Attributed to George Clint, 1770 – 1854
Portrait of Thomas Potter Cooke 1786 – 1864 as William in Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan
Portrait of the Actor Thomas Potter Cooke
oil on canvas
23.1/2 x 17.1/2 in. (59 x 44 cm.)


Cooke, Thomas Potter (1786–1864), actor, was born on 23 April 1786 in Titchfield Street, Marylebone, Middlesex, the child of Joseph Cooke, a surgeon 'of great respectability' (Actors by Daylight, 24, 1838, 186), and his wife, Mary. After Joseph Cooke's death in 1793 his wife seems to have gone into service, and Cooke himself to have become an errand boy; however, seeing a nautical melodrama fired him with enthusiasm to join the navy. Having been provided with clothing by the Marine Society, he was entered as a 'servant' under the name Thomas Cook on the muster-roll of HMS Raven on 30 July 1796, giving his age as thirteen, the minimum age for entry into the service. The Raven took part in the siege of Toulon and was under Admiral Jervis's command at the battle of Cape St Vincent (14 February 1797), when Cooke probably worked as a powder monkey. He narrowly escaped death when the Raven was later wrecked off Cuxhaven and the crew struggled to survive by clinging to the wreckage for two days and nights in intensely cold weather. Cooke managed to reach the shore but suffered a near-fatal attack of rheumatic fever. He was eventually able to return to sea, however, serving aboard HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the blockade of Brest.

In 1802 came the peace of Amiens and on 27 April the end of Cooke's naval career. He joined a travelling circus 'at a modest salary of fifteen shillings a week' (Stirling, 2.107), turned to the stage for a living, and made his first appearance in January 1804 at the Royalty Theatre in Wellclose Square, then used by Philip Astley as his winter quarters. Impressed no doubt by Cooke's fine physique and athletic prowess, Astley engaged him for several seasons at his Amphitheatre, and he also appeared at the Lyceum and in Dublin. Cooke had a talent for arranging pantomimes and theatrical spectacles, and in 1809 R. W. Elliston recruited him as stage manager for the Surrey Theatre. He first made his mark as actor there in the role of Roderick Dhu, a fierce highland chieftan, in T. J. Dibdin's The Lady of the Lake (24 September 1810). He stayed with Elliston until 1816 and thereafter obtained engagements at various London theatres, including Drury Lane, building up a reputation but without any very notable triumphs, apart from a German character Hans Ketzler, a 'wonderful admixture of cowardice and courage' (ILN, 1853, 319), in George Soane's The Innkeeper's Daughter (Drury Lane, 7 April 1817). In 1819 he married Louisa Maria Ann Cremer of Brompton, who was, according to The Drama, 'a lady of great accomplishments and large property' (Drama, 4, 58) and with whom he had one daughter.

In 1820 Cooke was engaged at the Lyceum Theatre (English Opera House), where he made a great hit as Ruthven, the demonic protagonist of Planché's The Vampire (9 August 1820) and again as Dirk Hatteraick in the same dramatist's adaptation of Guy Mannering, the Witch of Derncleugh (1821); in the latter role he finely displayed 'that determined ferocity that might be supposed to belong to the captain of a daring band of robbers' (Drama, 1, 1821, 201). In July 1823, when he was still at the Lyceum, Cooke's skills as 'a pantomimist of the first rank' (Stirling, 2.106) brought him sensational success in the non-speaking role of the Monster in Presumption, or, The Fate of Frankenstein (28 July 1823), R. B. Peake's adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. He was to perform this role 365 times in all during his career, including eighty at the Porte St Martin Theatre in Paris in 1825–6 (during which time he suffered one of those attacks of gout that plagued him throughout his life). Another triumph in a similarly silent role, the spectral Vanderdecken in Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman at the Adelphi (4 April 1826), confirmed Cooke's excellence in supernatural roles. According to the Illustrated London News others played ghosts and demons with unquestionable success; but how mechanically and solidly. … It was he who first infused them with a true poetic element—gave them a dreamy indistinctness—a vague suggestive shadow, which, while it chained the senses, set the imagination loose.

Cooke was already noted for his excellence in sailor roles (the heroic British seaman Jack Gallant, for example, in Moncrieff's Shipwreck of the Medusa at the Coburg on 19 June 1820, and Philip in J. B. Buckstone's hugely successful Luke the Labourer at the Adelphi on 17 October 1826) before his reputation in this respect made a quantum leap with his creation of the role of the patriotic English coxswain Long Tom Coffin in Fitzball's The Pilot (Adelphi, 31 October 1825), adapted from Fenimore Cooper's novel. Cooke's performance in this role (which he was to play 562 times in all) was 'highly picturesque' and gave to the stage figure of the sailor 'a new feature of thoughtfulness and mystery, and a tinge of the romantic' (The Stage, 8, 1829, 73). In his Road to the Stage (1827) Leman Rede mentions a 'characteristic touch' of Cooke's in his Coffin performance, 'invariably recognised, and applauded': 'previous to commencing his combat with the [American] Sergeant he pauses to take tobacco, and afterwards when he has driven his adversary from him, claps his sword into his mouth while he hitches up his trousers', thereby illustrating 'cool habitual bravery' (Rede, 104). Even his Tom Coffin was eclipsed, however, by his Sweet William in Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susan. First performed at the Surrey on Easter Monday 1829, it had a phenomenal run of over 300 nights there and, from 30 November for over two weeks, Cooke also acted William at Covent Garden every night after finishing his Surrey performance: 'a hackney cab brought the triumphant William in his blue jacket and white trousers from the Obelisk to Bow Street' (GM, 3rd ser., 16, 1864, 676). Cooke's William, featuring the superlative hornpipe which was one of his trademarks, became a veritable national institution, and in 1853, when he was giving a season at the Standard Theatre in the East End, the Illustrated London News recorded that he had played the part 785 times during his career. This tailor-made role brought out all his powers—his athleticism and heartiness and, in the final scenes, his ability to invest his sailor figures with both pathos and dignity. Above all, he embodied the nautical:

His hitch, his swing, his back-handed wipe, his roll—in short, his every look, gesture and motion are redolent of the blue water and the lower deck; and all this is qualified by … a degree of feeling which is far more like truth than acting.

London Literary Gazette, 3 Oct 1829, 654
After William, he created only one more major role, another sailor, Harry Hallyard in J. T. Haines's My Poll and my Partner Joe (Surrey Theatre, 31 August 1835). His immense popularity continued unabated, however, and he generally took short engagements at different theatres to perform the repertory of his most celebrated roles.

In 1849 Cooke applied for, and was awarded, the naval general service medal with a St Vincent clasp in respect of his service aboard the Raven. In 1857 Henry Morley considered his Tom Coffin at the Adelphi 'a marvel': 'the singing voice has gone, and that is all … For about five minutes of hornpipe the veteran's breath is good and his feet are as nimble as they were when they twinkled for the pleasure of our forefathers' (Morley, 164). His last appearances were at Covent Garden on 29 October 1860, for the benefit of the Dramatic College, founded as a retirement home for actors (Cooke was deputy master), and at the Princess's Theatre on 2 May 1861 for the benefit of an actor's widow. His wife's death in 1863 shook him severely, and he moved from his home at 38 Woburn Square to live with his married daughter, Mrs Hugh Cumming, at 37 Thurloe Square, where he died (from what the death certificate describes as 'decay of nature') on 4 April 1864. He was buried in Brompton cemetery, London on 10 April. His obituary in The Era acclaimed him as someone who, 'by the high character of his private life, has reflected so much credit on the Profession he adorned' (The Era, 10 April 1864). Having always practised 'strict economy' he had 'amassed a large fortune' (Stirling, 2.107), and in his will left £2000 to the Dramatic College to be invested to provide a prize for 'the best Drama on a Nautical or National subject', the copyright to be retained by the college, with a further £1000 to fund an annual dinner for the college's inmates and officers on 23 April, the birthday he proudly shared with Shakespeare. A. R. Slous's True to the Core: a Story of the Armada (Surrey Theatre, 8 September 1866) was the first prize drama, and there was another award in 1868 (J. S. Dilley and James Albery's unperformed The Mate of the Mountjoy), but funds proved insufficient to sustain the competition, and the college itself came to a rather ignominious end in the late 1870s.

Michael Slater DNB


Black-Eyed Susan; or, All in the Downs is a comic play in three acts by Douglas Jerrold. The story concerns a heroic sailor, William, who has been away from England for three years fighting in the Napoleonic Wars. Meanwhile, his wife, Susan, has fallen on hard times and is being harassed by her crooked landlord uncle. A smuggler named Hatchet offers to pay her debts because he wants her for himself; he tries to persuade her that William is dead. Soon after William returns to solve this problem, his drunken, dastardly captain tries to seduce Susan. William, not recognising his captain from behind, strikes him with his cutlass. He is court-martialled for attacking a senior officer and sentenced to be hanged. But it turns out that he had been discharged from the navy before he struck his captain, so all ends well. Much of the humour in the piece centers on the sailor's nautical dialect, combined with his noble character. The play is a nautical melodrama (with all its stock characters) that praises the patriotic British tar (sailor) while critiquing authoritarianism in the British Navy. Aspects of the story were later parodied in H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).

