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Planché, James Robinsonlocked

  • Donald Roy

James Robinson Planché (1796–1880)

by Henry Perronet Briggs, exh. RA 1835

Garrick Club / the art archive

Planché, James Robinson (1796–1880), playwright and herald, was born on 27 February 1796 at Old Burlington Street, Piccadilly, London, the son of Jacques Planché (1734–1816), a watchmaker, and his wife, Catherine Emily, née Planché (d. 1804), who were first cousins and descendants of Huguenot refugees. Initially educated by his mother at home, where he spoke French, Planché attended the Revd Mr Farrer's boarding-school in Lawrence Street, Chelsea, from 1804 to 1808 and then studied geometry and perspective for two years under a landscape painter, M. De Court, a training of considerable benefit to him in later life.

Articled to a bookseller in 1810, Planché wrote his first play, Amoroso, King of Little Britain, a 'Serio-Comick, Bombastick, Operatick Interlude' clearly inspired by Rhodes's Bombastes furioso (1816) and intended for performance at a small private theatre where Planché often acted in amateur productions. It was seen in manuscript by the popular comedian John Pritt Harley, at whose instigation it was staged at Drury Lane on 21 April 1818, its favourable reception giving Planché an entrée to the theatre's green-room, where he was encouraged by Harley, Stephen Kemble, and Robert William Elliston to take up playwriting as a career. Planché's earliest writing, however, was largely produced for London's minor theatres, and was generally unremarkable. The exception to this pattern was The Vampire, or, The Bride of the Isles, a 'Romantic Melodrama' skilfully adapted from a French original. It created an immediate stir at the Lyceum in August 1820, not least because of the production's use of the innovatory ‘Vampire trap’, and was promptly seized on by other theatre managers in the provinces and across the Atlantic.

On 26 April 1821 Planché married Elizabeth St George (1796–1846) and after a honeymoon in Paris they set up house the following year in suburbia, at 20 Brompton Crescent (now Egerton Gardens), subsequently moving to Michael's Grove Lodge, Brompton. They had two daughters, Katherine Frances (b. 1823), and Matilda Anne, who, under her married name of Matilda Anne Mackarness (1825–1881), was to become a successful author of children's books.

Soon after his marriage, Planché was briefly employed as stock author at the Adelphi before moving to a comparable post under Charles Kemble at Covent Garden, where he remained from 1822 to 1828, while occasionally providing pieces for the Lyceum, the Adelphi, and the Haymarket. During the summer seasons of 1826 and 1827 he also managed Vauxhall Gardens, arranging musical concerts and other such entertainments. These years at Covent Garden were characterized by two notable developments: first, Planché's collaboration in 1822 with Henry Bishop on his first full-scale opera, Maid Marian (an adaptation of the novel by Thomas Love Peacock), and in 1826 with Weber on Oberon, for which he supplied the original English libretto; second, his persuasion of Kemble in 1823 to present King John in historically accurate costumes designed by himself from 'indisputable authorities'. This latter achievement represented a triumphant departure from standard procedure at the time, initiated a succession of similarly mounted Shakespearian productions and historical plays or adaptations of his own (Cortez, 1823; A Woman Never Vext, 1824; The Merchant's Wedding, 1828), and helped to bring about a revolution in nineteenth-century stage practice. Extending this principle to contemporary events, Planché attended the coronation of Charles X at Rheims in May 1825 to make drawings of the dresses and decorations for a ‘pageant’ of the ceremony, produced at Covent Garden on 11 July.

The same ‘antiquarian’ approach was applied to the historical plays Planché wrote under contract to Stephen Price at Drury Lane between 1828 and 1830, works such as Charles XII (1828), The Partisans, or, The War of Paris in 1649 (1829), The Brigand Chief (1829), and Hofer, or, The Tell of the Tyrol (1830). All of these productions were staged under his personal supervision with carefully researched period costume. After a short engagement as acting manager at the Adelphi, Planché devised (with Charles Dance) Olympic Revels, or, Prometheus and Pandora, a pièce de circonstance to inaugurate Eliza Vestris's management of the Olympic in January 1831. This proved an encounter of crucial importance, doing much to determine the subsequent fortunes of both parties. Their association was to last, with only short interruptions, for more than twenty years and spanned Mme Vestris's tenancy (later with her second husband, Charles James Mathews) of three London theatres, the Olympic, Covent Garden, and the Lyceum. It also quickened the pace of Planché's relentless creative activity, resulting in no fewer than thirty-six pieces in seven years for the Olympic, the Haymarket, the Adelphi, and the two patent houses, including two operatic librettos (Gustavus III, or, The Masked Ball, 1833, and The Jewess, 1835), both adapted from Scribe, whose work he frequently remodelled to great effect. Planché was a founder member of the Garrick Club in 1831 and returned to Drury Lane twice as stock author, under Alfred Bunn for the 1835–6 season and again under Macready in 1842–3.

