“The women are there” as noticed by Dr Richard Stemp
Mary Moser (1744-1819) by George Romney
“The women are there” as noticed by Dr Richard Stemp
Mary Moser (1744-1819) by George Romney
Sarah in 2008
Sarah Vernon had, to use her own phrase, “a passion for theatre”.
Like many actors’ children, she could never be sure if she would have gone into the entertainment industry if her parents, Richard Vernon and Benedicta Leigh, had not been in the profession.
It wasn’t an industry or a job for Sarah: it was a romance and a calling. Being an actor was her body and soul, an act of love uniting emotional longing with technical accomplishment, a child’s dream of perfection made real.
Her performing career was cut short by the progression of a rare autoimmune disease. Her contribution to promoting the importance, and fun, of theatre in everyday life was far more than a list of credits could represent.
She trained, and made lasting friendships, at Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art from 1975-78. Her professional work was predominantly in Repertory and touring theatre, and on the London Fringe. She also gave characteristically intelligent and sensitive performances on television, such as Janet Nowt in Paradise Postponed, and Jean Gaunt in The Bill.
Studio headshot of Sarah Vernon c.1985-88
Her impressive height and voice, a beautifully modulated instrument, deep, rich and melodious, gave her authority and an aura of raffish grandeur, redolent of great players of the past, belying her vulnerability.
Her unaffected refinement, gentle, quizzical expression and understated emotion made her natural casting for period plays, though she had misgivings about her suitability for one part early in her career, as the passive victim in Gas Light.
As Sarah herself recounted: ‘“You would have called the gas board a long time before,” said my mother after seeing me as Bella Manningham…It was a piece of miscasting that could only have happened in weekly rep.’
Sarah claimed she was thankful when it was over, but she relished the challenges and spontaneity of weekly rep, the traditional apprenticeship of stage actors, especially her happy summer season at Folkestone in 1983, working in the Art Deco Leas Pavilion.
She was completely at ease in one of her last stage appearances, the sophisticated, fun-loving and witty Dona Lucia in Charley’s Aunt at The Shaw Theatre, in 1997.
Sarah – “this beautiful lady” and “amazing lady” recalled by her peers – was a lady in the classic sense, with impeccable manners on and off-stage, thoughtful and kind to other people, sharing her sense of humour in every company.
The written word was as important to her as the spoken word. She was an enthusiastic member and organizer of the Hammersmith Actors and Writers Group in the 1990s.
Sarah was proud to have been “born in a trunk”. She believed acting was her destiny. She grew up learning from her parents and other actors; by watching and listening and asking questions she became a discriminating critic of the best techniques and styles in her early teenage years, while she prepared for her vocation.
When limited cutaneous systemic sclerosis forced her to retire from stage work, she reinvented herself online as the custodian of great acting traditions which she believed should be passed on to new generations of performers. From 2001 she sacrificed time and money to her Rogues & Vagabonds website, a constantly updated online magazine about theatre and acting, publishing reviews, interviews and anecdotes.
She was a naturally gifted writer and scrupulous editor, who gave opportunities to many other aspiring writers as well as established authors and academics.
She was encouraging and exacting, charming everyone into producing their best work and coaxing talents out of other people that they didn’t know they had. Good writing delighted her; grammatical errors and untidy sentences upset her well-ordered mind.
Sarah never stopped looking, learning and working. Every time she changed location, she embraced and contributed to the community. She was at home on islands, preferably in a warm climate, but she was always part of the main.
Sarah, at her happiest by the sea in a hot climate, while she was living on Crete, 2014
Sarah was proud of old-fashioned virtues, and her yearning to commune with the past was as strong as her passion for theatre. Her mind was too sharp, too inquiring, to dwell anywhere but in the present.
She was always well-informed about current events, and engaged with political and humanitarian causes. Her life’s work was to bring the best of the past to enlighten the present. “How can we improve our future if we don’t understand the past?” The current state of Britain angered and grieved her.
In her friendships she showed a similar, whole-hearted commitment to the truth. She was caring, affectionate and loyal, and, in the biggest demonstration of love, did not shrink from criticizing when necessary. Most of the time, she wanted to share “the joy of friendship”.
Photo of Sarah Vernon with her greatest friend, Helen Pearson, in the 1990s.
