Sarah Siddons

Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson
Sarah Siddons by J. Dickinson

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.

Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds

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.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough

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.

Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)
Mrs Siddons by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1804)

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.

Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence
Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller in ‘The Stranger’ by Sir Tomas Lawrence

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.

Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green
Statue of Sarah Siddons,_Paddington_Green

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.

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Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Today I am returning to portraiture and one of the greatest English portrait painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  His works were in a style which came from classical art and was often referred to as the Grand Manner which depended on idealization of the imperfect.  Reynolds himself preferred the term Grand Style which referred more to history painting and in his series of lectures, entitled Discourses of Art, he maintained that artists should perceive their subjects through generalisation and idealization rather than simply copying the sitter.  In the course of his lecture he expanded such thoughts, saying:

“…..How much the great style exacts from its professors to conceive and represent their subjects in a poetical manner, not confined to mere matter of fact, may be seen in the cartoons of Raffaelle.   In all the pictures in which the painter has represented the apostles, he has drawn them with great nobleness; he has given them as much dignity as the human figure is capable of receiving yet we are expressly told in Scripture they had no such respectable appearance; and of St. Paul in particular, we are told by himself, that his bodily presence was mean. Alexander is said to have been of a low stature: a painter ought not so to represent him. Agesilaus was low, lame, and of a mean appearance. None of these defects ought to appear in a piece of which he is the hero. In conformity to custom, I call this part of the art history painting; it ought to be called poetical, as in reality it is….”

Reynolds made a number of trips to Europe during which time he studied the foreign artistic techniques and by so doing was able to draw inspiration from them and it influenced how he shaped his own “English” paintings

My Daily Art Display featured painting;  Mrs Baldwin in Eastern Dress is a prime example of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Grand Style of painting.   Jane Baldwin was born in Smyrna, Turkey in 1763.  She was the third daughter of Margaret Icard and William Maltass, a Yorkshire man from Ripon who, along with his brother Henry, spent the early part of the eighteenth century in Eastern Europe and was one of the earliest Europeans to settle in Turkey.    He became a wealthy merchant who traded with the East through the Levant Company.  From an early age Jane was deemed an extraordinary beauty.  At the age of sixteen, still virtually a child, she married the prosperous George Baldwin, an extremely wealthy English merchant stationed in Alexandria, Egypt.  George Baldwin later became that country’s British Consul-General and the British Minister Plenipotentiary to the Court of Tehran.

In the painting we see the delectable nineteen-year old English beauty attired in a luxuriously brocaded emerald and gold striped caftan, sprigged with cherry-coloured flowers and is aggrandized by an ermine mantle.  We see her dark chestnut hair braided into multiple long strands.  She is wearing a white and pink silk turban, atop of which are a small bouquet of tea roses.   In the late eighteenth century it was very fashionable for ladies to wear Eastern style headdresses and was in a way highlighting Britain’s trading relationship with the Ottoman Empire.

Around her neck she wears a diamond waterfall necklace along with a gold chain and pendant.  Her ears are adorned with gold teardrop earrings.   She is seated on a red velvet divan which is studded with brass tacks around its base.  Her pose is somewhat both alluring and seductive as she sits cross-legged before us.  Her eyes are fixed upon an ancient gold coin of Smyrna, the inclusion of which was probably to remind us of the links between England and its Turkish trading partner.  The sitter seems lost in thought, unaware that she is the focus of attention of the artist and of course us, the viewers.  So did the artist manage this expression on his sitters face by just simply having her stare at the coin for hours on end?  In fact no he didn’t.  Jane Baldwin sat in the pose we see but at the time the artist was painting her portrait she was actually holding and reading a book of poems by Pietro Metastasio, the famed Italian poet and librettist.  So why not have her reading the book in this portrait instead of having her transfixed by the sight of a coin?  The reason is probably that Reynolds had been asked to have something in the painting which reflected the world of commerce, the very thing which had led to her family’s wealth.  It also is reminding us that different cultures are brought together through trade and on economic grounds.  For the sitter to be holding and reading a book of poems written by an Italian might lead the viewers to believe that cultures are brought together through the arts….. perish the thought that we believed that (even if we know it to be true)  !!!!!!!

Jane Baldwin wore the costume we see in the painting many times when she visited England including a ball given by the king.   She earned the sobriquet the “pretty Greek”  not because she was of Hellenic descent (she had no Eastern-European blood) but because she, having been born and raised in the Greek region of Western Turkey, identified with that community as her own.  This is one of Reynolds’ finest portraits and I will leave you with a passage from Jane Baldwin’s obituary notice from the 1839 (July to December) issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine which talks about the painting and the sitter’s views of the artist:

“…..It was during the first winter after her arrival in London (1781), that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the beautiful portrait of this lady which now enriches the Marquess of Lansdowne’s Gallery at Bowood. She is represented sitting on a sofa in the eastern fashion, contemplating a small object which she holds in her right hand.  She once told the writer that, when this portrait of her was made, she was lodging with her husband in the Temple; and that the trees which Sir Joshua has represented in the background were those in the Temple Gardens. At first she used to give the painter sittings in his study, but Reynolds could not satisfy himself with her resemblance; he made three attempts, which he successively defaced. Mrs. Baldwin could only remember, besides, that he took a prodigious quantity of snuff, and that his painting room smelled horribly. After a few hours she always grew restless and cross, which used to vex Reynolds, who did not know how to amuse her. He made his fourth and last sketch at the residence of the lady, and when she grew impatient suggested that she should take a book. She asked for Metastasio, and while reading it her portrait was made. Instead of a volume, Reynolds represented an ancient coin of Smyrna in Mrs. Baldwin’s band,—a circumstance, as she informed the writer, which was much quizzed and ridiculed at the time. Of this painting there exist several mezzotint engravings….”