However, it was for Vestris and Mathews, either on their own account or as members of Benjamin Webster's company at the Haymarket between 1843 and 1847, that Planché wrote much of his best work. He enjoyed success in the staple genres of farce (My Great Aunt, or, Where there's a Will, 1831; The Printer's Devil, 1838; The Garrick Fever, 1839; Somebody Else, 1844; Spring Gardens, 1846), vaudeville (The Loan of a Lover, 1834; The Two Figaros, 1836), comedy (Grist to the Mill, 1844; A Lady in Difficulties, 1849; My Heart's Idol, or, A Desperate Remedy, 1850), and ‘drama’ (The Captain of the Watch, 1841; The Jacobite, 1847; Not a Bad Judge, 1848; A Romantic Idea, 1849). He also, however, created a large number of highly novel extravaganzas, some, in the manner of Olympic Revels, parodying mythological themes or the forms of classical drama (The Deep, Deep Sea, or, Perseus and Andromeda, 1833; The Golden Fleece, or, Jason in Colchis and Medea in Corinth, 1845; ‘The Birds’ of Aristophanes, 1846), others playfully reinterpreting familiar fairy tales (Riquet with the Tuft, 1836; Beauty and the Beast, 1841; The Bee and the Orange Tree, or, The Four Wishes, 1845; The Island of Jewels, 1849). A further group, subtitled dramatic reviews, were aimed, Planché said, at offering 'a running commentary on recent metropolitan events', especially theatrical (The Drama's Levée, or, A Peep at the Past, 1838; The Drama at Home, or, An Evening with Puff, 1844).

So close did the partnership become that when the two actor–managers departed for an American tour Planché was left in sole command of the Olympic from October to December 1838. Moreover, when they placed him in overall charge of scenic decoration at Covent Garden between 1839 and 1842 and again at the Lyceum from 1847 to 1852, Planché played a significant part in the increasingly realistic mounting of plays favoured by the management, particularly in terms of costume and stage furnishing. His keen collaboration with the machinist Bradwell and later the scene painter and machinist William Beverley also yielded magical visual and technical effects in the performance of his extravaganzas, although he subsequently came to deplore the subordination of literary text to 'unmeaning spectacle', a trend ironically established by these very accomplishments. At the same time Planché was in demand as a consultant on historical dress to members of the royal family and the aristocracy for the bals costumés held intermittently by the queen at Buckingham Palace. In 1847 he was co-opted onto a special committee for the purchase and preservation of Shakespeare's ‘birthplace’ at Stratford upon Avon.

In 1852 Planché forsook the day-to-day routine of theatrical life to reside with a married daughter and her husband in rural Kent, while accepting regular commissions for plays from the Lyceum, the Haymarket, the Olympic, and the Strand. He returned to London two years later on his appointment as Rouge Croix pursuivant at the College of Arms, thereafter dividing his time between ceremonial duties, playwriting, translation, and scholarly pursuits. He accompanied Garter missions to Lisbon in 1858 to invest King Pedro V and again in 1865 to honour King Luis, and after his promotion to Somerset herald in 1866 he was a member of similar missions to Vienna in 1867 for the investiture of the emperor Franz Josef and to Rome in 1878 for that of Umberto I. His historical scholarship, appropriately recognized as early as 1829 by his election as fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and his influential role in the foundation in 1843 of the British Archaeological Association, of which he was later vice-president, came increasingly to preoccupy him in his later years. It found expression not only in published work but in his arrangement of the Meyrick collection of armour for exhibition in Manchester in 1857 and again at the South Kensington Museum in 1868, and in an invitation from the War Office in 1869 to reorganize the armoury at the Tower of London along chronological lines, a project which he had long canvassed.

Planché also addressed himself to reorganization of the theatre itself. Greatly exercised earlier in his career by the protection of authors' (and librettists') copyright and having given evidence to a parliamentary select committee of 1832 which bore fruit the following year in legislation (3 William IV c. 15) relating to dramatic literary property, he now wrote a pamphlet entitled Suggestions for a National Theatre (1879), outlining the aims and administrative policy of such an institution. He continued to write occasionally for the stage, producing his last work, the songs for Boucicault's 'spectacular opera', Babil and Bijou, at Covent Garden in 1872, and even appeared on stage in a benefit performance of Bulwer Lytton's Money at the Haymarket in April 1879.