The play was Jerrold's first big success, premiering on 26 January 1829 at the Surrey Theatre and running for a new record of over 150 performances. Britain at the time was recovering from the fallout of the Napoleonic Wars and was in the midst of a class war involving the Corn laws, and a reform movement, which resulted in the Reform Act of 1832 aimed at reducing corruption. Black-Eyed Susan consisted of various extreme stereotypes representing the forces of good, evil, the innocent and the corrupt, the poor and the rich, woven into a serious plot with comic sub-plots. Its subject was very topical, and its success was enormous. T. P. Cooke starred as William, the nautical hero, becoming a star, and the producer, Robert William Elliston, became rich. The piece played simultaneously at Covent Garden Theatre for part of the original run, and soon after it closed at the Surrey, it was revived at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for a total run of over 300 nights, which was extraordinarily successful for the time. After this, it was frequently revived.
The play was revived at the Warehouse Theatre in Croydon in December 1986, and the same production played for a week at the Playhouse Oxford in February 1987. It was directed by Ted Craig and designed by Michael Pavelka. The cast consisted of Simon Slater, Rita Wolf, Frank Ellis, Sidney Livingstone and Burt Caesar. The piece was given a 2007 revival at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds. The play was made into a 1914 film directed by Maurice Elvey. Among the numerous Victorian burlesques and later parody versions of the play was an 1884 version by F. C. Burnand called Black Eyed See-Usan, first produced at the Alhambra Theatre.

The Victorian stage melodrama featured six stock characters: the hero, the villain, the heroine, an aged parent, a sidekick and a servant of the aged parent engaged in a sensational plot featuring themes of love and murder. Often the good but not very clever hero is duped by a scheming villain, who has eyes on the damsel in distress until fate intervenes at the end to ensure the triumph of good over evil. Two central features were the coup de théàtre, or reversal of fortune, and the claptrap: a back-to-the-wall oration by the hero which forces the audience to applaud

Supplanting the Gothic, the next popular subgenre of Melodrama was the nautical melodrama, pioneered by Douglas Jerrold in his Black-Eyed Susan (1829). Other nautical melodramas included Jerrold's The Mutiny at the Nore (1830) and The Red Rover (1829) by Edward Fitzball (Rowell 1953). Melodramas based on urban situations became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, including The Streets of London (1864) by Dion Boucicault; and Lost in London (1867) by Watts Phillips, while prison melodrama, temperance melodrama, and imperialist melodrama also appeared – the latter typically featuring the three categories of the 'good' native, the brave but wicked native, and the treacherous native.

Studies of nineteenth-century acting have almost invariably focused upon the great tragedians and have neglected entirely the performers of popular melodrama. Although Michael Booth has provided a general description of melodramatic acting style, no attention has been given to the individual performers who created and popularized it. Questions about the style and influence of particular actors have been unasked and, consequently, unanswered. Foremost among these neglected individuals is Thomas Potter Cooke, who in his fifty-six years on the stage received critical and popular acclaim for his performances of both villains and heroes.
Cooke's popularity with nineteenth-century audiences was phenomenal, undoubtedly being comparable to that of the most popular film stars today. When the Theatrical Chronicle and Dramatic Review attempted to rate the popular appeal of the principal London actors in 1842, it described Charles Kean's popularity as "great," Ben Webster's as "middling," and Madame Vestris' as "great at wit," while the word for Cooke's was "wonderful."2 An impression of the enthusiasm of Cooke's audiences can be gleaned from the description left by an anonymous playgoer, who saw Cooke for the first time in 1854 when the star was sixty-nine years old:
The name of Mr. T. P. Cooke, as long as I can remember, has been an immense favourite with the public in all parts of England, and I have felt that were he to take his leave of the stage without my having witnessed him in one of his impersonations I should never forgive myself; . . . I did not expect to see in Mr. Cooke, at his present age, all that I had heard of him in former years, but I must say that, in my opinion, even now, it would be utterly futile in any other actor on the stage to attempt to rival him; so true to nature was the portrayal of the free-hearted, rollicking, jolly manner of British Tar. The applause throughout the representation of the drama was almost deafening, and when this veteran actor (whose age I believe is approaching fourscore) commenced dancing the "sailor's hornpipe' with all the freedom and elasticity of one a quarter that age, the excitement of the audience was raised to such a pitch that not a single note of the music could be heard from the moment Mr. Cooke commenced dancing until he had finished. Such was the enthusiasm exemplified in the heartiest applause I ever heard, from all parts of the house.
What elements characterized the style of this popular performer? And how did Cooke's style reflect significant trends of his time? It is to these questions that the present essay is addressed. Because of the ephemeral nature of the actor's art, any attempt to reconstruct an actor's style is conjectural, but fortunately there are four major types of evidence upon which the conjectures can be based. First, there are acting editions of the plays. These resemble promptbooks in describing the performance as presented at a particular theatre, but unfortunately they reveal only what actions were performed and not the manner in which those actions were executed. Second, there is pictorial evidence provided by toy theatre prints and contemporary illustrations. This evidence has limited value because the artists used certain conventional poses as the basis for their work. Therefore, it seems unwise to assume that any print necessarily represents a specific moment that was actually seen upon the stage. Still, an anecdote told by Westland Marston suggests that he, as a contemporary playwright and playgoer, believed the prints depicted general stances that were seen in the theatre. Thus, although the prints must be interpreted cautiously, they would seem to have some descriptive value. A third type of evidence is the commentary of contemporary reviewers. This evidence also leaves something to be desired, because when discussing melodramatic performers, most reviewers were content to give general impressions instead of describing particular moments in detail. Finally, there are memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies of the performers. Unfortunately, in Cooke's case this final type of evidence does not exist. Therefore, because of the unsatisfactory nature of much of the evidence, it is necessary to pass lightly over Cooke's minor roles and to deal primarily with the major ones, for which the first three types of evidence are available.
Undoubtedly one of the reasons for Cooke's success was the long apprenticeship that he served in minor roles prior to gaining prominence. Born on 23 April 1786, Cooke entered the navy at the age of ten and fought in several battles before leaving the service in 1802. In January 1804, he made his stage debut in a minor role at the Royalty Theatre. Performing at various minor theatres for the next twelve years, Cooke finally achieved a Drury Lane appearance on 19 October 1816, when he played Diego Monez in an insignificant melodrama entitled Watchword. Although The Weekly Dispatch {75} stated that he "gave several traits of talent," many reviewers did not mention him.
For the next two years Cooke acted frequently in both melodrama and tragedy at Drury Lane. His roles were small and generally unnoticed by the critics, but Cooke probably used these years for developing and perfecting his style. Among his experiences was the opportunity to observe and play opposite Edmund Kean at the time when Kean was popularizing a flamboyant, energetic style of tragic acting in London. Although it would be difficult to prove that Kean influenced Cooke, it seems significant that the tragedian was especially noted for his use of "accent, look and gesture," features which were to be important in the mature Cooke's performances.
