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Robertson, Sir Johnston Forbes-locked

  • Ralph Berry

Sir Johnston Forbes- Robertson (1853–1937)


Robertson, Sir Johnston Forbes- (1853–1937), actor and theatre manager, was born in Crutched Friars, London, on 16 January 1853, the eldest of the eleven children of John Forbes-Robertson (1822–1903) and his wife, Frances, the daughter of John Cott, of London. His father was a Scot from Aberdeen who won some success in London as an art critic and journalist. The son was educated at Charterhouse, then still a London school, and was sent for a great part of his holidays for over six years to Rouen. He was originally intended for an artist, and on leaving school was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy in 1870. At the end of three years' hard work he had shown so much promise that his future as a painter seemed assured. Instead, he turned for his profession to the stage, where he was later joined by two of his brothers and one of his sisters.

'Rarely, very rarely have I enjoyed myself in acting,' wrote Forbes-Robertson in his autobiography. He considered himself temperamentally unfitted for the stage, but a desire to relieve his family of the expense of his upkeep made him take an opportunity to earn his living. He had appeared in an amateur production, and the ascetic beauty of his face—he had sat to D. G. Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, and other artists—and the resonance of his deep voice led to an offer from W. G. Wills in March 1874 of a part in his play Mary Stuart, then running at the Princess's Theatre, at a salary of £4 a week.

In April, Forbes-Robertson appeared with Ellen Terry in Charles Reade's The Wandering Heir, and after a tour with her he played a round of parts in Manchester under C. A. Calvert. By the end of 1874 he was back in London, playing with Samuel Phelps at the Gaiety Theatre. Forbes-Robertson afterwards paid affectionate tribute to Phelps as his master, under whom he studied elocution, and painted the portrait of Phelps as Wolsey in the Garrick Club collection. The high promise of that early painting (1876) shows that Forbes-Robertson had always an alternative avocation. He may have thought of himself as essentially a painter: the characteristic of his playing was a sense of beauty (of movement, speech, and aesthetic morality) that implied links with the visual arts. Painting fed his style of acting. But the stage claimed him, and he owed it to Phelps's teaching, as well as to his own natural graces, that he soon made a name. Engagement followed engagement, until in September 1876 he made his first notable personal success, as Geoffrey Wynyard in W. S. Gilbert's Dan'l Druce, Blacksmith. From that time on his name appears constantly in stage records, with the Bancrofts, with Wilson Barrett and Helena Modjeska, with Henry Irving, and with John Hare; and the list of his parts is remarkable for their variety and growing importance.

Forbes-Robertson made the first of many appearances in the United States of America in October 1885, in New York as Orlando with Mary Anderson. After a long tour in America he appeared with her in London, at the Lyceum Theatre in September 1887, as Leontes in a famous production of The Winter's Tale, for which he designed the dresses. He was now recognized as one of the leading London actors, and for eight more years he continued in constant demand until in 1895 he decided to go into management for himself. Again, as at the beginning of his stage career, he was taking an opportunity rather than realizing an ambition.

Forbes-Robertson's first season, at the Lyceum, was only a moderate success. His leading lady was Mrs Patrick Campbell, an actress of great talent and temperament to whom Forbes-Robertson was for a time attached and may have been engaged. He was now 'in thrall to a fury' (Frances Donaldson), and for four years 'she led him a terrible dance'. It was thought that he delayed putting on his masterpiece, Hamlet, because Mrs Campbell prevailed upon him to produce Romeo and Juliet. Juliet was a fine part for her; Ophelia does not compete with Hamlet. Forbes-Robertson's management venture did not go well until, at the same theatre and with much misgiving, he presented himself as Hamlet in September 1897. This was the greatest artistic success of his career, and it established his fortunes. Even in his farewell season, when he was sixty, the dignity and poetic grace of his interpretation of the young man were unforgettable.

Forbes-Robertson's private life then took a decisive turn for the better. He parted from Mrs Patrick Campbell in 1899, and met his future wife. In the autumn of 1900 he engaged for a tour with his company a young American actress, (Mary) Gertrude [see below], the daughter of Thomas Dermot, a sea captain, and his wife, Adelaide Hall. Her stage name was Gertrude Elliott, and she was the sister of a more famous actress, Maxine Elliott. On 22 December 1900 he married her, and she remained his leading lady until his retirement and his devoted companion until his death. They had four daughters, the second of whom, Jean Forbes-Robertson (1905–1962), followed her parents on to the stage with notable success. Forbes-Robertson's happy marriage was the personal and professional stabilizer of his later life.

During the next decade Forbes-Robertson continued to enjoy high artistic prestige and a modest prosperity. His finest role, after Hamlet, was Caesar in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. As Shattuck wrote,

The genetic relationship between Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet and Shaw's Caesar is implicit in Shaw's pronouncement just before the London production [1907]: ‘I wrote Caesar and Cleopatra for Forbes-Robertson, because he is the classic actor of our day, and had a right to require such a service from me.’

