The subject of my blog today is not an artist, although many would term her a theatrical artist, and in fact she was looked upon as one of the greatest English tragic actors of the eighteenth century. She was a Shakespearean actor of great renown and particularly famous for her interpretations of Lady Macbeth. She was a lady who was so popular that her portrait was painted a number of times by leading portraitists of the time. Let me introduce you to Sarae Kemble, later known as Sarah Siddons.
Sarae Kemble was born in the Welsh town of Brecon in July 1755. She was the eldest of twelve children of Roger Kemble and his wife Sarah Ward. Her father, who was a theatre manager, managed a troupe of travelling actors, the Warwickshire Company of Comedians. Sarah was fortunate to be the eldest child as her mother made sure that she received a good education and insisted on her attending school at the various towns the troupe of actors performed but this did not preclude her from making many appearances on the stage when she was still just a small child.
During her teenage years she fell in love with William Siddons, who was one of her father’s troupe of actors. However, like most parents, Sarah’s mother and father baulked at her liaison with Siddons as they had already received an offer of marriage from a local squire. Sarah would not agree to such a relationship and held out until she was eighteen and eventually in November of 1773 she married her beloved William Siddons in Trinity Church, Coventry. A year later, in 1774, she appeared as Belvidra in the English Restoration play, a tragedy, written by Thomas Otway, called Venice Preserv’d, which was first performed in 1680. Sarah Siddons’ performance was hailed a great success and the excellent revues of her depiction of her character came to the attention of the veteran actor of the time, David Garrick. She was invited to appear at the prestigious Theatre Royal, Drury Lane but whether it was nerves or whether she had still yet polished her acting ability, her performances were slated and, to her shame and horror, the theatre dispensed of her services.
It may have all been for the best as she spent the next six years travelling around the country with touring companies, honing her skill as an actor, all the time enhancing her reputation and finally she was invited back to the scene of her early disasters, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where she was hailed as a theatrical genius for her portrayal of Isabella in David Garrick’s adaptation of Thomas Southerne’s play, Isabella or The Fatal Marriage.
It was around this time, in 1784 that she sat for Sir Joshua Reynolds who depicted her as the Tragic Muse, Melepoméne, in his famous portrait, Mrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse. The name Melpoméne comes from the Greek word melpo or melpomai, which means “to celebrate with dance and song. She is a Greek and Roman mythological character who was one of nine muses of the arts. She started off as the Muse of Song but later became the Muse of Tragedy. Reynolds was himself a great fan of the actor and was also a lover of all things classical and decided to combine his two loves in one single portrait. Reynolds was so overwhelmed by the actress that it was said that when she first visited him, he led her by the hand into his studio uttering:
“…Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse…”.
Further evidence of his devotion to the twenty-eight year old actor was that he signed his name on the gold embroidery at the hem of her dress. He explained this pictorial inclusion to the sitter saying:
“…I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment…”
In the portrait we see Sarah Siddons seated in her throne chair with the allegories of Pity and Terror standing behind her and who merge into the brown background. Her body is towards us whilst her head and face are in profile. Her facial expression is one of concern. She looks troubled and in two minds as Pain and Terror influence her thought process. Despite this, she exudes an air of sophistication and dignity. Her dress is a mass of subtle colours, ochres and light and dark browns. Look at the beautiful and skilful way Reynolds has depicted the folds of the heavy fabric dress.
A year later, in 1785, another portrait of Sarah Siddons was completed. The artist was Thomas Gainsborough and the tile of the work was simply Sarah Siddons. It has been recorded that Gainsborough struggled with the portrait of Siddons especially when it came to her nose and her right hand which rests on the arm of the chair. It took him many attempts to get them right as has been revealed in the pentimenti. The word, pentimento (pentimenti is the plural), comes from the Italian word pentirsi, which means to repent or change your mind and pentimento is a change made by the artist during the process of painting. Such changes are concealed beneath subsequent paint layers and often, if the final layer of paint has become transparent over a long period of time, an earlier layer of paint can be detected. Other ways of detecting such changes is with infra-red reflectograms and X-rays. Gainsborough himself commented about the difficulty he had with portraying her long nose when he uttered:
“…Confound the nose, there’s no end to it…”
Another well known artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence, painted a portrait of Sarah Siddons in 1804 when she was forty-nine years of age and nearing the end of her theatrical career.
Sir Thomas Lawrence knew Sarah Siddons and her family well. His portraits of her were probably more about Siddons the woman rather than Siddons the actor or one of Siddon’s many female characters she had played on stage. Thomas Lawrence and Siddons had first met in Bath in 1777 when she was twenty-two and on tour with a theatrical production. He was just eight years of age. Lawrence was a kind of child prodigy, an accomplished artist even at that age and had the ability to recite poetry, the two achievements which his father used to extract money from the passing public. At her first meeting with young Thomas Lawrence, Siddons never realised how he would affect her later life and that of her family.
In 1787, just before his eighteenth birthday, Thomas Lawrence arrived in London. He met up again with Sarah Siddons, who was by now a cultural icon at the high-point of her theatrical career. Lawrence began consecutive relationships with two of her daughters, Maria and Sarah. Sadly they both died in their twenties. Sarah Siddons was by now separated from her husband William. Siddons herself was also in love with Thomas Lawrence, her daughters’ charming and alluring suitor, and he painted many portraits of her.
In his 1804 portrait entitled Mrs Siddons, we do not see her portrayed as an actor playing one of her many roles but at one of her many recitals when she would, with an actor’s panache, read from one of the plays which had made her so famous. In this portrait we see Sarah standing next to a table. On the table is a small lectern, on which are scripts of plays by Thomas Otway and Shakespeare.
Lawrence had completed an earlier painting of Sarah Siddons in 1797 entitled Sarah Siddons (possibly as Mrs Haller) in ‘The Stranger’ , a play written by August Friedrich Ferdinand von Kotzebue the German dramatist and writer. The role she played was of the adulteress, Mrs Haller. In the portrait we see the sadness in Sarah Siddon’s expression which could well be the feelings expressed by the character in the play or it could be the unhappiness of her own life which would have been well known to Lawrence. At last we may be seeing the real Sarah Siddons.
Sarah Siddons was a tall woman with strikingly beautiful features. Her most famous role was that of Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare play, Macbeth. The way in which she played the part of Macbeth’s wife was legendry for the emotions she expressed when murder was on her mind. She was so good in the role, she made it her own. Audiences were spellbound by her performances.
Sarah Siddons gave up acting in 1812. She died in London in 1831 a month before her 76th birthday and was interred in Saint Mary’s Cemetery at Paddington Green. There is a statue of her on Paddington Green.