After this lengthy apprenticeship in relatively minor roles, Cooke gained prominence in 1820 by portraying the title character in J. R. Planche's The Vampire. Opening on 9 August at the English Opera House, Planche's play dramatized the legend of the monster in human form who was doomed unless he married a virgin before the moon set. Although clearly cast as the villain, Cooke had an opportunity to enact compassion, for at one point the monster regretted the necessity of sustaining his own life with human blood. William Hazlitt described Cooke's acting in this role as "spirited and imposing," while The British Stage called Cooke's performance "one of the most vigorous and effective specimens of melodramatic acting we ever remember to have witnessed; his expressive countenance and commanding figure are displayed to great advantage, and his whole appearance is extremely picturesque." In a later issue, the same periodical, undoubtedly prompted by Cooke's success as the Vampire, considered his acting style in general and noted that "his fine muscular figure and handsome expressive countenance" were especially suited for performing melodrama.
Cooke was particularly successful in two other villainous roles, Vanderdecken and Frankenstein's monster. Both of these parts were entirely pantomimic in nature, requiring unusually expressive gestures and facial expressions, which Cooke supplied capably. As Vanderdecken in Edward Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman, first produced in 1826, Cooke was praised by The Weekly Dramatic Register for "his signs, his attitudes, his fine form, and the varied, but powerful, expression of his countenance." Similarly, The Monthly Theatrical Review asserted that "his attitudes are so very expressive that though he is forbidden to speak, we are at no loss to understand his thoughts and his feelings, his hopes, his fears, and his mysterious designs; as soon, probably, as they may be supposed to enter his mind."
The same features of Cooke's style are mentioned in the reviews of Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), adapted by R. B. Peake, but as the monster, Cooke also portrayed tender emotions. For example, according to The Drama; or Theatrical Pocket Magazine, Cooke "powerfully embodied the horrible, bordering on the sublime or the awful. His exhibition of great strength, of towering gait, and of reckless cruelty, contrasted with the fiend's astonishment on hearing a "concord of sweet sounds,' and on beholding female forms, or in saving a human being from drowning, was masterly and characteristic." This reviewer also asserted that immediately following the monster's creation its "style of rushing on the stage amidst flame was truly terrific. Its subsequent change of feelings, with the varied scenes and treatment to which it is exposed, display admirable discrimination in the performer."
Cooke's athleticism and his capacity for portraying tender emotion qualified him for roles other than the villain, and in 1825 he requested Edward Fitzball to dramatize James Fenimore Cooper's The Pilot. Somewhat reluctantly, Fitzball agreed, so on 3 November 1825, Cooke appeared as the nautical hero Long Tom Coffin at the Adelphi Theatre. The role made considerable use of Cooke's athletic ability. For example, in one scene Long Tom Coffin and Barnstable, his commanding officer, were attacked by a group of soldiers. (The original acting edition did not specify the number of attackers, but some later editions said six.) "The Soldiers approach as Barnstable draws his sword and defends himself bravely till he is overpowered by numbers. Tom also combats with his harpoon, and at length rushing up the rock appears where they cannot reach him. . . . They fire as Tom throws himself into the sea and disappears." Cooke's performance was highly praised, although the reviewers unfortunately spoke in general terms without mentioning specific aspects of his acting. The Weekly Dramatic Register asserted that Cooke "looks the British Sailor to the life, and we pronounce his performance to be inimitable," and The Times (3 November 1825, p. 3) concurred by declaring that "there is probably not another actor on the stage who could play the same character . . . with anything like the same effect."
This success led Cooke to continue with nautical roles, and in October 1826, he created the sailor hero, Philip, in J. B. Buckstone's Luke the Labourer. Again his performance was highly praised, with The Weekly Dramatic Register declaring it to be "the best piece of acting we have seen from him. . . . There is a heartiness, a good humor, we might say an enjoyment in the acting, which at once realizes the picture."
Cooke acted what was to become his most famous sailor role for the first time on 8 June 1829, at the Surrey Theatre, when he performed William in Douglas Jerrold's Black-Eyed Susa. The part was perfectly suited to Cooke's talents, since it allowed him for the first {78} time to combine his knowledge of nautical peculiarities, his athletic powers, and his capacity for pathos and tenderness. As Long Tom Coffin and Philip, Cooke had been merely a rescuer of damsels in distress but had been almost completely excluded from exhibiting tender emotions. As William, however, he portrayed a sturdy but love-smitten sailor who was separated from his young bride. Cooke's capacity to unite bravado and affection was praised by reviewers. According to The Times (1 December 1829, p. 3), his performance was "one of the cleverest things of the kind that has ever been exhibited. His singing and dancing are admirably in character and the more pathetic parts of his acting irresistibly moving." Similarly, The New Monthly Magazine called Cooke"s William "the most complete representation of a frank, unaffected sailor placed in the most affecting circumstances," and The London Literary Gazette asserted that Cooke was "the best sailor that ever trod the boards -- in frolic and in affliction he is always true to nature, and to the peculiarities of the seaman. His hitch, his swing, his back-handed wipe, his roll -- in short, his every look, gesture, and motion are redolent of the blue water and the lower deck; and all this is qualified by great ability, and a degree of feeling which is far more like truth than acting."
