Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Daughter of The Tragic Muse

Sarah Martha Siddons, c.1795, portrayed and betrayed by the Romantic painter, Thomas Lawrence.
Private Collection. Image source: Wikipedia
"Whenever I meet his is like an electric shock to me"
Dutiful daughter and casualty of Romantic egotism
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Sally (1775-1803) and her sister Maria (1779 -1798) were both in love with the gifted young portrait painter, Thomas Lawrence. He was a friend of their mother, Sarah Siddons, and the whole family had known him well for several years. In his mid-twenties, he appeared to fit the description of a romantic hero. He was graceful, dark and delicately featured, with soul-piercing eyes and a charming manner. He behaved with the destructive emotional immaturity found in many former child prodigies. 

He courted both girls in turn, initially forming an attachment to Sally, then deciding that he was in love with the younger girl, Maria, who was already showing symptoms of consumption. Months later, he confessed that it was really Sally he had loved all along, and his engagement to Maria was broken off. He seems to have been genuinely confused about his feelings - Mrs Siddons, always indulgent of him, thought he was being quixotic - but that wasn't really the point. The sisters had only a two dimensional existence for him. Their feelings were as far removed from him as those of supporting characters in a play, in which he was watching Mrs Siddons and himself in the leading parts...CONTINUED
Immediately after Maria died, aged nineteen, he tried to get back together with Sally, who refused him. Incapable of processing his own emotions internally or empathizing with anyone else's, he threatened suicide, and when that didn't work, he rebounded, so the Siddons family was told, by engaging himself to yet another young lady in Clapham. As ever with Lawrence, the affair was a flame that burnt out quickly. Instinctive and bold as a painter, accused by detractors of being facile, he was intent on capturing likenesses in a moment of spontaneity, rather than in the tranquillity of thought, and brought the same attributes to courtship. Maybe, like many talented people, he was afraid of being found out. Even after thirty years' experience, Mrs Siddons, who had tasted failure at the start of her career, needed the reaffirmation of applause. As he aged, the ingratiating charm that had suited his youth was so thickly painted on that it got a bit creepy for some people. Benjamin Haydon thought that "he had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile wore the appearance of being set in enamel".6

He could not exist without a decorative, clever woman in his life. A serial emotional predator rather than sexually promiscuous, he was engaged many times and never married.  Superficially, it looks as if he protested his love of women too much; they appear to have been either scalps or beards for him. The scale of the mess he made of the Siddons sisters' lives was not repeated.   

For the rest of his successful career, few of his female sitters were able to resist falling a little in love with him, even the sceptical ones against their better judgment, and in the Regency and subsequent reign of George IV his reputation as a ladykiller gave him a unique edge over his rivals as a society portraitist. His temperament chimed with the times when free love principles were promulgated by intellectuals and meterosexuality was accepted in fashionable social circles. Someone with flair could be promoted from the middle to the gentlemanly classes through elegance and wit, supported or ruined by gambling. As an ambitious self-made man, Lawrence was reliant on patronage and public approval for worldly advancement, and could not risk swimming to the furthest shores of his sexuality like his younger contemporary, the openly pansexual aristocrat Lord Byron, even if he wanted to. 

For all his rejection of monogamy and conventional morality, Lawrence was a sucker for official status and honours, and secured a knighthood and presidency of the Royal Academy.  His conquest of the Establishment was complete; his art lent verve to even the dullest of Regency society figures. His manners and morals fulfilled the Prince Regent's criteria of a gentleman. The implacably respectable Queen Charlotte and her compulsorily celibate daughters were as happy to be painted by him as the libidinous Caroline, Princess of Wales, with whom he was suspected of sleeping during a sitting, and his flattering brush strokes, transformed the bloated, corseted, over made-up Prinny into an heroic actor. 

