Acting is fraught with back-biting and bitchiness, but in the 18th century, the profession was downright murderous, as illustrated by the life of actor and comedian, James Quin.
Quin was the son of a barrister and though he was born in London in 1693, his Irish parents took him back to Ireland where he spent his early years and attended Trinity College, Dublin, at least for a short time.
After his father’s death in 1710, it was ‘proved’ that he had been born illegitimately by a strange quirk of law because his mother’s previous husband had been alive at the time of his birth. Quin was obliged to fend for himself and took to acting as a career. He made his début in Dublin in 1714, appearing as Abel in Sir Robert Howard’s
He made his début in Dublin in 1714, appearing as Abel in Sir Robert Howard’s The Committee at the Smock Alley Theatre. Quin is reported as having all the qualities of a good actor – ‘an expressive countenance, speaking eyes, a clear and melodious voice, a retentive memory, a majestic figure; and he was an enthusiastic admirer of Shakespeare’.
Quin soon moved to London and after playing several minor roles, he made his name through his performance as Bajazet in Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane. In 1716 he appeared as Hotspur at Lincoln’s Inn, where he was to stay for fourteen years.
But it was in 1718 that he was to have his first brush with the law when Quin was convicted of manslaughter after he killed a fellow actor in a duel. It was generally regarded as the other fellow’s fault for provoking the duel in the first place and his death no worse than an accident.
Quin then killed another actor in an argument over the pronunciation of the name ‘Cato’ which might seem to be taking creative sensitivity a little too far. In both cases Quin was acquitted.
But if Quin was ready to protect his own reputation with extreme prejudice, he was also happy to do the same for others. In 1721 a drunken nobleman climbed on stage and assaulted the manager whose life was only saved by Quin’s prompt armed intervention. This resulted in a riot and armed guards were stationed in all theatres thereafter.
For all his murderous intent, Quin was an accomplished and successful actor who commanded a contract worth £1,000 a year, more than £120,000 at today’s rate. And despite the odd professional jealousy, he was a good friend of that other famous actor, David Garrick.
Quin’s last public performance was in 1757 as Horatio in Fair Penitent and he retired to Bath to enjoy late nights with much eating and drinking, a way of life that the modern successful actor might recognise.
He died in 1766 and was buried at the abbey church in Bath where he is commemorated with a frieze of his likeness, beneath which is an epitaph in verse written by Garrick which you can read by visiting the photo by David Lewis-Baker on Flickr.
Quin was also immortalised in oils and there are two portraits of him at the Garrick Club in London ascribed to William Hogarth, including the one at the top of the page. Another by Gainsborough hangs in Buckingham Palace.