The latter review particularly emphasizes the physical action that was an important part of Cooke's characterization. Another critic indicates clearly that Cooke used considerable physical movement even when he expressed tenderness:
What a marvelous personation of a thorough-bred Tar is Mr. T. P. Cooke's! Does he look for one moment as if he had ever been a week at a time on firm land? How he keeps his whole body constantly upon the swing -- his limbs all apparently relaxed and ready to give way, yet, at a moment's warning hauled taut, and as stiff as steel. With what uncouth yet genuine tenderness, he fondles his little Sue -- cherishing her arms and waist, parting her hair, and holding her face in his two strained and rigid hands, while he gazes upon it like one tipsy with happiness! He can't keep his hands off her! but is ever touching, and then retreating to survey her upon every tack, accompanying his little actions of endearment with imperfect and undefinable noises. And what a genuine expression of good humor and truth, and heart in his smiles and tones of voice! . . . we never witnessed a more natural display of rude and unsophisticated love and tenderness, than his meeting and parting with Black-eyed Susan.
The play was a stunning popular success, as indicated by its performance record. Between opening night and 29 November 1829, it was acted 150 times at the Surrey. Cooke then transferred his services to Covent Garden, which was in bad financial straits, and performed gratis for six nights. Then, beginning on 7 December Cooke performed Black-Eyed Susan twice each night, once at the Surrey and once at Covent Garden, for almost two weeks.
Although he never duplicated the success of Black-Eyed Susan, {79} Cooke created one other highly popular nautical role, Harry Hallyard in J. T. Haines' My Poll and My Partner Joe (1835). Once again, the role allowed Cooke to utilize the full range of his abilities, as there were both energetic and pathetic scenes. For example, the end of Act II contained a splendid battle between the British sailors and a band of pirates. "Harry snatches up the Sentinel's firelock, and discharges it at the Pirates -- one of them is seen at the top of the fort bearing a tri-coloured flag . . . a shell is thrown as if from the ship below -- it falls among the combatants -- Harry seizes it and hurls it into the fort -- an explosion takes place -- the fort is blown up -- torches are brought on -- Harry attacks and disarms the Commandant, whom he conquers -- the Pirates are subdued -- the fort bursts into flames -- Harry dashes through the fire, rushes to the top of the fort, seizes the Pirate with the tri-coloured flag, hurls him into the sea, and hoists the British standard, amidst enthusiastic cheers." In contrast, the end of Act III was a real tearjerker and contained what The Times (1 September 1835, p. 6) called "a great deal of true pathos . . . which it required considerable skill to represent with fidelity." The reviewer declared that Cooke deserved "the highest encomium" for his efforts.
With the creation of Harry Hallyard, Cooke's repertoire of roles was essentially complete. Although he still created a few new characters, he spent much of the remaining twenty-five years of his career performing six roles: the monster in Frankenstein, Vanderdecken, Long Tom Coffin, Philip, William, and Harry Hallyard. Rotating from one theatre to another for brief engagements Cooke continued to be a great audience attraction until he retired in 1860.
The reviews of these various roles indicate that the prominent features of Cooke's acting style remained relatively constant through the years. One of these features was Cooke's ability to strike effective poses or attitudes of both body and countenance. Unfortunately, although reviewers agreed on the picturesqueness of these poses, they did not bother to describe them. Some information can be gleaned from engravings and toy theatre prints of Cooke, although these must be interpreted with caution. The portraits of Cooke in various roles emphasize a broad stance with feet spread apart and one or both arms thrust to the side or upward. The breadth of the stance is particularly emphasized, for the arms are frequently thrust more toward the horizontal than the vertical (Figures 1, 2, and 3!!!). Furthermore, the entire torso is used in creating the attitude, for the chest and hips are often in a position that is effective in conveying tension but is outside of the normal range of body movement (Figures 2 and 3!!!). One reason for the effectiveness of these attitudes was probably Cooke's ability to contrast them with more relaxed moments, as described in the review of Black-Eyed Susan quoted above. It is interesting to note that the costuming apparently displayed Cooke's muscular figure. This is particularly evident in the print of Frankenstein's monster, but even in the sailor roles the tight-fitting sleeves and pants emphasize Cooke's physical attributes.
Another important aspect of Cooke's acting was the energy that he threw into his roles. Reviewers consistently mentioned his "activity and athletic powers," his "animated and imposing style," or his "energetic pantomime." According to Westland Marston, it was Cooke's "thorough heartiness, "go,' and physical activity" that formed "the grounds of his success" (Marston, p. 8).
