“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)
Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in ‘The Grecian Daughter’. Print of Pine’s painting by the female engraver, Caroline Watson. Published in London by John Boydell, 1st May, 1784. © Victoria & Albert Museum. Euphrasia was one of the parts in which she conquered the London stage on her return in 1782. The heroine triumphs in restoring peace to her country after an extraordinary, even gross, display of filial duty, when she suckles her own father rather than escape to safety from despotic tyranny with her husband and infant son.
The mix of sensationalism – the audience enjoyed shrieking along with the heroine – and serious moral about debate a woman’s right to determine her public and domestic roles, without becoming a victim, were ideal for Sarah Siddons’ stage persona.
PART TWO – A Woman’s Tragedy
Mrs Siddons understood the value of art, both as an aesthetic and a publicity tool. Her collaboration with all the leading portraitists of the day and the subsequent national distribution of prints spread her fame.
Though she became a cultural icon, she was not an easy subject; she was considered a beautiful woman, with her bold features, long nose, Romantically fashionable cleft chin, large dark eyes, and lithe figure, but like many expressive, charismatic people, her beauty could not be captured in repose.
It was the beauty that lies in conveying passion and intellect, not in stimulating sexual fantasies or decorating a wall. Her physical appearance was fit for dramatic purpose, and she used it to full effect without personal vanity.
Mary Wollstonecraft reminded the readers of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that in “history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
Many of the heroic qualities that she was admired for on stage were regarded as unsuitable for a lady in real life. The power she conveyed with the grandeur of her elocution and sweeping, authoritative movements, were supposed to be exclusively masculine attributes.
Except for Thomas Lawrence, society portraitists shied away from her forcefulness, emphasizing instead her willowy grace, and the tender beseeching pathos of her raised eyes, rather than showing them blazing with passion under frowning brows.
Sitting in her elegant black plumed hat and blue-striped dress in Gainsborough’s 1785 portrait, she looks uneasy, coiled, as if she’d rather spring up and throw that muff like a dagger at a villain, and save her country, defy a tyrant, or murder Duncan. Social comedy and kitchen sink drama, at home or on stage, did not suit Mrs Siddons.
When Lawrence painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the athletic build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them.
Portrait by Thomas Lawrence, Tate Gallery, London. Image:© Tate, London 2011
The Tragic Muse of Neoclassicism and prophetess of Romanticism in a portrait of 1804, when she was nearing fifty, in which her lifelong friend Sir Thomas Lawrence portrayed her powerful physique and glowering majesty with such panache that she looks like a bruiser about to step forward and knock you out. Like many great classical actors she combined masculine and feminine qualities in the authority and sensitivity of her interpretations.
For the last full-length portrait, after the natural studio light from the high source used by Lawrence faded, she posed by lamplight till two o’clock in the morning, so he could finish the painting in time for the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1804. The night-time sitting caused such slanderous tittle-tattle around town that Mr Siddons had to issue a press statement denying his wife’s adultery.
Any lady of any age who sat for Lawrence risked seduction – he was dangerous to know while Byron was still a schoolboy.
Mrs Siddons and Lawrence were not lovers; they were something even closer, intimate collaborators who understood the demands of each other’s arts.
She steps forward towards us as she would have done during one of her Shakespearean readings; the simple composition is neoclassical, except for the free brush work, the great swathes of red and black, the injured look on her face, all suggest emotional disturbance beneath the surface of acting.
It was the year after her eldest daughter’s death; a younger one had died five years before. With “two lovely creatures gone”, their grieving mother, comparing herself to Niobe, had begun to look older and heavier, which Lawrence did not disguise.
There is nothing of the “flattered and pinky” in some of Lawrence’s society portraits to which Farington objected. The painting was not received well at the time, but when you physically enter her presence, the effect is breathtaking, and you suddenly get a sense of her power on stage without even being able to hear her voice.
We think of one as the treasure of the Establishment, rendering female passions socially acceptable, and the other its scourge, but Sarah Siddons and Mary Wollstonecraft had social and cultural affinities. They were only five years apart in age, and well-acquainted. They had to earn their own livings all their adult lives; as young women struggling to establish independent careers, they had both taken jobs as ladies’ companions.
What could have been a humiliating experience for the sixteen year old Sarah Kemble, forced to work as a maid in the house of landed gentry while she burned to be an actress, turned out to be more like a cultural education than servitude.
Like Elizabeth Bennett visiting Pemberley for the first time, she walked into 18th century enlightenment. She was already well-educated in literature and drama, and now daily exposure to the Greatheed family’s art collection inspired her appreciation of the visual arts, and a new vocational interest in sculpture.
The manor house at Guy’s Cliffe, Warwickshire, by Alexander Francis Lydon, from ‘County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland’, 1880. Image: Wikipedia.
Not a theatre set, but a real house that informed Sarah Kemble’s dramatic imagination. As was so common in the 18th century, the Greatheed family’s house and tasteful art collection was financed by sugar plantations.
She was treated kindly, even with respect, and soon promoted from maid to companion; everyone, masters and servants, seem to have been enthralled by her recitations; her habit of spouting Milton in the servants’ hall didn’t annoy anyone – it begins to sound like a fairy story, an episode in a preposterous TV drama.
She carried herself so grandly around the house, that her employer, Lady Mary (oh, yes, that was her name), a duke’s daughter, later recalled how she had had an irresistible urge to rise from her chair whenever her maid entered the room.
The girl’s subsequent fame must have coloured this recollection, for nothing succeeds like success in shifting social perceptions, but it still illustrates how, in the age of aristocratic supremacy, Sarah Siddons, who had been born in a small tavern in Brecon, was treated like a queen.
The old system of patronage, in which actors had been treated as servants by the ruling classes, even when they were hired to teach courtiers how to behave like courtiers and princesses to speak like princesses, had been overthrown. Aristocrats now wanted to add to their prestige by counting the nation’s most famous tragedienne among their social acqaintance.
Her example created a new respect for character-based performance and dedication to the craft of acting, but she was not a reformer of professional living standards. The life of touring actors was not changed, the divide between commercially successful and unsuccessful deepened, casting was often nepotistic and capricious, but the Incomparable Siddons raised the leading dramatic actress into the cultural prominence she still has today.
Mrs Siddons by Richard Crosse, 1783, watercolour miniature © Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, in a poor likeness conveniently packaged for publicity, she looks like a typical 18th century lady of sensibility. Her features deliberately softened by the painter, she is the epitome of feminine grace and moral virtue in a temperate classical setting, a very small part of her dramatic range.
The insipidity of this type of portrayal of women annoyed Siddons and Wollstonecraft. “[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.” (Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman).
One of the reasons Siddons took to sculpting herself was to produce a more realistic likeness, in the round, exactly as her dramatic characterizations were.
TO BE CONTINUED