband”. By 1781 Kemble’s reputation was firmly established at York, where he had also written a few plays, and he next acted at Edinburgh and at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, appearing at the latter theatre as Hamlet on 2 November 1781. Now ready for London, he made his debut at Drury Lane as Hamlet (G0386) on 30 September 1783 and was praised for electrifying transitions, an interesting observation, because such a comment was not often made later about his acting style, which has been characterized as formal and declamatory. Among his other roles that season was Richard III (G0380). On 6 December 1783 he appeared with his sister Sarah as Mr and Mrs Beverley in “The Gamester”. On 10 December he acted King John to her Constance. His biog rapher James Boaden described Kemble’s portrayal of King John as ‘The most cold-blooded, hesitating, cowardly and creeping villainy,’ though other critics found him slow, monotonous and cold. Soon established as the leading actor in London, he went from triumph to triumph, acting such roles as Coriolanus (G0381) – for which he seemed born to play – Cato (G0385) and Rolla in Sheridan’s potboiler “Pizarro”. (His performances as Coriolanus, Hamlet, Rolla and Cato are memorialized in Lawrence’s larger-than-life-size portraits.)
In December 1787 Kemble married the actress Priscilla Brereton, widow of the actor William Brereton and daughter of the Drury Lane prompter William Hopkins. The following year he took over the management of Drury Lane Theatre, which he retained until that theatre was razed in 1791 to make way for a new theatrical facility. The new Drury Lane Theatre opened on 12 March 1794 with a concert of Handel’s music. The first theatrical production was “Macbeth” on 21 April 1794, with Kemble in the title role and his sister Sarah in her great role of Lady Macbeth (390). At the end of the 1801-2 season Kemble, no longer able to tolerate Richard Sheridan’s financial shenanigans at Drury Lane, left there to embark on a Grand Tour. In April 1803 he concluded his negotiations for the management of Covent Garden Theatre, which he assumed in 1803-4, bolstered by a company that included his sister Sarah, his brother Charles, W. T. Lewis and the difficult but brilliant George Frederick Cooke. Kemble retained that management until 1812, and then acted in the provinces until he returned to act at Covent Garden as Coriolanus on 15 January 1814, when the audience rose to welcome him back.
Kemble became ill in May 1816, and when he played Macbeth at Edinburgh in June he was described as ‘the ruin of a magnificent temple, in which the divinity still resides.’ His farewell performance came at Covent Garden on 23 June 1817; when he came on as Coriolanus – probably his greatest role – the house rose for a five-minute ovation.’ After occupying himself with travel, Kemble died at Lausanne on 26 February 1823 and was buried in a cemetery outside that city. His wife Priscilla survived him by 22 years, dying in Leamingon in 1845. They had no children.
As the BDA notes, the handsome, elegant and intelligent Kemble was in private often aloof and intimidating. He was nicknamed 'Black Jack' by friends and enemies alike. Though his drinking did not approach the severity of Cooke and Kean's, Black Jack often heard the chimes at midnight. He enjoyed the highest esteem in his profession and clearly was a fine manager and a great actor, and he wore well the mantle inherited from Garrick as the high-priest of Hsakespeare. He wrote or adapted some 58 plays. His superb library of old plays was bought by the sixth Duke of Devonshire and with a large amount of Kemble documents went in 1914 from Chatsworth House to the Hintington Library in California. The BDA lists some 197 portraits and engravings of Kemble Thirteen are in the Garrick Club, alond with some figurines.