Through a woman’s eyes

NPG D5655; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) mezzotint by Jonathan Spilsbury, published by John Spilsbury, after a painting by Katharine Read, published September 1764. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The great political tradition of constitutional liberty that inspired Macaulay is contained in the books surrounding her. She leans on John Milton, the finest republican poet and polemicist in the English language; behind her are the Discourses concerning Government of Algernon Sydney, the first Whig martyr, executed in 1683 for his opposition to Stuart absolutism and all forms of government oppression.

The painter of the original portrait reproduced in this engraving was Katherine Read (1723 – 1778), a Scottish artist specialising in crayon who had a successful practice in London. Her well-connected, wealthy clients were mostly women and children, members of the royal family and aristocracy, prominent intellectuals and writers like Catharine Macaulay, and society beauties.

fitzroy - Copy

Lady Georgiana Fitzroy and George Henry Fitzroy, Earl of Euston, later 4th Duke of Grafton, crayon by Katherine Read, 1770

Read didn’t need to work for a living; she chose to. She was independent and ambitious; she never married. Her early career was dictated by the politics of her time. Her family had strong Jacobite affiliations, for which they suffered, and she left Scotland for France after the defeat of the ’45 Rebellion. She was able to afford to study crayon painting in Paris under Maurice Quentin de la Tour.

Then she moved to Rome, another Jacobite hub on the cultural Grand Tour, studying and making contacts with patrons in Italy, until she settled in Hanoverian London in 1753, earning money from painting the old enemy.

NPG D33327; King George IV; Frederick, Duke of York and Albany by James Watson, after Katharine Read

George, Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Frederick, Duke of York, mezzotint by James Watson, after Katharine Read’s crayon painting, circa 1765-1770. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Read produced many charming portraits of aristocratic children, made cuter by hugging dogs, big or small. There is nothing charming or cute about these two alarmingly overweight toddlers, the future George IV and one of his brothers, suggesting that Read refused to sacrifice truth for sychophancy. Perhaps she never gave up her Jacobite contempt for the Hanoverian dynasty.

In 1771, seeing another opportunity to conquer a new world, or just taken over by Wanderlust again, she accompanied her niece, Helena Beatson, also an artist, to the developing British empire in India, and died at sea, near Madras, at the beginning of her journey home.

Read’s art was tame compared to the great female portrait painters who flourished in France later in the century, due to superior professional conditions of access to the same high training as men at a progressive academy, and of positive discrimination rather than condescension of patrons, but the sketchy facts about her life give an impression of a strong, adventurous, determined woman, a brilliant trimmer and survivor, who adapted to circumstances and contemporary taste.

She knew what she wanted to be, and she did it.

The graceful leaning poses of her sitters, her refined tact in rendering gentle and genteel likenesses, the subtlety of her pastel colours, were fully appreciated in her lifetime, but after her death, sharing the posthumous fate of many talented women artists, rich and poor, the best of her work was so good it was attributed to men, in her case Joshua Reynolds, and the rest of it almost entirely forgotten.

NPG D3400; Polly Kennedy (alias Jones) published by John Bowles, after Katharine ReadPolly Kennedy (Polly Jones) published by John Bowles, mezzotint after a painting by Katherine Read, 1770s. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Related links: Katharine Read / Dundee Women’s Trail
Nicholas Ennos, owner of Read’s portrait of her niece, Helena Beaston and author of Jane Austen – A New Revelation

“Calm down, dear”

NPG D31911; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) in the character of a Roman matron lamenting the lost liberties of Rome by Williams, after  Katharine Read

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) line engraving by Williams, 1770, after a painting by Katharine Read © National Portrait Gallery, London.
A passionate democrat is lamenting the lost liberties of the Republic of Rome.

She was respected and celebrated in Britain, France and America, by politicians as diverse as Pitt the Elder, Mirabeau, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and George Washington, who wanted her to write the history of the American Revolution. As an historian and political theorist she was regarded as the adversary and equal of her male contemporaries David Hume, Edward Gibbon and Edmund Burke, and was more progressive, more recognizably modern to us, than any of them.

Now, most of us have never heard of her. I bumped into her for the first time a month ago when I was looking for more 18th century women with “a taste for books”, as she put it.

The process of shunting her out of his-story, started in her lifetime. As she got older, her extreme radicalism, particularly her support of the French Revolution, and unconventional private life shocked a lot of people, who cast her out of their polite society. She didn’t seem to miss it.

Clever middle-aged women who refuse to conform, who continue to innovate and prefer dancing on the precipice to knitting socks for their grandchildren, are still not taken seriously today: audiences love to see them fall.

