Sarah Siddons

Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson
Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson

The subject of my blog today is not an artist, although many would term her a theatrical artist, and in fact she was looked upon as one of the greatest English tragic actors of the eighteenth century. She was a Shakespearean actor of great renown and particularly famous for her interpretations of Lady Macbeth. She was a lady who was so popular that her portrait was painted a number of times by leading portraitists of the time. Let me introduce you to Sarae Kemble, later known as Sarah Siddons.

Sarae Kemble was born in the Welsh town of Brecon in July 1755. She was the eldest of twelve children of Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah Ward. Her father, who was a theatre manager, managed a troupe of travelling actors, the Warwickshire Company of Comedians. Sarah was fortunate to be the eldest child as her mother made sure that she received a good education and insisted on her attending school at the various towns the troupe of actors performed but this did not preclude her from making many appearances on the stage when she was still just a small child.

During her teenage years she fell in love with William Siddons, who was one of her father’s troupe of actors. However, like most parents, Sarah’s mother and father baulked at her liaison with Siddons as they had already received an offer of marriage from a local squire. Sarah would not agree to such a relationship and held out until she was eighteen and eventually in November of 1773 she married her beloved William Siddons in Trinity Church, Coventry. A year later, in 1774, she appeared as Belvidra in the English Restoration play, a tragedy, written by Thomas Otway, called Venice Preserv’d, which was first performed in 1680. Sarah Siddons’ performance was hailed a great success and the excellent revues of her depiction of her character came to the attention of the veteran actor of the time, David Garrick. She was invited to appear at the prestigious Theatre Royal, Drury Lane but whether it was nerves or whether she had still yet polished her acting ability, her performances were slated and, to her shame and horror, the theatre dispensed of her services.

It may have all been for the best as she spent the next six years travelling around the country with touring companies, honing her skill as an actor, all the time enhancing her reputation and finally she was invited back to the scene of her early disasters, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where she was hailed as a theatrical genius for her portrayal of Isabella in David Garrick’s adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s play, Isabella or The Fatal Marriage.

Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds

It was around this time, in 1784 that she sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds who depicted her as the Tragic Muse, Melepoméne, in his famous portrait, Mrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse. The name Melpoméne comes from the Greek word melpo or melpomai, which means “to celebrate with dance and song. She is a Greek and Roman mythological character who was one of nine muses of the arts. She started off as the Muse of Song but later became the Muse of Tragedy. Reynolds was himself a great fan of the actor and was also a lover of all things classical and decided to combine his two loves in one single portrait. Reynolds was so overwhelmed by the actress that it was said that when she first visited him, he led her by the hand into his studio uttering:

“…Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse…”.

Further evidence of his devotion to the twenty-eight year old actor was that he signed his name on the gold embroidery at the hem of her dress. He explained this pictorial inclusion to the sitter saying:

“…I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment…”

In the portrait we see Sarah Siddons seated in her throne chair with the allegories of Pity and Terror standing behind her and who merge into the brown background. Her body is towards us whilst her head and face are in profile. Her facial expression is one of concern. She looks troubled and in two minds as Pain and Terror influence her thought process. Despite this, she exudes an air of sophistication and dignity. Her dress is a mass of subtle colours, ochres and light and dark browns. Look at the beautiful and skilful way Reynolds has depicted the folds of the heavy fabric dress.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

A year later, in 1785, another portrait of Sarah Siddons was completed. The artist was Thomas Gainsborough and the tile of the work was simply Sarah Siddons. It has been recorded that Gainsborough struggled with the portrait of Siddons especially when it came to her nose and her right hand which rests on the arm of the chair. It took him many attempts to get them right as has been revealed in the pentimenti. The word, pentimento (pentimenti is the plural), comes from the Italian word pentirsi, which means to repent or change your mind and pentimento is a change made by the artist during the process of painting. Such changes are concealed beneath  subsequent paint layers and often, if the final layer of paint has become transparent over a long period of time, an earlier layer of paint can be detected. Other ways of detecting such changes is with infra-red reflectograms and X-rays. Gainsborough himself commented about the difficulty he had with portraying her long nose when he uttered:

“…Confound the nose, there’s no end to it…”

Another well known artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, painted a portrait of Sarah Siddons in 1804 when she was forty-nine years of age and nearing the end of her theatrical career.