“We set the world to rights, gave each other advice,
lifted each other’s spirits and laughed…I can face the day”.
(Sarah Vernon commenting on Facebook, after a telephone conversation with Helen on 9 June 2017.)
She conquered social media with her humour, wit and visual flair. In the last decade of her life, the actress and writer turned herself into an equally dedicated and admired digital designer. Her taste was vintage; her techniques were modern. Defying her disabilities, she managed, edited and contributed to her First Night Design website, her three blogs and online newspapers devoted to “Art, Design, Theatre, Literature, History, Food, Laughter”.
Her focus on working, day and night, on her computer could appear obsessive to her friends and companions, concerned about her health; it is clear in retrospect that she was afraid she would run out of time.
She was haunted by her adolescence, as “a girl who’s been emotionally abandoned by her mother and whose father doesn’t know how to interact with his daughter and can’t be disturbed anyway because of learning lines.” (Sarah commenting on Facebook, 31 January, 2018.) The measure of Sarah was that instead of resenting her parents, she strove to understand them. She admired their achievements and honoured their memory.
Sarah, the child of the stage, could have been a casualty of the devil’s profession, but she was saved by self-determination. She cultivated her many literary and artistic talents and preserved her life-enhancing sense of humour. She addressed the past and present with equal intellectual force, she was computer and internet savvy, she was an entrepreneur, she was a sweet friend and she was brave, till the end.
She was still designing, still writing, during her last illness. Her mind could not stay still. She was inspired and burdened by heritage and history. She deplored bigotry and cruelty, and a mis-apostrophized word, as much as she loved laughter and beauty in an often painful life.
She died in hospital on the Isle of Wight on 13th January, 2021, aged sixty-four.
SARAH BENEDICTA VERNON
25th November 1956 – 13th January 2021
Bertel Thorvaldsen ‘Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy’, c. 1836,
Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen
Pippa Rathborne © 2021
I was thinking all night of the post I’d write about a clock, an 18th century clock. It started with the clock, anyway, and ended up being more about a mother and daughter.
It was going to be a post about self-isolation and self-improvement, about reason and tolerance defeating ignorance and greed, about women’s fight for equality and independence; about jealousy and love, egos and guillotines; about rebellion and restraint; about philosophy, education and religion; about gaiety, satire and burlesque – lyrics from Gypsy were going to be included (“Sing out, Louise”) – it was a mess, less than the sum of its parts.
The object still exists for you to look at. All you need from me is a link. No words. Everything has been said before. No more blogging, I say.
Instead, I’m copying and pasting a Tweet from the journalist John Crace, about today’s cause célèbre, the latest gobsmacking hypocrisy of the Vote Leave coup leaders who are turning the ancient democracy of Great Britain into a shoddy dictatorship, a tax haven for corrupt, nihilist capitalists, while the rest of us, if we survive the plague, will die from poverty and bitterness, and malnutrition from lowered food standards.
We will be deprived of freedom of movement to work and live and love where we want in Europe, our continent. For some of us, that freedom and that love are the meaning of life itself. We have been dispossessed. We are aliens in our own country.
The rich will still be able to do what they want, just as Cummings, Great Britain’s eminence grise, did during lockdown, when, knowing he and his wife had COVID-19, he flouted government restrictions by travelling 260 miles to visit his elderly parents with his four year-old child.
Cummings, in his own mind the child of Machiavelli and Nietzsche, doesn’t care; the pastiche prime minister/world king manqué and his equally over-entitled, even creepier associates (who can’t wait to stab him in the back) don’t care; they know there will be no consequences for the shameless. They are unaccountable. They have called democracy’s bluff.
They prey on human frailty. They play on the ordinary person being as selfish and venal as they are. They taunt and tempt like the sleazy admen and dodgy goods’ salesmen they are.
Everything they offer you has fallen off the back of a lorry. They know most of us know. They don’t care. Look how we can spin! Aren’t we funny! More entertaining than the Opposition. Razzamatazz! (Theatre is dead, due to Coronavirus, showing off isn’t.) Bragging how you have twisted the truth impresses more, nowadays, than telling the truth.
If you weren’t as bad as them before, you will be soon.
