John Liston was born in 1776, perhaps in Norris Street, in the parish of St James’s; supposedly his father was a cook’s shopkeeper. He was educated under Dr Barrow at the Soho Academy. Liston served for a while as master of the grammar school of St Martin’s in Leicester Square and participated in amateur theatricals. He soon turned professional and made appearances at Weymouth, York, Dublin and with Stephen Kemble’s company on the northern circuit. His first appearance in London was at the Haymarket Theatre as Sheepface in “The Village Lawyer” on 10 June 1805, followed that season by Zekiel in “The Heir-at-Law”, Farmer Ashcroft in “Speed the Plough”, Jacob Gawky in “The Chapter of Accidents” and similar comic roles. The next season he made his debut at Covent Garden as Jacob Gawky on 15 October 1806. Over the next 30 years Liston, one of the most comic of actors, excelled in farce and low comedy and was a leading player on the London stage. His popularity is testified to by the numerous portraits and figures of him at the Garrick Club. Among his greatest triumphs was Paul Pry at the Haymarket on 13 September 1825, a performance described by Genest as a perfect piece of acting. Liston remained a member of the summer company at the Haymarket until 1830 and was at Covent Garden until 1822. His first appearance at Drury Lane came on 28 January 1823 as Tony Lumpkin in “She Stoops to Conquer”.
He spent the last years of his career engaged by Madame Vestris at the Olympic Theatre, until his retirement in 1837. Subsequently he moved to a house facing Hyde Park Corner. He died there of ‘a softening of the brain’ on 22 March 1846 and was buried at Kensal Green. Liston, a favourite of George IV, had the highest salary of any comedian and left an estate of £40,000. Though he had a reputation as a practical joker, he also had a melancholy side that made him often appear grave. But of his acting Hazlitt wrote: ‘his jaws seem to ache with laughter, his eyes look out of his head with wonder, his face is unctuous all over, and bathed with jests.’ Leigh Hunt wrote that in Liston’s ‘best performances he may be called natural in every sense of the word … [He] passes from the simplest rustic to the most conceited pretender with undiminished easiness of attainment.’
In addition to the pictures in the Garrick Club, many other portraits and engravings of Liston were made. Liston’s wife Sarah (née Tyrer), whom he had married in 1807, also acted in London. For Liston’s biography, see Jim Davis, “John Liston Comedian” (1985). (DNB, OCT)