Sir Thomas Lawrence knew Sarah Siddons and her family well. His portraits of her were probably more about Siddons the woman rather than Siddons the actor or one of Siddon’s many female characters she had played on stage. Thomas Lawrence and Siddons had first met in Bath in 1777 when she was twenty-two and on tour with a theatrical production. He was just eight years of age. Lawrence was a kind of child prodigy, an accomplished artist even at that age and had the ability to recite poetry, the two achievements which his father used to extract money from the passing public. At her first meeting with young Thomas Lawrence, Siddons never realised how he would affect her later  life and that of her family.

In 1787, just before his eighteenth birthday, Thomas Lawrence arrived in London. He met up again with Sarah Siddons, who was by now a cultural icon at the high-point of her theatrical career. Lawrence began consecutive relationships with two of her daughters, Maria and Sarah. Sadly they both died in their twenties. Sarah Siddons was by now separated from her husband William. Siddons herself was also in love with Thomas Lawrence, her daughters’ charming and alluring suitor, and he painted many portraits of her.

Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)
Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)

In his 1804 portrait entitled Mrs Siddons, we do not see her portrayed as an actor playing one of her many roles but at one of her many recitals when she would, with an actor’s panache, read from one of the plays which had made her so famous. In this portrait we see Sarah standing next to a table. On the table is a small lectern, on which are scripts of plays by Thomas Otway and Shakespeare.

Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence
Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence

Lawrence had completed an earlier painting of Sarah Siddons in 1797 entitled Sarah Siddons (possibly as Mrs Haller) in ‘The Stranger’ , a play written by August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue the German dramatist and writer. The role she played was of the adulteress, Mrs Haller. In the portrait we see the sadness in Sarah Siddon’s expression which could well be the feelings expressed by the character in the play or it could be the unhappiness of her own life which would have been well known to Lawrence.  At last we may be seeing the real Sarah Siddons.

Sarah Siddons was a tall woman with strikingly beautiful features. Her most famous role was that of Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, Macbeth. The way in which she played the part of Macbeth’s wife was legendry for the emotions she expressed when murder was on her mind. She was so good in the role, she made it her own. Audiences were spellbound by her performances.

Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green
Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green

Sarah Siddons gave up acting in 1812. She died in London in 1831 a month before her 76th birthday and was interred in Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green. There is a statue of her on Paddington Green.

Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence

Miss Murray by Sir Thomas Lawrence

My Daily Art Display looks at a work by one of the greatest English portrait painters.  His name was Thomas Lawrence, later to become Sir Thomas Lawrence.   He was born in Bristol in 1769.  His father, also called Thomas, was a supervisor of excise and his mother Lucy was the daughter of a clergyman.  His mother had an amazing number of children – sixteen in all, albeit only five survived infancy.  It was around the time that Thomas was born that his father decided to give up his government job and become an innkeeper.  The initial move into running an inn failed and when Thomas was four years of age his father moved the whole family to the Wiltshire market town of Devizes and tried again at being a successful landlord of an inn.  The inn named the Black Bear was on the main route between London and Bath and was ideally situated to catch the London gentry who were on route to Bath in order to take the healing waters.

The father’s business acumen was lacking and he soon ran into debt and it was left to young Thomas to help with the family finances by selling his pastel portraits.  When Thomas was ten, his father was declared bankrupt and the family moved to Bath.  There was now more pressure on the young boy to stabilise the family’s finances through the sale of his portraits.  He concentrated on oval portraits measuring 3ocms x 25cm and he was able to charge three guineas for each half length portrait.   In 1787 Thomas Lawrence moved to London and in a very short time established his reputation as a portrait painter in oils.   It was primarily the portraiture of Britain’s growing aristocracy which was in great demand and Lawrence was able to command high fees for his work and it was into this aristocratic world that Lawrence was accepted.      In 1790, he received his first royal commission when he was asked to paint a portrait of Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III.  The following year, aged just twenty two, he became an associate of the Royal Academy and three years later a full member of that society.  In 1792, Sir Joshua Reynolds the great English portrait artist, friend and mentor to Thomas Lawrence, died and this opened royal doors for his protégé.  George III, who had been delighted with Lawrence’s portrait of his wife, Queen Charlotte, appointed Thomas Lawrence as the Principal Court painter. He retained that position under the monarchy of George IV.   Lawrence was knighted in 1815 and five years later became the President of the Royal Academy.

