“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)
Part Eight: Out of clay
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:
Print of George Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, 1783. Published in The Connoisseur magazine, ca. early 20th c. © Victoria and Albert Museum