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John Beard - Handel and Garrick's Favourite Tenor

Neil Jenkins


The tenor John Beard had a fascinating life, and was the first male theatrical personality to marry into the aristocracy when he wed Lady Henrietta Herbert secretly in 1739. Beard – an Anglican who had been brought up in the Chapel Royal choir – thus found himself wed to a catholic descendant of King James II, and a close relation by marriage of Bonny Prince Charlie.

At the age of 19 Handel plucked Beard from the choir and gave him starring tenor roles in his Italian operas. When Handel turned instead to the composition of oratorios, it was Beard who created the leading tenor parts in such works as Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Belshazzar & Jephtha. Beard sang every one of Handel’s oratorios for the composer, and was a frequent interpreter of the Messiah solos throughout England.

At the two London patent theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, he gained further fame as the foremost Macheath of his day in John Gay’s perennially popular The Beggar’s Opera; as the performer of Arne’s delightful songs in Garrick’s staging of Shakespeare plays; and as a principal singer in Ballad Operas and Pantomimes. In the summer months he entertained the fashionable audience at Ranelagh Gardens with popular ballads and cantatas.

Six years after his wife died married again. This time he found himself fortuitously allied to the influential Rich family when he married Charlotte, John Rich’s daughter. Rich had made his fortune out of The Beggar’s Opera, and had built Covent Garden Theatre with the profits. By 1759 he was old and ailing, and so he invited his new son-in-law to be his assistant manager. Although competing with Garrick’s Drury Lane Beard managed so well that he virtually turned it into an opera house for English operas. King George III rewarded him with the title ‘Vocal Performer in Extraordinary to his Majesty’ and a pension. When he retired he sold Covent Garden for a huge sum and went to live in comfortable retirement in a Thames-side villa up the road from Garrick in Hampton.


345 pp             ISBN 978 1 905206 13 1       £15.00

© Bramber Press, St. Mary's House, Bramber, West Sussex, UK, BN44 3WE           last updated 17/11/2014