“….. She travelled widely and lived in England for a considerable number of years, and was always admired for her intelligence and beauty. She was patronised by Mrs Hester Lynch Thrale, who remarked “I…hope to Obtain some favours from the new Ministry for my pretty Greca: could her Husband but gain the Embassy!  Oh I should not sleep for Pleasure. This pretty Greek as we call her, was born at Smyrna, & ran away with a Man whose Family had been some of Mr Thrale’s best Friends in the Borough; between Gratitude to him, and delight in her, for artlessness & Beauty; I have been led to interest myself no little towards protecting her, may my Fortune & Talents be ever devoted to Charity & Friendship! & may I have the Strength & Courage to despise them who would hinder its Current, by trying to make each other believe that its Source was only Desire!…”.

“…Mrs. Baldwin had many peculiarities, but they were of a less ambitious character: a singular iulirmity of temper, which estranged from her all but her immediate relatives, was perhaps her prevailing characteristic. She had survived her generation, and ended her days in a self-inflicted penurious seclusion,— the inconveniences of which were aggravated, of late years, by sickness and suffering….”

Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West

Sir Joseph Banks by Benjamin West (1773)

My Daily Art Display today features two celebrated men, one the American artist, Benjamin West and the other his English sitter, the naturalist and botanist Sir Joseph Banks.

Benjamin West was born in Springfield Pennsylvania in 1738.  He came from a large family, being the tenth child.  His father was an innkeeper and ran different inns during Benjamin’s early life.  Being one of such a large family he had to look after himself a lot of the time, had little formal education and as far as his art was concerned he told his biographer, John Galt,  that he was taught how to make paint by the native Indians.  During his teenage years he began to paint, mainly portraits.  The provost of the College of Philadelphia, Doctor William Smith saw one of his works and was so impressed, he offered the twenty year old West an education which up to then had been sadly lacking but maybe more importantly he offered West the chance to meet members of the affluent society of Pennsylvania and in some cases, ones with political connections.

In 1760 these newly-found connections were to prove fortuitous as with the help of financial support from William Allen, a very wealthy merchant and mayor of Philadelphia, he travelled to Italy where he spent time copying the works of the Italian Masters such as Titian and Raphael.  Three years later he moved from Italy to England where he established himself as a portrait painter.  His works were well received and he soon built up a rich cliental including the prestigious patronage of the monarch, King George III, who appointed West the court’s historical painter.  He retained the monarch’s patronage until the turn of the century.   Whilst in England he met the great English portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and together, with the help of the monarch, founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.  Reynolds was made the inaugural president and West became the second president of the Academy in 1792, a position he held until 1802.  Four years later he became Academy president again and retained that position until his death in 1820 aged 82.

The sitter for today’s portrait was Sir Joseph Banks.  Born in 1773 in London, Banks was to become the outstanding botanist of his generation.   The son of a Lincolnshire country squire and Member of Parliament, he unlike Benjamin West, received the best education possible passing through the finest educational establishments such as Eton, Harrow and Christ College, Oxford.  On the death of his father, Joseph Banks inherited the family estate of Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire.  He had always retained his interest in science and botany and soon he began to move in the top scientific circles of London.  In 1776 he became a member of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, better known simply as the Royal Society.   He was to hold the position of president of the Society from 1778 until his death.  He became a scientific adviser to King George III and through this managed to persuade the monarch to fund expeditions to the “new territories”.  In 1768 Banks was made the leading scientist on Captain James Cook’s first expedition which lasted three years, journeying to the southern hemisphere on HMS Endeavour.  On his return home from this epic voyage he was received by the public as a “returning hero” and many portraits were made of the “man of the moment” including one by Reynolds and one by today’s featured artist.

Joseph Banks by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1773)

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting is the portrait painted of our hero by Benjamin West in 1773, simply entitled, Sir Joseph Banks.  His depiction of Banks differed somewhat from the Reynold’s portrait, which was completed the same year.  In Reynolds’ portrait we see the well-groomed and charming explorer and botanist smiling at us.  He is completely at ease, sitting forward in his armchair, with his arm resting on a table strewn with pages of a letter, quill pen and ink stand and a freestanding globe.

Benjamin West’s work is a full length portrait of Banks standing amongst a selection of artefacts that the explorer had brought back home.  He is wrapped in a Tahitian cape and by him is a native headdress, a paddle from a canoe and a carved fighting staff.  If we look down at his feet we can a Polynesian adze, which was a tool used for carving and smoothing wood and by it are pages of a notebook which was a reference to the myriad of notes Banks made during his expedition with regards to all the flora and fauna he had come across during the three-year journey of discovery around the South Pacific territories.  The painting with its accoutrements even has a hint of the American Wild West, which of course the artist, West, would have seen in paintings back home.  There is also a classical element to this picture with its column and tied-back curtain in the background.  West may have picked up this type of detail when he was studying works of art during his Italian sojourn.

So there you have it, two men of completely differing backgrounds, upbringing and education, Benjamin West the artist and Joseph Banks the explorer, both of whom went on to head up prestigious London societies, and were connected through this painting and their dealings with King George III of England.