John Crace on Twitter:
And, because I can’t bear to leave you without something old and pretty, here’s the link to a relic from the Age of Enlightenment and Reason, a neoclassical feminist clock illustrating the power of solitude:
It’s one of those site-specific shows in which the lead actress, in the title role of “Sweet Melancholy”, is upstaged by a live, cooing, flying prop; the play is in blank verse, and the director, after blaming everyone else at the Tech Rehearsal, has lost the plot; but the set design is wonderful….
Joseph-Marie Vien Sweet Melancholy 1756.
Cleveland Museum of Art. Image: Wikipedia
Melancholy, as you know it, was never this sweet. This looks more like Wistful Posing, though maybe you have missed the point about contemporary self-consciousness. Mid-drama, she, Melancholy, looking as pretty as possible, rearranges her drapery and takes a selfie.
You would be at a loss for words when you congratulate your friend afterwards, if it wasn’t for Vien’s sophisticated colour scheme, daring to put Melancholy’s acid yellow dress against a dark grey background, and his dedication to historical detail in the props and furniture, pioneering a fashion in neoclassical home interiors.
The smoke from the antique brazier is scented, sending the front rows, especially the critics, into drowsy raptures. That might explain the liminal moment when you thought you heard the dove speak.
You travelled far to get here, to a disused temple in an inaccessible part of the old City, where no buses dare to stop. You took three wrong turns on your way from the station. You are dismayed by the thought of missing connections on the long journey home, and arriving tired and dispirited in the lonely night.
You imagine yourself slumped unprettily on a chair, holding your head in your hands, mourning your losses, knowing that bad as the day has been, there is always hope tomorrow will be worse.
You promise yourself that if you can ever afford it – ach, if only you’d got that film job the other day – you will buy a neoclassical upholstered chair and incense-burner, and recline elegantly in a full-length, yellow silk gown, to sweeten your own melancholy.
You are not lying when you reassure Sweet Melancholy that, “You looked like a goddess on that set, and deserve awards just for acting with that pigeon.”
‘All in the golden afternoon
In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale…
“There will be nonsense in it!”‘
Lewis Carroll, preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
Thomas Gainsborough Landscape with a Woodcutter and Milkmaid 1755
Oil on canvas
“Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.
The name for this denial is Golden Age thinking – the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in – it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.”
Midnight in Paris, 2011, film written and directed by Woody Allen
“Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not enquire wisely concerning this.”
Ecclesiastes, Chapter 7, Verse 10, King James Bible, 1611
“….colours from the sunset take:
From something of material sublime
Rather than shadow our own soul’s day-time
In the dark void of night.”
(Keats, Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds)
“Set yourself on fire with passion and people will come for miles to watch you burn”
attributed to John Wesley (1703-1791)
‘And now the tale is done,
And home we steer, a merry crew,
Beneath the setting sun.’
Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), preface to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865
Unknown Woman with Spear by Antoine Trouvain, French engraving late 17th Century
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Dagger of Henry IV of France c. 1599 on permanent display at The Wallace Collection and one of the ancient global artifacts displayed in Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector, gleaming in an atmospheric new exhibition space which is like a sacred temple of riches, just off tacky Oxford Street. Entry is free, because Sir Richard wasn’t just a rich collector in the Imperial British tradition, or schmoozing art dealer eyeing his chance, he was a cosmopolitan Europhile philanthropist, whose legacy was bequeathed to the nation by his French wife. Photo © Martin Hübscher Photography
Running the Gauntlet of the Arts London, 2018
Flaming June by Frederic Leighton, 1895.
Orpheus and Euridice by G.F. Watts c. 1890
Humans are selfish by instinct, like all animals. We are narcissistic, like no other animal. We reason, like no other animal. We squander our natural gifts, like no other animal. We are cruel, like no other animal. We have more regrets than any other animal. We cannot bring the people we love back to life but we can make at least one sensible decision for the common good before we die. (Noelle Mackay)
We, the people, must demand another chance to let our true voice be heard, not the one manipulated last year by a reactionary, zenophobic, racist coup d’état.
We must be able to accept or reject the deal being negotiated to Leave the EU.
And, we must be able to reject Brexit entirely. No reasonable person could claim that the EU is perfect; no reasonable person could claim that leaving the EU under the present conditions is anything but catastrophic.
It is time to stop separating personal from universal destiny. We are all implicated.
