Don’t be an actor, my son, not even a comical one

AN ACTOR’S TRAGEDY

“Though the world is so full of a number things,
I know we should all be as happy as….”
from ‘Make ’em Laugh’ sung by Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, music by Brown, lyrics by Freed, indebted to Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, sung by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in The Pirate, 1948

One of the saddest and most repeated histories in the world is of the child who knows they are not as great as the parent they spend their life trying to emulate.

HenrySiddonsbyStump

Hero with a fatal flaw: the tragically bad actor Henry Siddons (1774 – 1815), eldest son of the great tragic actress, Sarah Siddons, by Samuel John Stump, watercolour portrait miniature, 1808. “He is a fine, honorable, but alas! melancholy character. He is not well indeed…”* His anxiety and lack of self-confidence are apparent, even painted on a piece of card 79mm x 64mm. (NPG) Image source: Wikipedia

They are the collateral damage of celebrity, or genius, or romance, compelled to follow the same vocation as their mother or father, deaf to other callings, dazzled by star dust, enthused with idealism, often determined to work hard, unable to shine, unable to be happy.

The falling-off is steepest in public or artistic careers, and is not confined to celebrity families. The freeloading brats of celebrities raised by nepotism in any industry, political, business or entertainment, get all the press, but there are noble failures, who feel much and barely leave a mark.

Fame and talent are not indivisible. Children of unlucky actors are just as likely to be inspired to go into the same profession as children of rich and famous ones. It’s not a career choice, it’s an hereditary gift or curse; they are not sure which until there is no going back. Sometimes they have talent and ability, but not the temperament to withstand the slings and arrows of their vocation.

Of all the members of the Kemble dynasty of Shakespearean tragedians, the most tragic is Sarah Siddons’ eldest son, Henry, because he inherited all her passion for performance and her intellect for analysing character, without her talent and resilience.

All he had ever wanted to be was an actor, and he was entirely unsuited for an actor’s life. He was perfectionist, and acutely, even morbidly, sensitive to rejection and criticism. The family was fully aware that he suffered from excessive anxiety. His mother worried about his “melancholy character.” Continue reading

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In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Part Eight: Out of clay

siddons self-portrait

Self-portrait by Sarah Siddons, plaster bust c 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum

At first, her mother’s death robbed Cecilia’s life of purpose. Two years later, she found a new mission when she married the phrenologist George Combe. She adopted his theories with evangelical zeal.

When she married, she surrendered all her worldly possessions, everything that her mother had earned by her own talents, to her husband, according to the matrimonial laws which did not give women rights over their property owned prior to marriage until 1882.

Under her mother’s influence, Cecilia had been brought up looking for the source of human character and behaviour in the passions; when she married she moved her enquiry into what she believed was a new science of the mind. Cecilia had lived all her life looking at her mother’s sculpted heads and watching her performances; now she examined the bumps on her husband’s collection of skulls and accompanied him on lecture tours.

There would be more than a pang of disappointment if the only surviving daughter of the Tragic Muse had given herself away to a pseudo-scientific quack. Not all of phrenology was rubbish: some of its elements survive in modern neuroscience which accepts that different mental abilities are localized in different areas of the brain.

Though his theories were flawed, and he was a shameless self-promoter, Combe was an influential and respected moral philosopher who, financed by his wife’s fortune, did valuable work towards education and prison reform.

A portrait by George Clint (which this blog has been refused permission by a national collection to upload for free) of Cecilia in her late twenties shows the same dark hair and dark eyes, the rich colouring and strong features of her mother, in a softer version; nothing like a subdued Regency ‘Miss’, which her brother George was worried she was doomed to be, she looks intelligent and penetrating; there is warm humour in her expression, a touch of wry amusement in her way of looking at the rest of a world; glowing in a composition of mature russets and golds, nothing superficial or trivial about her, she has a majestic presence of her own. She looks capable of anything she might set her mind to.

There being no use in a blog without pictures, and this blogger being a bad loser, here is an illustration of Romney’s soft-focus treatment of Sarah Siddons at about the same age as Cecilia in the forbidden portrait, with grateful acknowledgments to the ever-gracious V&A.

As Lawrence observed, the deep-set eyes and mobile brows that he knew so well are the same as Siddons’ niece, Fanny Kemble:

Romneyprint - CopyPrint of George Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, 1783. Published in The Connoisseur magazine, ca. early 20th c. © Victoria and Albert Museum

Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

maria

The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, for which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: the girl has the intense, dark-eyed and tousle-haired look of the Siddons family. If it is not Maria, it is representative of a physical type which fascinated Lawrence.

The RA website notes that the genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this wild, half-naked boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze – “the frightful sort of beauty” that pierced her mother when she looked at her daughters – is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, such as what on earth Lawrence really wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken pressed to her bosom.