Lawrence’s attitude to love, certainly to Sally, was the same as his attitude to "the nervous difficulties"1  of painting. Sittings with Lawrence must have been as erotically charged as a seduction. He was "mastered by [his] much the slave of the picture I am painting, as if it had personal, living existence and chained me to it...How often in the progress of a picture, have I said, 'Well, I’ll do no more', and after laying down my palette and pencils, and washing my hands, whilst wiping them dry I have seen the 'little more,' that has made me instantly take them up again."2

His tender portrait of Sally (it is unsigned, but the head and pose are very much in his fluent style) when she was about twenty suggests a softened, prettier, more feminine version of her mother's dark intensity, along with her Welsh colouring and strong features. She even had a smaller version of the famous nose that had given Gainsborough, unawed by celebrity, so much trouble when he had painted Mrs Siddons in 1785 ("Damn the nose, there's no end to it"). 

If Sally had a theatrical vocation, she never admitted to it; the less reflective Maria was thought to have talent but luckily for her it was never tested, as the terror of failing by comparison with her lofty parent would only have been exceeded by surpassing her. Unlike the daughters of most actors, including Mrs Siddons herself, who had suffered the humiliation of serving as a lady's maid before her career took off, the girls and their younger sister, Cecilia, did not have to work for a living.  

Their mother's earning power provided for all of them. Mrs Siddons was opposed to any of her children following her into a profession as obsessive as it is precarious; only the eldest, Henry (1774 -1815), persisted in a career as actor, manager, playwright and writer on technique (Practical Illustrations of Rhetorical Gesture and Action).

Throughout the torturous reverses of her association with Lawrence, Sally behaved with dignity and self-restraint, putting sisterly feelings before a lover’s, and balancing sense with sensibility. There is a tradition that Maria, as she was dying, made her sister swear not to marry Lawrence. This would have added to Sally's emotional burden, and it is just as likely that the injunction did not have to be spoken. If Sally's heart was broken by Lawrence, it was not for love of him, once she saw through his histrionics, but for the alternating jealousy and compassion that had poisoned her relationship with her sister. 

For anyone who has loved and lost, being disillusioned with the love object is not enough to obliterate the powerful emotions that it once aroused. Only time does that. Sally was high-spirited and intelligent; she had other admirers after Lawrence; there are rumours but no proof of another engagement; invalidism prevented any marriage plans and became the cause and pretext for giving up a life of passion. She only had another five years to live, debilitated by the progression of lung disease, which killed her at the age of twenty-seven, as it had killed Maria. 

At pains to spare her mother anxiety that would be privately painful and professionally distracting, Sally left few traces in her letters and reported conversations for nosy posterity to pore over her feelings. Mrs Siddons' declamatory style of acting, as defined by her son Henry in Rhetorical Gesture and Action, had "no other object than dignity or beauty", and her daughter upheld the same qualities in domestic life. 

We can guess at the emotional repercussions of Sally's sexual attraction to Lawrence because she once admitted, after accidentally meeting him out walking in Kensington Gardens, that "whenever I meet his eyes, with that glance that pierces through and through one, it is like an electric stroke to me".3  Despite her attempts at gaiety, she was depressed. She felt her life had ended long before her death, when she had "ceas'd to give delight"4 to the people she loved. The family believed, according to Sarah Siddons' niece, Fanny Kemble, that Lawrence had "embittered and disturbed"5 what was left of the sisters' short lives

While her daughters were wasting to death, suffering real passion without the mitigation of catharsis through art and performance, Mrs Siddons was acting rhetorical passions for the edification of rapturous audiences in London and on tour. She was the chief breadwinner of her family, and had to carry on working, like so many actors have to during private crises, to keep the family solvent. She did not get back home in time for Sally's death; Sally, the dutiful daughter and priestess at the shrine, did not expect her.  
Balancing career and motherhood with no other object than dignity or beauty: Sarah Siddons posing as the Tragic Muse for Joshua Reynolds in1784, with the figures of Pity and Terror looming behind her. Huntington Art Collections, California. (The second, 1789, version is at Dulwich Picture Gallery). Image source: Wikipedia.

