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.

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough

Mr and Mrs Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough (c.1750)

Have you ever thought that you might like to have your portrait painted by an artist?  Maybe just you or maybe you and your partner.  How do you visualise your pose and the setting for this great work of art?   What do you want to portray to the viewers about yourself and your partner.  Obviously you want to be seen in the best light and bring out all your beauty but how will you get the artist to communicate to us, the viewer,  your status and wealth?  Should the background of this portrait be just a simple plain coloured background so that it in no way detracts from your presence in the painting.  You of course will wear the most expensive clothes to give the air of wealth whether it is true or not.  Maybe you will be a little more daring and have your prized possession in the background of your portrait.  You could be painted standing by your expensive car or you could stand in front of your house but of course if your house is of little value then it may detract from your image, for remember even though the camera may never lie, the artist and his paintbrush can certainly mask the truth.

So that brings me nicely to today’s My Daily Art Display which is a portrait of a wealthy couple on their huge estate.  The portrait is simply entitled Mr and Mrs Andrews and was painted by the great English landscape and portrait Thomas Gainsborough in 1749.  This was one of Gainsborough’s earliest portraits.  The subjects of the painting are the English country squire, Robert Andrews and his wife Frances Mary, née Carter who he had married a year earlier and this work by Gainsborough was commissioned to celebrate the marriage.    Both bride and bridegroom came from wealthy families.  Robert’s family owned land on the Essex-Sussex border around the town of Bulmer.  Frances was the daughter of William Carter a wealthy cloth merchant who owned a large estate in the parish of Bulmer and the joining in matrimony of the two meant the coming together of two large estates.  This is a portrait, which not only celebrates the coming together of the young lovers, but demonstrates that this union has brought about the considerable wealth of property they now jointly owned.

This delightful portrait of the pair posing on their country estate in the summer sunshine is full of charm.  The church in the background is St Peter’s, Sudbury, and the tower to the left is that of Lavenham church. The gold and green of their fertile fields and their well-kept estate is beautifully painted.  It is interesting to note that this type of portraiture was known as “outdoor conversation pieces”.  The term was given to portraits showing two or more full length figures engaged in conversation or other polite social activity and were generally part of a domestic or landscape painting.  This idea of having a country scene as a backdrop to a portrait probably came from the French and their fêtes galantes, which was a French term used to describe a type of painting which first came to prominence with Antoine Watteau but unlike outdoor conversation pieces, they normally featured fictional characters.

Let us now have a close look at the painting.  The first thing that strikes me is that although it is a portrait, the landscape take up more than half of the space of this oil on canvas painting.  Maybe the couple wanted to subtly highlight their wealth by having their vast estate featured as a backdrop to their portrait.  This you must remember is not an idealistic landscape concocted to enhance the painting.  This is the real thing.  This is their own estate which was a joining together of the two lands of their parents.  This vast estate was now a celebration of their union.

Robert Andrews stands straight.  His faithful gun-dog at his side looking lovingly up at his Master.   There is an air of relaxed nonchalance about his pose.  He looks to have “not a care in the world”.  His hand is in his pocket but even so it is a somewhat formal pose.  His frock-coat is unbuttoned at the top and by the way he holds his hunting gun under his arm, is to have us believe he has just returned from a shoot.  He is, by depiction, one of the landed gentry and the way he is at ease shows he is happy to show off his good fortune and his possessions, namely his large estate and of course, his wife.  We can have no doubt of his standing in society.  His character and future are like the well established oak tree which they shelter under – solid.  It is easy for us to understand that his wife will want for nothing

The genteel Mrs Andrews sits primly next to her husband on an ornate Rococo-style bench.  She was about eighteen at the time of this portrait.  She is dressed in her finest clothes and her demeanour, like that of her husband, oozes wealth and respectability.  She, in some ways, appears doll-like in her bright blue hooped skirt and pointed silver-coloured shoes.  I am sure the couple didn’t pose for the artist in the fields of their estate and this painting is likely to have been carried out in the artist’s studio and Gainsborough may have used tailor’s dummies to hang their clothes on and then later gone out to study the landscape of their estate.  Still I am sure the couple were happy with this work of art and it would have pleased them to see how it portrays them and their land.  There has been some conjecture as to whether the original intention was to have Mrs Andrews hold a book or maybe a brace of pheasants which her husband had just shot as there seems to be a space on her lap left unfilled.  It was also surmised that the space was left empty in order that, at a later date, one of her children may have been added, sitting on her lap.

So the couple had everything.  Sadly however, after giving her husband nine children, Mary Andrews died at the relatively young age of forty-eight.  Robert Andrews went on to re-marry and lived a long life surviving to the good old age of eighty.  They now rest together, side by side, in the graveyard of Saint Andrews in Bulmer.