Forbes-Robertson also produced Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1900), playing Dick Dudgeon. As an actor, Forbes-Robertson scarcely had a failure; he was admired by critics and public. As a manager, he put on a mixture of classical and modern plays with fair success. They included Maeterlinck's Pelleas and Melisande (1898), Madeleine Lucette Ryley's Mice and Men (1902), and The Light that Failed (1903), an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's novel. He was by now pre-eminent in his profession, and in 1905 he organized the lobbying that secured Sir Henry Irving's burial in Westminster Abbey.

In 1908 Forbes-Robertson produced Jerome K. Jerome's play The Passing of the Third Floor Back, and it became his chief box-office success. The play has little artistic merit, but the part of the mysterious and Christ-like Stranger, who puts to shame the petty human failings of his fellow guests in a boarding-house, brought out the sweetness and goodness of his character. Forbes-Robertson came to be heartily sick of the play, but it was often revived and became the staple of his later prosperity. In 1917 he starred in a film made of it.

Forbes-Robertson's name was never connected with a particular London theatre. In twenty years he played only four seasons in London, but spent many years on tour in the USA and Canada. His farewell London season came in 1913, at the end of which he was knighted, in June, by George V. His last professional appearance was given at Harvard University in April 1916, as Hamlet. After more than twenty years of contented retirement he died at his London home, 22 Bedford Square, on 6 November 1937. In 1925 he published his autobiography, A Player under Three Reigns. He received honorary degrees from Columbia University (1915) and Aberdeen University (1931), and was the first actor of any nationality upon whom an American degree was conferred.

Forbes-Robertson was widely regarded as the finest Hamlet of his time. Robert Atkins, who had seen thirty-five Hamlets, thought him 'the most perfect'. Bernard Shaw was unstinting in his praise, and defined Forbes-Robertson's qualities:

Mr Forbes-Robertson is essentially a classical actor, the only one, with the exception of Mr Alexander, now established in London management. What I mean by classical is that he can present a dramatic hero as a man whose passions are those which have produced the philosophy, the poetry, the art, and the statecraft of the world, and not merely those which have produced its weddings, coroners' inquests, and executions.

Our Theatres in the Nineties, 3.201

He would not, James Agate noted, speak 'I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.' This was a Hamlet founded on breeding and social address, physical grace, and 'a voice like a violoncello'. Hamlet was the epitome of Forbes-Robertson's art. 'Forbes-Robertson was a gracious and noble actor, and in his private life a gracious and noble gentleman' (Agate, 228–32).

Hamlet, a film shot in Lulworth Cove (1913), is at the British Film Institute; it records the grace and nobility of Forbes-Robertson's gestures. His voice has been preserved through several Shakespeare speeches which are on record at the National Sound Archive.

(Mary) Gertrude Forbes-Robertson Lady Forbes-Robertson (1874–1950), actress, was born in Rocklands, Maine on 14 December 1874. After her marriage in 1900, she was for years the leading lady of her husband, but also led an occasionally separate professional life. Her first stage appearance was in Saratoga, New York, as Lady Stutfield in A Woman of No Importance (1894). She first travelled to England in 1899, when she was seen with her sister Maxine Elliott in The Cowboy and the Lady. She appeared in all Forbes-Robertson's major productions, including Caesar and Cleopatra, in which she played Cleopatra. After touring in the USA she rejoined Forbes-Robertson's company for his farewell season (1913) and repeated all her major roles. She later appeared in London under her own management, and undertook extensive tours of South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Her final appearances on the English stage were in 1927, when she played Desdemona, Maria (Twelfth Night), and Lady William Bacton in This Year—Next Year. She was seen on Broadway in 1936, playing Gertrude to Leslie Howard's Hamlet. Her acting, while not quite on the level of that of her sister and her husband, was praised for 'her girlish spirit, playful humour, eloquent speech and dusky beauty' (T. L. Miller, in The Cambridge Guide to the Theatre (1993–6)). She died at her home, Attcliffe, St Margarets-at-Cliffe, Kent, on 24 December 1950.


  • J. Forbes-Robertson, A player under three reigns (1925)
  • Who was who in the theatre, 1912–1976, 4 vols. (1978)
  • WWW, 1929–40
  • J. Agate, Ego 3: being still more of the autobiography of James Agate (1938)
  • G. B. Shaw, Our theatres in the nineties, rev. edn, 3 vols. (1932), vol. 3
  • F. Donaldson, The actor–managers (1970)
  • R. H. Ball, Shakespeare on silent film (1968)
  • C. H. Shattuck, Shakespeare on the American stage, 2 (1987)


  • BL, family corresp.
  • BL, corresp. with George Bernard Shaw, Add. MSS 50534, 61998


  • BFINA, performance footage


  • J. P. Gülich, drawing, 1897 (as Hamlet)
  • A. Collins, portrait, priv. coll.
  • J. Forbes-Robertson, self-portrait, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • M. Frampton, portrait, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire
  • Spy [L. Ward], cartoon, repro. in VF (2 May 1895)

Wealth at Death

£8372 1s. 10d.: probate, 18 Jan 1938, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£84,200 3s. 11d.—Mary Gertrude Forbes-Robertson: probate, 5 April 1951, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)