PART FIVE – Portrayal and Betrayal

At the beginning of Lawrence’s invasion of their peace, as Sally described it, Mrs Siddons was too blinded by her own affection for him to see the whirlpool into which he was pulling them; perhaps, unconsciously, she was enjoying one of the undercurrents too much, that his feelings were flowing towards her, not her daughters.

The fact so clear to us, that Lawrence was protesting his feelings for Sally too much because he was basically gay, explains but does not excuse his emotional abuse of the two sisters. It was probably just as apparent to Mrs Siddons, who was, after all, in the theatrical profession and not stupid. Eighteenth century and Regency perceptions of sexuality were more fluid than ours, even while the laws governing behaviour were barbarously repressive.

You were not defined in enlightened artistic and aristocratic circles by the sex of whom you slept with, so long as you didn’t make a scandal, or annoy the wrong people, who would use the law vindictively against you, as the “foul thing”, Lord Queensberry, did to Oscar Wilde in 1895. It is no wonder that the pressure of confused feelings and double lives, and often blackmail, drove so many to suicide.

Lawrence, as a self-made professional society portrait painter, dependent on respectable fee-paying clients for his livelihood, could not take the same risks as the aristocratic bisexual Lord Byron a generation later, and flee abroad to countries where the Napoleonic Penal Code had decriminalized homosexuality.

Intelligent women continued to fall in love with Lawrence for the rest of his life, just as they have loved and married sensitive, handsome gay men since. He made women look good and feel good about themselves. Like a lot of narcissistic people, he was probably a very skilled lover: he made love to women the way he would have liked to have been loved if he was a woman.

Like Byron, he used his sex-appeal to further his career. Sittings with Lawrence felt like seductions; sometimes they were seductions.

Marriage was the predominant career option for women without independent means, but the ones who could afford to love and live with each other openly were left relatively free of salacious and legal interference. Queen Charlotte got the Ladies of Llangollen a pension, which would never have been granted a male couple living together, because the concept of lesbianism as a sexual preference did not exist – while women who married conventionally lost their individual rights to their husbands. Defiance meant risking subsistence, reputation, children.

In 1849, Sarah Siddons’ niece, the actress, abolitionist and feminist Fanny Kemble, was one of the first women to challenge the divorce laws of the United States, but she still had to suffer the loss of custody of her daughters to her slave-owning, philandering husband.

NPG D21827; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons); Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble); Charles Kemble; Maria Siddons by Richard James Lane, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceSarah Siddons and members of her family by Richard James Lane, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, published May 1830  © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The print has Lawrence’s sketch of Mrs Siddons as Sigismunda at its centre, a figure of brooding intensity with three of her children and one of her younger brothers revolving like satellites around her.
Clockwise: Cecilia Combe (née Siddons); Sarah Siddons (née Kemble); Sally Siddons (identified sometimes as Maria); George John Siddons; Charles Kemble (the actor)

Mrs Siddons had had a soft spot for Lawrence since their first meeting in Bath when he was a pretty nine year old boy earning a living as a portrait painter and she was establishing her reputation as a leading actress.

The adult Lawrence incited a heightened erotic self-consciousness in nearly every woman he met, regardless of age and type; flirting was his primary means of social interaction with both sexes; a friend who knew him very well called him a male coquet.

At the time he ruptured her daughters’ lives, Mrs Siddons was in her early forties, still slim and splendidly handsome, she was the most famous actress in the country, a conscientious, hard-working mother who needed assurance that she could still be loved as a woman, not just a national monument. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons, ? as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' c.1796-8 by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller by Thomas Lawrence, 1796-8 oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery London.

The painting was bequeathed to the Tate in 1868 by Mrs Siddons youngest child, Cecilia.

PART FOUR – In Spite Of

Sarah Siddons had to bear the worst tragedy that can befall a mother, the death of a child, five times. Two of her children died in infancy, an expected mortality rate for the time, but she gave the impression that only pouring grief into acting enabled her to endure the losses of two grown up daughters, one of them aged nineteen, the other twenty-seven, and of her eldest son when he was forty. “I can at least upon the stage give a full vent to the heart which, in spite of my best endeavours, swells with its weight almost to bursting.” They were killed by lung disease, victims of a genetic predisposition, as strong in the Kembles as acting. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

aszaraSarah Siddons as Zara in Congreve’s tragedy ‘The Mourning Bride’, engraving by after painting by Thomas Lawrence, 1783.
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum.
“…she did look so beautiful! It is a part I like to see her act extremely.” Sally Siddons, writing in a letter on February 8th, 1799, about her mother as Zara.
This is the face of a determined, passionate, brave, intelligent individual, transcending gender.
“Independence I will ever secure…” Mary Wollstonecraft.