Mrs Siddons' friendship with Lawrence survived the deaths of Maria and Sally, unlike her marriage to their father, the undistinguished actor William Siddons, from whom she separated. Cecilia remained at home. Mrs Siddons and Lawrence were kindred spirits born fourteen years apart. The two charismatic stars of their respective professions resumed their collaboration in portraits where the glowering expression of the actress was interpreted by the artist as an elemental force. So strong was the bond, personal and creative, that tied her to him that in old age Siddons, ever image-conscious, told her brother Charles Kemble that she would like to be carried to her grave by him and Lawrence. As it turned out, Lawrence died seventeen months too soon to take part. 

An inconstant lover of the opposite sex, he proved with older women like Siddons, and in his own maturity with his two most intimate female companions, that he was an affectionate and loyal friend who respected their artistic taste and judgment. Even in late middle age, he retained the "melancholy charm" and "exquisite refined gentleness"7  that thrilled so many women; it sounds like a joke to us, but we were never in a room with him. Fanny Kemble fancied herself dangerously close to being in love with him despite the forty years' difference in their ages. As a Regency sexual fantasy of un homme fatale, he presented a less dangerous option than Byron, a less bad, less mad, less intellectually brilliant, but just as ambivalent Romantic adventure for middle-class women into the heart of their desires. 

1. Letter from Lawrence to Joseph Farington,"The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence" by D.E.Williams, 1831, vol.2, p.470 Google Books 
2. Letter from Lawrence to Joseph Farington, D.E. Williams, 1831, vol. 2, p52 Google Books.
3. Letter from Sally Siddons quoted in John Fyvie, "Tragedy Queens of the Georgian Era”, 1908, p. 25,  Library of the University of California ebook.
4. Letter from Sally Siddons, quoted in Florence Mary Wilson Parsons "The Incomparable Siddons", 1909, p.203, Google Books
5. Fanny Kemble quoted in John Fyvie, "Tragedy Queens of the Georgian Era”, 1908, p. 25,  Library of the University of California ebook.
6. Benjamin R. Haydon, "Diary" 9 January 1830. Quoted in The Dictionary of Biographical Quotation edited by Justin Wintle, Richard Kenin. Google Books.
7. Fanny Kemble quoted in John Fyvie, "Tragedy Queens of the Georgian Era”, 1908, p. 25,  Library of the University of California ebook.

SARAH SIDDONS by Thomas Lawrence
Sarah Siddons in1804, when she was nearing fifty, her powerful physique and brooding presence portrayed by her lifelong friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 -1830) with such intensity that she looks like a bruiser about to step forward out of the picture and knock you out. Tate Gallery, London. Photo: Tate, London 2011

Born in Wales to the theatrical Kemble family in 1755, and married to an actor, Siddons and her younger brother John Philip Kemble dominated the tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Like many great classical actors she combined masculine and feminine qualities in the authority and sensitivity of her interpretations.  

Her stately performances in the most emotionally immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century's ideal of the sublime, and her abstract 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, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female. Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for rhetorical grandeur, was a fan. The Iron Duke's disciplined demeanour found its reflection in the Kemble school of acting that deliberately distanced itself from emotion, the actor never losing control of reason, remaining unmoved by the turmoil they aroused in the audience that heaved and sobbed.  

Theatrically, though not socially, decorous restraint had become irrelevant by the time of Waterloo, as the portrayal of classical villains was volcanized by Kean, the popular exponent of tormented, dangerously ungovernable Romanticism for the public and critics.

Unlike her brother, Mrs Siddons proved invincible even after declamation went out of fashion. She died in 1831, having outlived Kemble, Lawrence, Byron and two Hanoverian kings along with her upstaged husband and five of their children, but not her reputation.
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