Finally, a characteristic that was constantly attributed to Cooke's nautical roles was their truth to nature. For example, The Times (8 December 1829, p. 2) claimed that "Mr. Cooke's delineation of nautical manners may be said to be, without disparagement to any other performer, the most perfect on the stage; whether it be pathetic or humorous, a song or a hornpipe . . . they are all sui generis, in perfect keeping, and characteristic in a high degree of the peculiarities of that singular race of beings. Mr. Cooke seems to have taken his nautical sketches from the life." Other reviewers used such phrases as "a fine natural piece of acting" or "distinguished by pathos, feeling, and nature" to describe Cooke's sailors. These assertions of naturalness probably resulted primarily from a unique characteristic of Cooke's nautical roles, the pathos and tenderness that he combined with the traditional athletic ability of the stage sailor. It seems significant that the claims of truthfulness were especially prominent in the reviews written after the production of Black-Eyed Susan. According to the Illustrated London News, the portrayal of sailors prior to that time had been "always qualified by a conviction in the audience that Jack was sure to win. Whatever might happen, he could never suffer!" Cooke, however, changed the stereotype: "With the date of his immortal William commenced the new school of the sailor, which could render Jack harmonious, and put a soul within his senses. Then, at last, we had the man -- the simple, fervent, genial, fearless, self-forgetting man -- who, ever reflecting his own element, could either brighten in the sunshine, or rise up grandly in the storm. We were able to appreciate this strange mysterious mixture of the childlike and the heroic -- who could be so boisterous in merriment, and so tranquil in disaster -- so unmanned at others' sufferings, and so rocklike midst his own."
Through the addition of pathos to sailor roles, Cooke established a stereotype of his own, and from 1830 until about 1860 actors and playwrights modeled their sailors after Cooke. In 1851, a critic for Tallis' Dramatic Magazine (February 1851, p. 122) complained that "our stage sailors are very conventional creations, most of them made to order, after a pretty accurate measurement of the peculiarities of Mr. T. P. Cooke. We should like to see something new in this direction. We suppose sailors are sometimes mean, savage, or cowardly fellows, like the rest of the world." Thus, Cooke's acting style had a significant influence on the portrayal of the British sailor for almost thirty years.
Cooke's significance for the theatre historian, however, lies not only in his influence on nautical melodrama, but in his reflection of social and artistic trends. Most important of these are glorification of the British navy and the influence of the romantic aesthetic. Cooke's popularity and, indeed, the general popularity of nautical melodrama reflect pride in and glorification of British naval power. In the years after 1815 the navy, traditionally the strongest branch of the British military, was in a state of decline. The American navy had fought the British to a standoff in the War of 1812 by winning thirteen naval engagements to England's twelve, while the Duke of Wellington had demonstrated the strength of Britain's land forces in the European campaign against Napoleon. Furthermore, the period from 1815 to 1850 was one of peace that gave the navy little opportunity to bolster its sagging reputation. Therefore, the vogue for nautical pieces can be seen as celebrating and expressing past naval prowess. This view is supported by the "Remarks" preceding Lacy's Acting Edition of My Poll and My Partner Joe. The author, George Daniel, notes: "In turning over the page of history, we contemplate with enthusiasm the martial prowess of our ancestors, who were called to defend not only their own nations through a long series of ages; . . . Whatever brings to our recollection the triumphs of the past deserves our gratitude. . . . Blessings on the memory of the bard, 'and palms eternal flourish round his urn,' who first struck his lyre to celebrate the wooden walls, and the brave, generous, Jack Tars of unconquered and inconquerable England" (Haines, p. 7). From one point of view, then, Cooke's popularity in nautical roles can be seen as a celebration of England's past naval glories.
Another contemporary trend reflected by Cooke is the influence of the romantic movement, an influence that is clearly evident in his acting style. In a study of nineteenth-century acting, Alan Downer has drawn distinctions between the stately, classical style of John Philip Kemble and what he calls "the First Romantic School" as represented by Edmund Kean. As features of the romantic actor's style, Downer lists "aside from excessive violence . . . an attention to detailed pantomime and an effort to naturalize the speaking of blank verse," the latter referring especially to "transitions," that is, sudden shifts in tone intended to destroy the verse's rhythm. All three features of this style have equivalents in Cooke's acting. First, Cooke's "violence" is evident from the constant references to his energy and physical activity. Second, the detailed pantomime can be seen in Cooke's ability to perform expertly the silent roles of Frankenstein's monster and Vanderdecken and in his use of such mimic actions as the back-handed wipe, swinging walk, and other gestural details to create the nautical character. Finally, even the "transitions" have an equivalent in Cooke's acting, although Cooke's transitions were physical rather than vocal. As one critic stated, Cooke was always ready to shift instantly from a relaxed posture to a taut stance in preparation for action. A final indication of the romantic influence on Cooke is his addition of pathos to the traditionally tough sailor character, thus embodying the romantic duality of the physical and the emotional. One critic, cited earlier, described Cooke's sailors as a "mysterious mixture of the childlike and the heroic." Thus, Cooke's style appears to reflect the romantic aesthetic that was dominant in his time.
As a whole, this examination of Thomas Potter Cooke's acting indicates that similar study of other melodramatic performers might be fruitful. In spite of scanty and often unsatisfactory evidence, a description of the performer's style can be constructed and his influence upon the theatre of his day and upon other actors can be determined. In addition, the melodramatic actor's work reflects social and aesthetic trends that may help us better understand the nineteenth-century theatre. - Harold J. Nichols