Amid growing public renown Planché had been no stranger to private grief. His wife, who also became a dramatic author and had a number of plays produced at the Olympic and the Haymarket (Literary Gazette, 3 Oct 1846, 859), died at the age of fifty, and his younger daughter was widowed in 1868, returning thereafter with her young family to live with her father. There followed a period of straitened circumstances for him, somewhat alleviated by the award in 1871 of a civil-list pension of £100 'in recognition of his literary services', and he remained busy with numerous enterprises until the last twelve months of his life. He died at his home in Chelsea, 10 St Leonard's Terrace, on 30 May 1880 and was buried at Brompton cemetery on 4 June.

In all, Planché was the author of some 180 pieces for the theatre, running the entire gamut of dramaturgic taxonomy from burletta and masque to high drama and grand opera. Many were derived from French sources but most had been creatively re-imagined to appeal to English audiences and inventively recast to suit the individual talents of a whole succession of leading English performers. In this respect the most original were his numerous extravaganzas, mostly written for the delectation of holiday crowds at Easter and Christmas and redolent of wit, delicacy of touch, and a rare quality of enchantment; that they were collected together by two friends and republished on a subscription basis in a five-volume testimonial edition the year before his death is a measure of the affection in which they were held. His other publications included several books of verse, translations of German and French fairy tales, an account of travels, a critique of contemporary theatre ('Extravaganza and spectacle', in Temple Bar, 3, 1861), two volumes of memoirs (Recollections and Reflections, 1872), and a whole range of studies of historical costume, armour, antiquities, and heraldry, most notably The Pursuivant of Arms, or, Heraldry Founded upon Facts (1852), The Conqueror and his Companions (2 vols., 1874), and A Cyclopaedia of Costume, or, Dictionary of Dress (2 vols., 1876–9). He also annotated new editions of Joseph Strutt's A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England (1842) and The Regal and Ecclesiastical Antiquities of England (1842), and prepared a revised version of Hugh Clark's An Introduction to Heraldry (1866).

Planché's reputation as a playwright, already in decline before his death, was completely submerged in the twentieth century. Apart from periodic adaptations of a handful of his extravaganzas as Christmas entertainments at the Players' Theatre in London, there has been no resurgence of interest in his oeuvre and certainly no full-scale professional revival. But his record of achievement in the course of a long and varied working life on the London stage, his decisive contribution to the evolution of scenic presentation, and his influence on the changing form of English pantomime, not to mention the impetus he gave to burlesque (most conspicuously in the work of W. S. Gilbert), assures him a permanent place in the history of theatre practice, regardless of the fate of his plays.


  • J. R. Planché, The recollections and reflections of J. R. Planché, 2 vols. (1872)
  • Plays by James Robinson Planché, ed. D. Roy (1986)
  • J. P. Simpson, The Theatre, 3rd ser., 2 (1880), 95–9
  • The Critic, 19 (1859), 444
  • ILN (5 June 1880), 557
  • The Athenaeum (5 June 1880), 727–8
  • Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 36 (1880), 261–5
  • Illustrated Review (1871), 353–5
  • C. R. Smith, Retrospections, social and archaeological, 1 (1883), 43, 94, 257–76
  • Illustrated News of the World, 7 (1861), 273
  • F. Waddy, Cartoon portraits and biographical sketches of men of the day (1873), 102–3
  • Morning Advertiser (31 May 1880), 5
  • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 13 (1880), 281, 283
  • H. Granville-Barker, ‘Exit Planché — Enter Gilbert’, The eighteen-sixties, ed. J. Drinkwater (1932), 102–48


  • Harvard U., Houghton L., papers
  • Hunt. L., letters, drawings, and literary papers
  • BL, lord chamberlain's licensing collection
  • BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to W. T. Spencer
  • Hunt. L., Larpent collection
  • U. Edin. L., letters to James Halliwell–Phillipps
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to T. J. Pettigrew


  • H. P. Briggs, oils, exh. RA 1835, Garr. Club [see illus.]
  • Butterworth & Heath, wood-engraving (after Portch), NPG; repro. in The Critic, 444
  • engraving, repro. in ILN
  • engraving, repro. in Illustrated News of the World
  • engraving, repro. in Cartoon Portraits
  • engraving, repro. in Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News
  • two engravings, repro. in J. R. Planché, Recollections and reflections (1872)

Wealth at Death

under £1000: probate, 16 July 1880, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Illustrated London News