She was born into recently landed gentry whose wealth had come from banking, typical of early 18th century social and economic mobility. Her political theories were rooted in the ‘Roundhead’ tradition of John Hampden, the true hero of parliamentarianism in her view, not the tyrant Oliver Cromwell, who became crypto-king.

She ranged far left of the Whig ideology in which she had been raised, far outside the accepted lines of class, sex and age. Personal liberty and equality, and the courage of personal conviction, mattered more to her than social approval.

When she was forty-seven, having been a widow for twelve years, she overturned every kind of received idea by marrying a twenty-one year old ‘surgeon’s mate’, the younger brother of a celebrity quack doctor.

She was still a star of liberty in the new American Republic, and was welcomed, accompanied by her husband, to George Washington’s house for a visit which lasted ten days. She was the President’s first choice to write the history of the Revolution; by then in her late fifties, she felt too physically frail for the task; only a terminal illness would have stopped her.

After her death, her husband, William Graham, erected a monument commemorating her wisdom in All Saints’ Church, Binfield, in Berkshire. Most other English people buried her intellectual achievements along with her body, and her radical contribution to political theory and history was forgotten in the next century.

This was partly because monarchical systems of government and opposition to universal suffrage triumphed in post-Napoleonic Europe, partly because she was a woman, a very inconvenient woman, whose intellectual challenge to a man’s world could be dismissed as menopausal hysteria, her rational voice shouted down in a chorus of “Calm down, dear” [the remark made by UK Prime Minister David Cameron in parody of the TV advert featuring Michael Winner, to MP Angela Eagle during a parliamentary debate in 2011].

NPG D17066; Catharine Macaulay (nÈe Sawbridge) by James Basire, after  Giovanni Battista Cipriani

Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by James Basire, after Giovanni Battista Cipriani,
line engraving, published 1767. Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London

Now, when we see that liberty and equality are as fragile as ever, she is understood and relevant again.

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 by Joshua ReynoldsMrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse, Melpomene, with the figures of Pity and Terror behind her, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia

PART SEVEN – “Keep your mind on your art.”
Sarah Siddons’ advice to Macready (1793 – 1873)

After her formal retirement from the stage, Mrs Siddons gave readings from Shakespeare at soirées given in her home, at which her daughter Cecilia acted as a fierce usher, making sure the audience behaved, and reassuring her mother that her powers were intact.

Rustling, coughing, munching, and the bathetic sounds of mobile phones, are distracting enough in a large theatre nowadays, but it is even harder to maintain dramatic illusion in small domestic settings, lit by oil lamps and candles, where refreshments are being served on a table in the interval.

Once, the suave portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, summoned back to the reading sooner than expected, suffered the embarrassment of having to finish eating a slice of toast as inaudibly as possible while the Tragic Muse resumed her platform performance.

Despite such incidents, the readings were not ridiculous; somehow, Mrs Siddons made them sublime. They inaugurated the Victorian popularity of public readings later in the century, most famously the ones by her niece Fanny Kemble (reputedly better at impersonating male characters than her father Charles) and Charles Dickens, part of a dubious dramatic tradition that still thrives in one-woman/man shows, book readings on radio and celebrity promotional tours of today.

Mrs Siddons was able to do more hold her audience; she transported them to a different plane of apprehension. Maria Edgworth, listening to Mrs Siddons as Queen Catherine felt she “had never before fully understood or sufficiently admired Shakespeare, or known the full powers of the human voice and the English language”.

She and her fellow guests were so rapt that they forgot to applaud; their “perfect illusion” was “interrupted by a hint from her daughter or niece, I forget which, that Mrs Siddons would be encouraged by having some demonstration given of our feelings”.

The crash landing of her willing disbelief made Maria Edgworth feel let down by actorly vanity. Audiences wanted Mrs Siddons to be above mortal needs. A great actor has godlike powers on stage to alter audiences’ states of mind, but only a stupid actor thinks they are a god. The gap between the power of acting and the personal vulnerability of the actor is as unbridgeable as the distinction between the reigning sovereign and their private person, completely separate entities, often, in the days of couchee and levee, occupying separate beds.

Mrs Siddons was grand, but she was not conceited. You are only as good as the performance you have just given. You cannot please everyone in the audience. There is always someone unmoved, someone else unpicking you, someone else disappointed that you are fatter and not as good as you were twenty years ago. The emotional effects for which you are famous might flop any day. She had made herself a great actress through patient application and subjective observation, not divine inspiration.
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