“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.” SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)
Fanny Kemble (1809 – 1893) transatlantic actress, writer, abolitionist and feminist, in a print by Richard James Lane after drawing by Lawrence, published 1829 -1830. She was the fourth woman in her family to be taken over by, in her words, a”dangerous fascination” for the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, forty years older than her. He flirted with her, as he did every woman who sat for him. He noticed, while sketching her face, that she had the same eyes as her aunt and his close friend, the dominant tragic actress of the British stage, Sarah Siddons.
PART SIX – The Opposite of People “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Sarah Siddons and her two eldest daughters can be excused for their infatuation with Thomas Lawrence, because he was notoriously charming, an homme fatale “using sex as a sort of shrimping net”, like the “self-conscious vampire” Myra Arundel in Hay Fever one hundred and thirty years later. Gifted with more than just bedroom eyes, he had that rare knack of making usually sensible men and women feel sorry for him even when he was being mad and bad.
Noone, not even Sally and Maria, could think him of as a villain. He was a catalyst, an accidental destroyer, a personality who would have been invented by Romanticism if he had not existed. He wanted to please, not provoke other people, because he wanted to be loved, without understanding how to love in return.
The cracks in the habitual seducer’s charm showed when he was older – he “had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile had the appearance of being set in enamel” – but at the time he was playing for the Siddons sisters, the philosopher William Godwin, whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was a depressive, was so worried about the younger man that he warned him of the dangers of giving in to melancholy.
It was the worm in the bud of sensibility, the morbid strain in Romanticism, that we are heir to, not the suicidal depression, which is par for the course, but the narcissistic failure of compassion, of which empathy is the easy and therefore overrated part. Imagining someone else’s suffering is not the same as feeling it, as any good actor knows. Lawrence, as needy for worldly success as sexual conquest, was careful to never leave such an indiscreet trail of heartbroken virgins again. His anxiety to please was bad for his art, but secured him commercial popularity as a fashionable society portrait painter with a sophisticated fanbase. He needed female companionship and approval. He was happiest in the company of sophisticated, independent, intelligent women, an entourage of beautiful Boswells whose passionate interest in his art and personality did not include marriage expectations. His debts made him ineligible, as Mr Siddons had recognized.
Under the enamelled surface, the darkness was still discernible. When he died, suddenly, having shown no obvious symptoms of illness, a lot of people wondered if he had committed suicide. Lawrence was the only man who aroused such reckless feelings in Sarah Siddons after her girlhood attachment to her husband; he was a soulmate, an artistic equal.
He was an actor by nature. He would have been put on the stage as a boy if his precocious talent for drawing and painting had not saved him, but it might have been safer for everyone else if his histrionic personality had been confined to the artificial world. Real life was his stage. He made very few self-portraits, as if he did not want anyone, including himself, to look too deeply inside.
Sir Thomas Lawrence’s death mask, lithograph by Richard James Lane, published April 1830 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Lawrence believed he was the victim, rejected by Sally, the woman for whom he had “play’d deeply” because he was compelled to capture people’s affection, with the same intensity he captured their likeness in a drawing. He only cared about the effect he had on them, not the consequences. From boyhood, when he had first seen Mrs Siddons act at the Bath theatre, he envied her power to transport people’s emotions, to make them sob, or tremble, or faint.
The quintessence of dramatic acting: Sarah Siddons as The Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia
Coquetry is a form of power, to which he became addicted. He had been her daughter Sally’s ideal man; he might have been the greatest love of Mrs Siddons’ life as well. In most respects, Mrs Siddons was a rational woman who observed the distinction between reality and pretence. She used her home to prepare for parts, she studied her sensations and reactions during emotional extremes so as to replicate them authentically on stage, she practised intonations, she drew on her own experience for public performance, but she did not fake emotions or manipulate other people in private life.
Sally knew her mother continued to see Lawrence, “and could never cease to look upon him with the partiality she always did, and I believe always will feel for him”. It says a lot about the devotion and respect that Sarah Siddons commanded from the people who knew her best, and about the steadfast character of her eldest daughter, that during and after the Lawrence crisis, Sally never uttered or wrote a word of reproach against the mother she adored. She only betrayed her hurt by her continued allusions to Lawrence in her letters to friends.
Sally Siddons, eldest daughter of Sarah Siddons, by Frederick Christian Lewis Sr, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, stipple engraving, published 1841. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sally loved her mother to the point of idolatry. She aspired to moral conduct worthy of the great Sarah Siddons. She was deeply involved in her mother’s career and performances, never ceasing to be moved when Mrs Siddons acted “divinely” or when audiences were as “mad about my mother as if they had never seen her” act before.
The love her daughters had for Sarah Siddons and their respect for her vocation were the most sincere of all accolades paid this much-acclaimed woman, because they understood her natural and unalienable right to be herself and dramatize feelings that would otherwise be unbearable. She was beyond criticism. They accommodated the absolutism of her maternal power, and rather than rebelling against her, guarded themselves against emotional damage, hiding any violent internal battles from everyone, including us, the raiders of their private lives.
Thirty years after Sally and Maria’s lives had been “embittered” by their inconstant lover, a fourth woman of the Kemble dynasty found herself taken over by, in her own words, a “dangerous fascination” for Thomas Lawrence. Sarah Siddons’ nineteen year old niece, Fanny Kemble, sat for her portrait, and the inevitable happened.
Sentimentally moved by her resemblance to her two dead cousins, he flirted with the talented young actress. Sally and Maria were now ghosts in a titillating gothic fantasy of forbidden love whipped up by two brilliant egocentrics, forty years apart in age, one at the beginning of her creative life, the other at the end of his.
© Pippa Rathborne 2015
TO BE CONTINUED….