Quin, James (1693–1766), actor, was born in King Street, Covent Garden, London, on 24 February 1693, the only child of James Quin, a barrister (educated at TCD and Lincoln's Inn, London), and Elizabeth Grindzell. Quin's paternal grandfather was Mark Quin, mayor of Dublin in 1667. The family returned to Ireland in 1700, where Quin received his early education and may have attended TCD with a view to a career in law. Though Grindzell had claimed to be a widow when she met James Quin, in 1701 it was revealed that her first husband was in fact still living. When James Quin died in 1710, leaving a considerable estate, the will was successfully contested by his Irish relatives John Quin and William Whitehead (Quin's uncle and first cousin). Any plans for a legal career were abandoned, and Quin turned to the stage to which he had, in any case, early aspired. Quin would continue legally to pursue his patrimony, and it seems likely that he reached some sort of settlement with his Irish relatives towards the end of his life.
Quin first appeared on stage at the Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, about 1714. He made his London debut in Drury Lane on 4 February 1715 in the role of Vulture in Charles Johnson's ‘The country lasses’. On 7 November 1716 he had his first major success, as Bajazet in Nicholas Rowe's ‘Tamerlane’. In 1717 he joined John Rich's company at the Lincoln's Inn Fields Playhouse, where he remained for the next sixteen years, and became the most acclaimed actor of the age, playing lead roles in both comedy and tragedy. In 1734 Charles Fleetwood, the new patentee of Drury Lane, enticed Quin to return there for the then enormous sum of £500. (Quin offered to stay at Covent Garden, but was rebuffed by Rich who replied that no actor was worth more than £300.) He performed at Drury Lane until 1742, when he returned to the Covent Garden theatre, where he spent the rest of his career.
Quin's acting style was very much representative of its time: mannered, deliberate, with frequent and considerable pauses. Once laced into costume, bearing the traditional plumes of tragedy on his wig, he was ‘inclined to do little more than pace portentously onto the stage, strike an attitude from which he verged very little in a scene, and open his mouth’ (Nash, 79). His voice was remarkable, however, and it excelled in the measured cadences that characterised the contemporary ideal of dramatic delivery. Such was his status in this respect that he was appointed elocution master to the prince of Wales, later George III. Not conventionally handsome, and increasingly overweight, he avoided playing romantic leads. Although he had some affectionate friendships with female actors (notably Susannah Cibber and George Anne Bellamy), he never married. While he gave celebrated performances of Sir John Brute, Macbeth, Joseph Addison's Cato, and Coriolanus, among others, it was in the role of Falstaff that he enjoyed his greatest triumph. Figurines commemorating Quin's Falstaff were sold by china manufacturers Bow, Derby, and Staffordshire. The composer Handel, a good friend of Quin, is said to have attended every performance of ‘Cato’, though he regularly slept through much of it (Nash, 80).
A touchy and rather arrogant man, Quin had an often turbulent life, marked by spats with fellow actors. Such thespian squabbles occasionally became much more serious: on 17 April 1718 he had a fierce quarrel with the actor William Bowen; it culminated in a duel in which Bowen was fatally wounded. Though convicted of manslaughter, Quin escaped retribution as it was the notoriously hot-headed Bowen who had provoked the confrontation. In another altercation, a violent disagreement over the correct pronunciation of ‘Cato’ led to a duel in which his opponent, a young Welsh actor named Williams, died. Again, he was exonerated because his adversary had insistently initiated the duel. Another duel almost occurred between Quin and the Irish actor Charles Macklin (qv), and was avoided only by the adroit intervention of Fleetwood; Quin later appeared as a defence witness for Macklin when he was tried in 1735 for killing an actor in a duel.
Quin was also a loyal, generous and brave friend; in 1721, when a drunk aristocrat invaded the stage during a performance, his rapid armed response saved Rich's life. A riot ensued, and as a consequence of this incident all theatres, by royal order, subsequently had an armed guard present. He often helped young actors at the beginning of their careers, as well as those in economic distress; he gave £100 to the debt-ridden poet James Thomson, thus saving him from arrest, and in his will he bequeathed £100 to a financially encumbered landlady. Quin's jokes and repartee were renowned, and a volume of his ‘jests’ was published soon after his death in 1766. In the novel Humphrey Clinker, Tobias Smollett painted a vivacious portrait of the actor in the latter stages of his life in a Bath tavern: the narrator is astonished at ‘the brilliancy of his thoughts, and the force of his expression’ and describes him as ‘a real voluptuary . . . a confirmed epicure’; nevertheless, ‘there is nothing selfish in this appetite; he finds that good cheer unites good company’ (60).
Quin's dominance of the English stage finally ended in 1741 with the advent of a less contrived acting style, heralded by Macklin's Shylock and given definitive form by David Garrick's sensational debut as Richard III at Goodman's Fields on 19 October 1741. The paradigms of dramatic performance had irrevocably shifted from the stylised, ponderous poise of Quin, to the naturalistic, expressive, individualised portrayal of Garrick. There was much public demand to see the two great actors perform together, and on 17 November 1746 they appeared at Covent Garden in Rowe's ‘The fair penitent’, Quin as Horatio and Garrick as Lothario. In a well-known passage, one member of the audience compared Quin's ‘heavy-paced Horatio’ and Garrick, ‘young and light and alive in every muscle and every feature’, and wrote that ‘it seemed as if a whole century had been stept over in the transition of a single scene; old things were done away, and a new order at once brought forward, bright and luminous’ (Cumberland, 60). Quin bore no rancour towards the new leading light of the London stage; the two became and remained good friends. Quin continued to perform at Covent Garden until his retirement in 1751. He then moved to Bath, where he had a wide circle of acquaintance, and lived happily and sociably, a familiar figure in the assembly rooms.
In retirement, Quin frequently visited his old friends from the London stage, and it was on one such visit to the Garricks in January 1766 that one of his hands became seriously inflamed. He returned at once to Bath, where, despite treatment, he died 21 January 1766. He was buried in the abbey church in Bath on 25 January, his epitaph composed by Garrick. Owing to his celebrity, there are numerous portraits of Quin, notably by William Hogarth in the Tate collection, London (c.1740), and by Francis Hayman (1754), Thomas Gainsborough (1763), and a mezzotint by James McArdell (qv), in the NGI.