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

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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 ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy

2006AV2988Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas c 1784, attributed to William Hamilton (or Thomas Beech).
© Victoria and Albert Museum.

Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Her stately performances in the most immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century’s ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, his son the Prince Regent, with whom he never agreed about anything else, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together.

Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for grand pathos, was a fan.

Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. By the time she died in 1831, she had outlived two kings, her friend, the portraitist Lawrence, the poet Byron, her brother and fellow-actor John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, worse than anything that a mother should endure, five of their children, but not her reputation.

The mystique of the Tragic Muse had been preserved, but only just. Even before her formal retirement in 1812, something had gone wrong. “She was no longer the same….” complained Hazlitt of her inaudibility and disproportionate emphases. She kept making ill-advised and distressing comebacks: “her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy”; “….she laboured her delivery most anxiously as if she feared her power of expression was gone” (Robinson).

She had gone from goddess to joke. Continue reading

I would speak

“…..every man whose soul is not a clod
Hath visions, and would speak, if he had loved
And been well nurtured in his mother tongue.”
(Keats, The Fall of Hyperion – A Dream)

turner sunriseTurner, Norham Castle Sunrise, 1845, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London. Image source: WGA
“Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”. (Alice de Janzé quoted in White Mischief, novel by James Fox, 1982, and in the film adaptation, 1987, screenplay by
Michael Radford and Jonathan Gems.)

At the climax of Hyperion, tremors are passing through golden-haired Apollo’s classically beautiful body like electric shocks . He shrieks while “Creations and destroyings, all at once / Pour into the wide hollows of my brain”. Empathizing with all this random suffering and emotion is too much for a god to bear, let alone an artist or poet, striving to render teeming images exactly as they were when originally experienced.

Empathy, though it is taught as a social box-ticking tool nowadays [Like] or confounded with entertainment, as a self-gratifying, vicarious thrill, is a physical sensation, an instinctive response, not a moral virtue that deserves congratulation. It is only as good as the thing created from it, whether that is a work of art or a compassionate act.

In private life, if you are feeling empathy for someone you love who is suffering, you suffer, too. It is not like acting a role: you hurt. At some point you might lose yourself in your intensity of feeling, and break down. There’s no doubt that writing and painting, and performing, are therapeutic ways to find your identity again, metamorphosis of the de-created into a creator. There’s no doubt that publication helps further in building self-esteem; the evidence is here, on WordPress.

This post has arrived at the brink of artistic and human catastrophe, the gap between aspiration and achievement, delusion and suspension of disbelief. Intensity of emotion is seldom commensurate to quality of art. Feeling how someone else feels is a poetic gift to a writer, a painter, or an actor, only if they have the technique to use it, the rare ability to pull the sword out of the stone.

If art means anything at all, simply having a go yourself, “à se donner carriére”, [1] as Delacroix put it, isn’t the answer.

Two hundred years later, we have twisted the Romantic revolution in artistic self-analysis into self-gratification. Self-taught or schooled, an artist or writer has to learn their craft; they must study past masters, not be an imitator of imitators; they must observe and reflect nature, not just themselves, and, according to Keats’ theory, if they are to fully understand the universe they portray, they must undergo fusion.

PART SIX OF THE CHARACTER OF LIGHT
“Another word for feeling”

Keats gave up being a surgeon, and through poetry became a physician of the soul. Personal bereavement is at the heart of many of his mature poems; as a professional writer he was seeking to achieve more than self-therapy. The poem itself should interact with readers like a medicine. He tested the psychoanalytical possibilities of literary forms further than any of his Romantic contemporaries and successors.

All the dissolving that goes on in his poems is not hyperbole; he is practising (with or without the help of drugs) self-hypnosis. He is also deconstructing the craft of writing. For Keats, as part of creating a believable alternative reality, the poet had to go beyond self-expression to empathic loss of self in his subject.

The insoluble artistic contradiction at the end of this process, is that in creating the actual feeling of feeling in a poem, or a painting, or a novel, or a play, whatever you do, it remains an artefact. Having exalted poetic Imagination as the saviour of human suffering, Keats became increasingly doubtful about its healing powers.

constablesunsetConstable, Coast Scene at Brighton: Evening, oil painting, ca. 1828 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
          “….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)

Constable painted this ode to the dying day while his wife Maria was seriously ill with tuberculosis. She died about six months later. Is it necessary for us to know this biographical detail to appreciate the artwork? No. Any artwork lives or dies on its own merits, not its backstory. If the artist had wanted to paint a mourning picture of himself by her deathbed, he would have done. Instead, he identifies his feelings with his subject, nature.

And we must be careful here. We can intuit as much as we like from a bit of historical research, but if we seek truth, rather than rely on empathy, we must admit that we do not really know what Constable was feeling; we cannot rely on letters and memoirs, any more than we can rely on our own texts and emails, to reveal anything under the surface.

We project narratives on to his work, of the heartbroken husband, the devoted single father of seven children, when all we should be doing is looking at the man’s art.

Sunrises and sunsets are the diurnal opportunity for all of us to grasp the natural sublime; we feel the truth of Keats’ “pleasant pain” when we look at them. They are such powerful phenomena, that even when we are too world-weary or depressed to be excited by them, we resent the implicit reproach of their beauty. In this mood we think, like Alice de Janzé faced with the infinite pink and orange of a Kenyan sunrise, “Not another f******* beautiful day”. Continue reading