Artist biography

George Clint,  (1770–1854), theatrical genre painter and engraver, was born in London at Brownlow Street, Holborn, on 12 April 1770, the son of Michael Clint, a hairdresser in Lombard Street, and his first wife. The family came from Hexham in Northumberland. Clint received a simple education in Yorkshire. He had several false starts before taking up painting, first as a fishmonger's apprentice, then in an attorney's office, and finally as a house-painter. He married at Lambeth, on 9 January 1792, his first wife, Sarah Coxhead, the daughter of a small farmer in Berkshire, with whom he had five sons and four daughters.

Clint began as a miniature painter with a painting room in Leadenhall Street, London. From Edward Bell, the nephew of John Bell the publisher, a mezzotint engraver best-known for his plates after George MorlandClint learned the technique of mezzotint engraving that he practised throughout his career. Among his early engravings are The Frightened Horse after George Stubbs, and The Death of Nelson after W. Drummond. The precise date when Clint embarked on an artistic career is uncertain, but from the path of his development and the date of his first oil painting exhibited at the Royal Academy (1802) it can probably be assigned to the mid-1790s. From his wife's approach to Sir William Beechey for an opinion on his first attempt at oil painting, a portrait of his wife, a lasting friendship grew between Clint and Beechey. At about this time Clint's friend Samuel Reynolds, the mezzotint engraver, advised him to take up watercolour portraiture. Clint eked out his income by painting copies of prints after Morland and David Teniers, and many copies of The Enraged Bull and The Horse Struck by Lightning by StubbsSir Thomas Lawrence was impressed by Clint's engraving skills and gave Clint several of his portraits to engrave. A misunderstanding over the engraving of Lawrence's portrait of Lord Ellenborough which Clint believed had been promised to him but which Lawrence disposed elsewhere led to a rupture in their relationship that damaged Clint's engraving practice.

A significant event in Clint's career was his engraving of G. H. Harlow's theatrical painting The Trial Scene from ‘Henry VIII’ with portraits of the Kemble family, published in January 1819. Harlow's picture was an attempt to raise the status of theatrical genre painting to that enjoyed by history painting. Clint's engraving of this work established his reputation for treating theatrical subjects. Clint practised as a portrait painter throughout his career, but is chiefly remembered for his theatrical scene paintings. He also painted numerous theatrical portraits. His principal patrons were Lord Egremont and the celebrated actor Charles Mathews the elder. Between 1802 and 1817 the Royal Academy catalogues show that he frequently changed his studio address (all in London), suggesting that his commissions during this period were haphazard and uncertain. From 1817 he remained for over twenty years at 83 Gower Street, London. Throughout the 1820s he exhibited at the Royal Academy a number of theatrical scenes with portraiture from a scene in The Clandestine Marriage (1819) to a scene from Love, Law and Physic (1830; both Garrick Club, London). The most ambitious of these works is his large painting of Edmund Kean in A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1820; Garrick Club), which approaches the scale of a history painting, but he did nothing else in the same vein. His works of this period generally derive from ephemeral comedies and farce. Clint was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1821 presumably on the strength of his scene from Lock and Key (Garrick Club), exhibited in the same year.

In the 1830s Clint's theatrical scenes changed to subjects from Shakespearian comedy painted without portraiture and so distanced from the working stage. Typical of those scenes are the three works painted for Lord Egremont exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833: The Carousing Scene and The Duelling Scene from Twelfth Night, and Falstaff Relating his Gadshill Adventure from 1 Henry IV (Petworth House, Sussex). This change of style was not to a purely literary representation of dramatic subjects since the spatial and compositional restrictions of the stage remained. Clint was a painter of the comic. His only scene from tragedy was from the working stage: Mr. Young in ‘Hamlet’ (V&A), shown at the Royal Academy in 1831. In his colouring Clint was influenced by the work of seventeenth-century Netherlandish masters, including Van Dyck. The largest collection of Clint's theatrical works is in the Garrick Club, London, which owns six of his scene paintings and ten theatrical portraits.

Full membership of the Royal Academy was an important goal for Clint. His failure to achieve this led to his resignation from the academy in 1836. In that year he gave evidence hostile to the Royal Academy to the House of Commons select committee on arts and manufactures. He seems to have had a difficult temperament. While he was not directly involved in current debates on the direction and content of the visual and dramatic arts, Clint's work stands at the intersection of painting and the theatre and is emblematic of those debates.

The poverty Clint knew for most of his life was eased by some property that came to him with his second wife, Helena Melmoth (1778/9-1846), whom he married at St Pancras on 26 September 1825. This helped to augment his income from painting and engraving. He retired to 1 Albert Cottages, Montpellier Road, Peckham, Surrey, and moved near the end of his life to 32 Pembroke Square, Kensington, where he died, a widower, on 16 May 1854. He was buried in Kensal Green cemetery. Clint had a pupil, (Robert) William Buss, who was the author of his obituary in the Art Journal (July 1854).  

  • A. Nisbet  DNB