So business was good for Lawrence the sale of his portraits went well and he could command higher and higher fees for the commissions he received and so he was rich.   Well, in fact no, he wasn’t wealthy and on a number of occasions was nearly bankrupt and only staved off financial disaster with help from friends and patrons.  So where did all the money go?  Lawrence was bemused by his lack of money, commenting:

“…I have never been extravagant nor profligate in the use of money. Neither gaming, horses, curricles, expensive entertainments, nor secret sources of ruin from vulgar licentiousness have swept it from me…”

Many biographers have sought the reason for his financial mess and it is now generally accepted that Thomas Lawrence could not handle his finances, rarely kept accounts and he spent a lot of money building up a collection of Old Master drawings.  He was also very generous when it came to his family – probably too generous.

Apart from financial problems he was also very unlucky in love.  He had come in contact with the well-known London stage actress Sarah Siddons and he became entangled with her two daughters, Maria and Sally.  He fell in love first with Sally, then transferred his affections on to her sister Maria, then broke with Maria and turned back to Sally again. Both the sisters had fragile health; Maria died in 1798, on her deathbed extracting a promise from her sister never to marry Lawrence.  Sally kept her promise and refused to see Lawrence again, dying in 1803. But Lawrence continued on friendly terms with their mother and painted several portraits of her.   Lawrence never married.  Sir Thomas Lawrence died in 1830, aged 60 and was the most fashionable portrait painter in Europe

My Daily Art Display today is a delightful portrait which Sir Thomas Lawrence completed in 1826, entitled Miss Murray, which can be found at Kenwood House in London.  It is an unusual portrait considering the wealthy and famous people he had painted.  The painting was commissioned by Sir George Murray, the Scottish soldier and politician, who fought with General Wellington in the Peninsular Wars.  Louise Georgina Murray was his daughter and was also the goddaughter of the Duke of Wellington.  The young girl dances towards us beribboned and utterly bewitching.  She reminds me of the very young girls we see in present day American child beauty pageants, all dressed up adult-like, performing little dances for their doting audience.  She is just like Shirley Temple.   We seem to be looking up at her from below as if she is performing her dance on a stage and we are merely part of her audience.  Lawrence has undoubtedly captured the little girl’s beauty whilst she was still young.  Lawrence realised that his portrait had in some ways captured a certain moment in her life, a moment of child-like innocence and beauty which would undoubtedly change.  He commented on this very fact to her father, writing:

“…All I can do will be to snatch this fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes place that some few months may bring…”

How many times have we looked back on our children’s photographs when they were young and wondered how things change so much over time?  Lawrence and undoubtedly Sir George Murray knew that the sweet innocence of the child as she proudly shows off her dress and performs her dance would inevitably change.

So what of little Miss Murray, what became of her?    In 1843, aged twenty-one, she married Captain Henry George Boyce, a grandson of the 1st Duke of Marlborough who sadly died in Rome, five years after they were married.  Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray remained a widow for forty three years, dying in 1891 in the Italian coastal town of Bordighera.

Mirror image ?

As I said at the start of this blog, the painting can be found in Kenwood House, London which I believe is near to Hampstead Heath.  I have never been there and thus have never stood in front of the painting but when I was researching the work I came across two “versions” of the painting, the one you see at the begining, with the girl looking slightly to her left and the sprig of flowers on the floor on the left side of the painting and the other picture of the painting (on the right) I came across in another art history book which had the girl turning slightly to her right and the flowers were on the floor to the right of the painting.  One book must have had a mirror-image of the real painting but which is correct?  Next time you visit the gallery please let me know !