Whether you voted Leave or Remain, this Brexit is a mess. I’d have written “a dog’s breakfast” for a cheap laugh if it wasn’t an insult to dogs. There are too many cheap laughs in this world at the expense of things we should value. “Only connect”.
Gainsborough, Pomeranian Bitch and Puppy c 1777. © Tate Gallery.
Is there nothing else than the love of cute animals that can unite people?
Does humanity loathe itself so much that it will extinguish itself?
Only the delusional, or right-wing billionaires planning to turn Great Britain into Little Englanders’ Tax-Haven Ltd, could still want it. The hopes of idealistic Leavers have been betrayed, the worst fears of Remainers have been exceeded by reality.
It is still legally possible to reverse Brexit. Common sense and self-preservation demand it. “In a healthy political culture, this would be a moment for reappraisal” Ian Dunt.”
Horse Frightened by a Storm, watercolour by Eugene Delacroix, 1824. Image source: WGA
Our democracy should serve the national interest, not destroy it. If our representatives in Parliament don’t have the guts to revoke Article 50 themselves, we must advise them ourselves through another Referendum – not a second referendum, but the third since 1975.
Last year’s referendum was advisory. A responsible government would never have allowed the public a vote on an unfeasible option. No government is infallible. Nobody is infallible. History will condemn the political leadership of our times – that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.
If history is about ordinary people, not who and what kings and queens had for breakfast, ordinary people must show the future what a human being should be.
Sovereignty lies in Parliament, not the “Will of the People”, a meaningless slogan unless it includes the right to change our minds. If anyone insists that the 2016 Referendum was binding, then they should consider that the 1975 Referendum to stay in the EU was also binding.
Never again should an elected representative of the people have to say, as Margaret Beckett did, “I believe this will be catastrophic for my constituents, but nonetheless I feel duty‑bound to vote for it.”
In future, recanting MPs might have to put one of their hands in the fire before they betray the interests of the people.
Our generation is seeing the British dream turned into a nightmare created by ourselves. STOP IT. Brexit will be the worst mistake ever made by a modern democratic nation.
Bored with Brexit? Tough. I’d have given up this blog, ranting at an audience of two, if it wasn’t for the biggest cause of in our lifetimes. It’s not just British lives that Brexit will ruin. The fate of nations is in our hands.
Stop Brexit, I’ll stop boring you.
Lucas Vorsterman TRIUMPH OF POVERTY c. 1624 -30 Pen in brown, with gray and brown wash, black and red chalks, and white highlights, British Museum, London. Image source: WGA
Federico Fiori Barocci, Annunciation
1592-96 Oil on canvas, Santa Maria degli Angeli, Perugia. Image: WGA
A cat sleeps on a cushion in the corner of a room while a fourteen year-old virgin receives her pregnancy results from a beautiful, transgender visitor, who presents Madonna lilies as a baby shower gift. The girl smiles sweetly, and lowers her eyes modestly. She is grateful but not surprised. She accepts the news in the composed manner of a young prima donna receiving the bouquet that her talent deserves.
The visitor has only just arrived, interrupting the girl reading a small, pocket-sized book, which she lays aside instantly, without closing the pages or rising to her feet. The girl reads a lot. She has few possessions apart from her expensively bound books. She reveres their contents, kneeling while she reads. Her room is sparsely furnished, functional; only the voluptuous folds of the dark red drape loosely knotted over the window relieve the cell-like austerity. She cares about the cat’s comfort as much as her own. She has hung her hat and shawl neatly on a hook. The polished stone tiled floor is clean.
Nothing else is normal, and yet the scene is familiar. The visitor, who kneels before the girl as if she is a queen, has wings, and is accompanied by two over-excited flying babies, clapping their hands and gurgling with joy on either side of a hovering dove. The window drape looks like a stage curtain, framing a view of a white turreted castle on a hill, guarding a city beyond, a landscape in fairyland.
Strangest of all, the ceiling has been removed from the room. The billowing curtain blends into clouds that separate to allow a gigantic elderly man with a long beard to peer down out of a hole in the sky. Golden light radiates behind him, crowded with faces of more chubby babies, made of the Sun, all pressing closer and closer to the girl in the room. He holds his hands palms down over the girl like a puppeteer pulling invisible strings.
The cat sleeps.