Born in 1758 in Brook’s Market, Leather Lane, Holborn, London, Joseph Shepherd Munden was the son of a poulterer. He was placed with an apothecary, then a law stationer and then a lawyer, after which he spent two years in Liverpool, earning his living as a scrivener while gaining experience as an actor. On 11 January 1779 he performed in “The Gentle Shepherd” with a group of northern players at the Haymarket Theatre in London, but for ten years Munden worked chiefly in the provinces, spending some time as a manager with Whitlock. His niche was in comedy, and after the death of the comedian John Edwin in 1790 Munden was able to get an engagement at Covent Garden Theatre in London at £6 weekly. His debut was as Sir Francis Gripe in “The Busy Body” and Jemmy Jumps in “The Farmer” on 2 December 1790; the critic ‘Anthony Pasquin’ compared Munden unfavourably with both the deceased Edwin and the reigning comedian John Quick: Munden equalled ‘Neither the Quick nor the dead.’ The “World” was more favourable: Munden was ‘rather under the middle size, his figure good, his voice powerful and melodious, and his articulation the clearest and most rapid we ever witnessed.’ The “Gazetteer” claimed that he acted ‘Without the aid of grimace or buffoonery.’ But grimace and buffoonery captured audiences, and within a few years critics reported that Munden went too far: ‘he is too fond of grimace,’ commented Waldron in 1795, and the “Morning Herald” in 1798 complained about his ad libs. Leigh Hunt in 1807 said with irony that Munden had an ‘innumerable variety of as fanciful contortions of countenance as ever threw women into hysterics.’ Charles Lamb still found him irresistible: ‘When you think he has exhausted his battery of looks … suddenly he sprouts out and entirely new set of features, like Hydra. He is not one, but legion; not so much a comedian as a company. If his name could be multiplied like his countenance, it might fill a playbill. He, and he alone, literally makes faces.’
Lamb’s praises helped make Munden one of the most popular low comedians of his day, and it is worth noting that in the Garrick Club collection of theatrical portraits there are almost as many depictions of Joseph Munden as of David Garrick and J. P. Kemble: as Marrall in “A New Way to Pay Old Debts” (G0355), Project in “Speculation” (G0429), Autolycus in “The Winter’s Tale” (G0619, G0620, reported as lost but now found), Crack in “The Turnpike Gate” (G0621), Peregrine Forester in “Hartford Bridge” (G0622) and Old Brummagem in “Lock and Key” (G0630) – in addition to portraits out of character by Drummond, Knight, Opie, Shee and Turmeau. Munden’s many roles also included Peachum in “The Beggar’s Opera”, Sir Francis Wronghead in “The Provok’d Husband”, Sir Peter Teazle in “The School for Scandal”, Scrub in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”, Dogberry in “Much Ado about Nothing”, Sir Anthony Absolute in “The Rivals” and one of his lesser-known favourites, Dornton in “The Road to Ruin”.
Munden lived with Mary Jones, an actress who performed as Mrs Munden in the 1780s and bore him four daughters; in 1789 she ran off with the actor John Hodgkinson, and that year Munden married the player Frances Butler. After about 50 years on the stage Joseph Munden retired, on 31 May 1824; for his farewell at Drury Lane he acted two of his most popular parts, Sir Robert Bramble in “The Poor Gentleman” and Old Dozey in “Past Ten O’Clock”. He died on 6 February 1832. (BDA) [EAL]