PART THREE: The Obvious Conclusion

“The conclusion which I make to draw is obvious: make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Mary Wollstonecraft and Sarah Siddons were socially acquainted, and only four years apart in age. Temperamentally, the reserved, social-climbing actress, who regulated her emotions on and off stage, and the younger, radical feminist, who acted on her impulses, were far apart. Siddons did not see herself as a rebel other than in being an actor, which, in the glory days, before it was confused with showing-off, was a form of rebellion in itself.

She craved social acceptance, for herself and her children. She was more interested in improving her life through her art than suffering for it. She wanted fame and fortune. In private, this passionate artist was conventional, religious and moral. She never compromised her right to have a career, children and a husband, and she earned it herself.

Frequently when Wollstonecraft wrote about an emancipated woman, independent of men and men’s money, she unintentionally described Siddons: “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners.”

“Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath.”  Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the words; you can hear Sarah Siddons saying them. The actress was a realist who achieved independence, and avoided the heath.

NPG D7842; Mary Wollstonecraft by John Chapman, after  Unknown artistDeal with it: the great Mary Wollstonecraft, Mrs Godwin, feminine and equal in a man’s hat, by John Chapman, after unknown artist, stipple engraving, published 1798 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
“The conclusion which I make to draw is obvious: make women rational creatures, and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives; – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.”
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” and her other moral “Strictures” combined with the emotional turmoil of her free love affairs were condemned as the “masculine” aberration of a virago, even a madwoman; in contrast, the respectable actress’s interpretations of women driven by passion, whether it was from ambition or love, were universally admired.

Siddons’ own perceived masculine attributes of power and strength were exalted in serious portraiture, by Lawrence, and treated almost respectfully in caricature by Gillray. She excelled in pleading justice for women with her own mix of power and pathos: “…my drops of tears / I’ll turn to sparks of fire.” (Queen Katharine in Henry VIII)
Continue reading

Out of the killing sun

PART FIVE of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES

two sistersbuckAdam Buck, Two Sisters, print, 1796. London. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Sense and sensibility, reason and passion, love and illusion, neoclassicism and romanticism dancing on the eve of cataclysm. During the years 1795 to 1797, while the two elder Siddons sisters were engaged in their own danse macabre with Thomas Lawrence, Jane Austen wrote her first draft of the novel that was eventually published in 1811 as Sense and Sensibility.

It should have been the end, the two beautiful girls consumed by passion and disease, but the Tragic Muse had another daughter, only nine years old when her eldest sister died, a child with a name like the peal of golden bells under a blue sky, a tiny Buddha with a ferocious will [1] and eyes that glared like a torch in the night on the charades and vacillations of grown ups.

NPG D21820; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons) by Richard James Lane, printed by  Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceAfter Sir Thomas Lawrence, Cecilia Combe, (née Siddons), 1798. Lithograph by Richard James Lane, printed by Charles Joseph Hullmandel, published by Joseph Dickinson, May 1830. © National Portrait Gallery, London. She glares out of the picture with fanatical fervour, lowering her brows like her mother did in dramatic parts.

Her resemblance to the second of her elder sisters was so close in “all the dazzling, frightful sort of beauty that irradiated the countenance of Maria” [2] that she made the Tragic Muse shudder.

She was designated the last companion of the goddess, the comfort of her melancholy age, and custodian of her shrine. For twenty-eight years the purpose of her existence was to serve her mother, now a monolith in “apparent deadness and indifference to everything”, who stared back at her with vacant eyes. [3]

But the youngest daughter had a flame inside her that would not be quenched.  She had a gift denied her sisters. She did not breathe the same fatal air as they had done. Her mother fretted that her sickly last-born would die like the others, but the girl grew to be strong. She outlived her mother to write her own last act. She was determined that it would be not be a tragic one. Continue reading

The Prophetess and the Muse

Part Four of ROMANTIC FICTIONS AND CASUALTIES

Shortly after the death of the Tragic Muse’s eldest daughter, in the same year of 1803, the artist who had once believed he loved her found his ideal personification of physical and intellectual femininity. She was an elegant and composed woman, a refined and independent spirit who understood his temperament and his art.

Thomas-Lawrence croft
The shining culmination of the artist’s love of his muse:

Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs Jens Wolff, painted 1803 – 1815. © The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr and Mrs W. W. Kimball Collection. At the time she first met Lawrence, Isabella Anne Hutchinson was unhappily married to the Danish diplomat and art collector Jens Wolff from whom she later separated in 1810.

She was a little older than the daughter of tragedy, tall and dark like her, but free of sisters and disease. She was a model of discretion as much as beauty, a social sophisticate who made no demands on him. She did not need marriage to consummate their loving friendship.

For this convenience, he was grateful, because it gave him freedom without responsibility, and though people gossipped, not a breath of scandal compromised his professional reputation as a society portraitist ever again. Her gratification came from inspiring and guiding the artist to create works that would invest her with immortality by association. She was his perfect muse. Continue reading