Johnston Forbes-Robertson

Johnston Forbes-Robertson

Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson (January 16, 1853November 6, 1937"Sir Johnston Forbes Robertson, Beauty And Grace In Acting", Obituaries, "The Times", 8 November 1937.] ) was an English actor and theatre manager. He was considered the finest Hamlet of the nineteenth century and one of the finest actors of his time, despite his dislike of the job and his lifelong belief that he was temperamentally unsuited to acting.

Early life

Born in London, he was the eldest of the eleven children of John Forbes-Robertson, a theatre critic and journalist from Aberdeen, and his wife Frances. One of his sisters Frances(1866-1956) and two of his brothers, Ian Forbes-Robertson(1859-19??) and Norman Forbes(1858-1932), also became actors. He was the brother-in-law of famed actress Maxine Elliott. He was also the great-uncle of actress Meriel Forbes a granddaughter of his brother Norman.

He was educated at Charterhouse. Originally intending to become an artist, he initially trained for three years at the Royal Academy. He began a theatrical career, out of a desire to be self-supporting, when the dramatist William Gorman Wills, who had seen him in private theatricals. offered him a role in his play "Mary Queen of Scots".

His many performances led him into, among other things, travel to the U.S., and work with Sir Henry Irving. He was hailed as one of the most individual and refined of English actors. He was a personal friend of the Duke of Sutherland and his family and often stayed with them at Trentham Hall; he is known to have recommended to them various writers and musicians in dire need of assistance.

Forbes-Robertson first came to prominence playing second leads to Henry Irving before making his mark as the greatest interpreter of Hamlet of the nineteenth century, according to many critics. One of his early successes was in W. S. Gilbert's "Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith". He was noted for his elocution, particularly by George Bernard Shaw who wrote the part of Caesar in "Caesar and Cleopatra" for him. Forbes-Robertson's other great roles were Romeo, Othello, Leontes in "The Winter's Tale," and the leading role in "The Passing of the Third Floor Back" (filmed in 1916). He did not play Hamlet until he was 44 years old, but after his success in the part he continued playing it until 1916, including a surviving silent film (1913) which indicates his greatness in the role. Shaw considered him the greatest Hamlet he had ever seen.

He was also a talented painter who did a portrait of his mentor Samuel Phelps that currently hangs in the Garrick Club in London. Forbes-Robertson acted in plays with the gifted actress Mary Anderson in the 1880s. He became smitten with her, fell in love with her and asked her hand in marriage. She kindly turned him down though they remained friends. Later he and actress Beatrice Campbell enjoyed a brief affair during the time she starred with him in a series of Shakespearean plays in the mid 1890s. In 1900 (age 47), he married actress Gertrude Elliott; they had four daughters. Their first daughter was Maxine Forbes-Robertson(b.1901). Their second daughter Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905-1962) became an accomplished actress. Their third daughter was Chloe Forbes-Robertson(b.1909). Diana Forbes-Robertson (1914-1988), their fourth daughter, was something of a writer who later wrote a biography of her aunt Maxine Elliott. In 1913 (age 60), he was knighted.

In the last years of his life he produced plays by George Bernard Shaw and Jerome K. Jerome. His literary works include: "The Life and Life-Work of Samuel Phelps" (actor and theatre manager), and "The Great Painters of Christendom From Cimabue to Wilkie".

In 1937 (age 84), he died on 6 November in St. Margaret's Bay, near Dover, England, UK.


*Berry, Ralph. " [ Robertson, Sir Johnston Forbes (1853–1937)] ", "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", Oxford University Press, 2004. Accessed 17 Jan 2008]

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