Friday, 12 December 2014

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

 Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia in 'The Grecian Daughter'. Print of Pine's painting by the female engraver, Caroline Watson. Published in London by John Boydell, 1st May, 1784. © Victoria & Albert Museum. Euphrasia was one of the parts in which she conquered the London stage on her return in 1782. The heroine triumphs in restoring peace to her country after an extraordinary, even gross, display of filial duty, when she suckles her own father rather than escape to safety from despotic tyranny with her husband and infant son. The mix of sensationalism - the audience enjoyed shrieking along with the heroine - and serious moral about debate a woman's right to determine her public and domestic roles, without becoming a victim, were ideal for Sarah Siddons' stage persona.

 PART TWO - A Woman's Tragedy
Mrs Siddons understood the value of art, both as an aesthetic and a publicity tool. Her collaboration with all the leading portraitists of the day and the subsequent national distribution of prints spread her fame. She was not an easy subject; she was considered a beautiful woman, in her strong featured face, large dark eyes and lithe, graceful body, but, as often happens with expressive, charismatic people, her beauty could not be captured in repose.

Many of the heroic qualities that she was admired for on stage were regarded as unsuitable for a lady in real life. The power she conveyed with the grandeur of her elocution and sweeping, authoritative movements, were supposed to be exclusively masculine attributes. Except for Thomas Lawrence, society portraitists shied away from her forcefulness, emphasizing instead her willowy grace, and the tender beseeching pathos of her raised eyes, rather than showing them blazing with passion under frowning brows.

Sitting in her elegant black plumed hat and blue-striped dress in Gainsborough's 1785 portrait, she looks uneasy, coiled, as if she'd rather spring up and save her country, defy a tyrant, or murder Duncan.

When Lawrence painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the athletic build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them.
Mrs Siddons 1804 by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830
Portrait by Thomas Lawrence, Tate Gallery, London. Image:© Tate, London 2011
The Tragic Muse of Neoclassicism and prophetess of Romanticism in a portrait of 1804, when she was nearing fifty, in which her lifelong friend, Sir Thomas Lawrence displayed her powerful physique and brooding presence with such panache that she looks like a bruiser about to step forward and knock you out. Like many great classical actors she combined masculine and feminine qualities in the authority and sensitivity of her interpretations.

When Lawrence painted Mrs Siddons, rather than avoiding, like other portraitists, the challenging masculine aspects of her stage persona, the fierce concentration of her gaze, her imposing height and the powerful build of her shoulders and arms (reminiscent of Mrs Freke’s “masculine arms” in Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda), he celebrated them.

For the last full-length portrait, after the natural studio light from the high source used by Lawrence faded, she posed by lamplight till two o’clock in the morning, so he could finish the painting in time for the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1804. The night-time sitting caused such slanderous tittle-tattle around town that Mr Siddons had to issue a press statement denying his wife's adultery. Any lady of any age who sat for Lawrence risked seduction - he was dangerous to know while Byron was still a schoolboy. Mrs Siddons and Lawrence were not lovers, they were something even closer, intimate collaborators who understood the demands of each other's arts.

She steps forward towards us as she would have done during one of her Shakespearean readings; the simple composition is neoclassical, except for the free brush work, the great swathes of red and black, the injury in her expression, all suggest emotional disturbance beneath the surface of acting. It was the year after her eldest daughter's death; a younger one had died five years before. With "two lovely creatures gone", their grieving mother, comparing herself to Niobe, had begun to look older and heavier, which Lawrence did not disguise.

There is nothing of the "flattered and pinky" which Farington objected to in some of Lawrence's society portraits. The painting did not go down well at the time, but when you physically enter her presence, the effect is breathtaking, and you suddenly get a sense of her power on stage without even being able to hear her voice.

We think of one as the treasure of the Establishment, rendering female passions socially acceptable, and the other its scourge, but Sarah Siddons and Mary Wollstonecraft had social and cultural affinities....They were only five years apart in age, and well-acquainted.They had to earn their own livings all their adult lives; as young women struggling to establish independent careers, they had both taken jobs as ladies' companions.

What could have been a humiliating experience for the sixteen year old Sarah Kemble, forced to work as a maid in the house of landed gentry while she burned to be an actress, turned out to be more like a cultural education than servitude. Like Elizabeth Bennett seeing Pemberley for the first time, she walked into 18th century enlightenment. She was already well-educated in literature and drama, and now daily exposure to the Greatheed family's art collection inspired her appreciation of the visual arts, and a special interest in sculpture.

The manor house at Guy's Cliffe, Warwickshire, by Alexander Francis Lydon, from 'County Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland', 1880.
Image: Wikipedia.
Not a theatre set, but a real house that informed a dramatic imagination. As was so common in the 18th century, the picturesque idyll and magnificent art collection was paid for by sugar plantations

She was treated kindly, even with respect, and soon promoted from maid to companion; everyone, masters and servants, seem to have been enthralled by her recitations; her habit of spouting Milton in the servants' hall didn't annoy anyone - it begins to sound like a fairy story, an episode in a preposterous TV drama.

The new maid carried herself so grandly around the house, that her amiable employer Lady Mary (oh, yes, that was her name), a Whig duke's daughter, later recalled how she had had an irresistible urge to rise from her chair whenever the girl entered the room. Her subsequent fame might have coloured this recollection, for nothing succeeds like success in shifting perceptions, but it is still an illustration of how, in the age of aristocratic supremacy, Sarah Siddons, who had been born in a small tavern in Brecon, was treated like a queen. 

Mrs Siddons by Richard Crosse, 1783, watercolour miniature © Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, in a poor likeness conveniently packaged for publicity, she looks like a typical 18th century lady of sensibility. Her features deliberately softened by the painter, she is the epitome of feminine grace and moral virtue in a temperate classical setting, a very small part of her dramatic range. The insipidity of this type of portrayal of women annoyed Siddons and Wollstonecraft. “[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.” (Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman)