Siddons, Celebrity and Regality: Portraiture and the Body of the Ageing Actress

  • Shearer West


During the eighteenth century the concept of celebrity was in its formative stages. Although the effects and consequences of public recognition existed before this time, its by-products — including journalistic voyeurism, public obsession and image manipulation — were manifestations of a commercial culture that became especially strong in England during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Despite the ostensible differences between developing ideas of celebrity in the eighteenth century and a fully formed concept of celebrity perpetuated through the mass media of modernity, there are many continuities between Georgian London and twenty-first-century global culture. Mechanisms of publicity that were only in the process of invention in the eighteenth century remain: image-making, puffing, idolatry, the collapse of distinctions between public and private, and an obsession with the body. Furthermore, as Richard Dyer has argued, ‘stars’ can serve the function of either reinforcing dominant value systems or patching over often unspoken cultural problems,1 and these ideological operations existed as strongly in the ‘pre-cognitive’ celebrity culture of the eighteenth century as they do today.2 What changed in the intervening centuries was the way these ingredients gradually overturned the continuity and longevity of public ‘fame’ in favour of the evanescence and replaceability of ‘celebrity’.3


Eighteenth Century Royal Academy Royal Family Romantic Critic Iconic Image 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Richard Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979; revised edition 1998). For a convincing application of Dyer’s ideological view of stardom to a twentiethcentury celebrity, see Charles Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), pp. 17–20. Rojek’s categories of ascribed, acquired and achieved celebrity theorise Shakespeare’s quip in Twelfth Night (II.v): ‘some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’. These are useful categories, but the slippages between these labels are also revealing.Google Scholar
  3. 16.
    See, for example, James Boaden, The Life of Mrs. Jordan, I, p. 41 on Mrs. Smith performing as a young virgin in York while pregnant.Google Scholar
  4. 17.
    In fact, it was middle age rather than old age that seemed to be a more critical turning point in actresses’ careers. For how middle age was conceived in the eighteenth century, see Susannah R. Ottaway, The Decline of Life: Old Age in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 41.Google Scholar
  5. 18.
    This is from a long early review, quoted without attribution by James Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1827), I, p. 287.Google Scholar
  6. 20.
    Boaden, Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, II, p. 166: ‘She ventured to appear upon the London stage in a dress which more strongly reminded the spectator of the sex she had laid down, than that which she had taken up. Even this … shewed the struggle of modesty to save all unnecessary exposure.’Google Scholar
  7. 21.
    Letter from Rev. Henry Bate to David Garrick 12 August 1775, and Garrick to Bate 15 August 1775, in The Letters of David Garrick, ed. David M. Little and George Kahrl, 3 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 1026 and for a discussion of these, see Manvell, Sarah Siddons: Portrait of an Actress, pp. 24–9.Google Scholar
  8. 22.
    Boaden, The Life of Mrs Jordan, I, p. 103; and Thraliana: The Diary of Mrs. Hester Lynch Thrale 1776–1809, ed. Katherine C. Balderston, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942), p. 876 (3 April 1794).Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    Fanny Burney, Diary and Letters of Madame d’Arblay, 7 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1854), V, p. 32 (July 1789).Google Scholar
  10. 25.
    Thomas Campbell, The Life of Mrs. Siddons, 2 vols (London: Effingham Wilson, 1834), I, p. 182.Google Scholar
  11. 26.
    William Siddons to Hester Piozzi (12 October 1805), in Kalman Burnim, ‘The Letters of Sarah and William Siddons to Hester Lynch Piozzi in the John Rylands Library’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 52 (1969–70), 46–95.Google Scholar
  12. 27.
    William Hazlitt, ‘Mrs. Siddons’s Lady Macbeth’, in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, 21 vols, ed. P. P. Howe (London and Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1930–34), 18: Art and Dramatic Criticism, 232–3.Google Scholar
  13. 28.
    Anthony Pasquin [John Williams], A Liberal Critique on the Present Exhibition of the Royal Academy (London: H. D. Symonds, 1794), p. 17; and John Williams, A Critical Guide to the Present Exhibition at the Royal Academy for 1797 (London: H. D. Symonds, 1797), p. 13. The reference to the menopause here is highly unusual in public print. See Ottaway, Decline ofLife, p. 36.Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    For discussion of Siddons’ ‘masculine’ image, see Shearer West, ‘The Public and Private Roles of Sarah Siddons’, in Passion for Performance: Sarah Siddons and her Portraitists, ed. Robyn Asleson (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1999), pp. 10–13.Google Scholar
  15. 30.
    See especially Reynolds’ Discourse IV delivered in 1771 in Joshua Reynolds, Discourses on Art, ed. Robert Wark (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1981), pp. 57–73 (for Discourse IV), p. 72 (for portraiture).Google Scholar
  16. 31.
    Nadia Tscherny, ‘Likeness in Early Romantic Portraiture’, in Portraits: The Limitations of Likeness, ed. Richard Brilliant, in Art Journal, special issue, 46:3, (1987), 193–9. See also John Kerslake, ‘The Portrait of “Genius”: Spearhead of Eighteenth-Century English Taste’, Eighteenth Century Life, 11 (1987), 155–62.Google Scholar
  17. 32.
    Although we do not have evidence of Siddons’ involvement with some of these portraits, it is unlikely, for example, that Lawrence — who was closely involved with the Siddons family — would have painted portraits of her without sanction. Nor is it feasible that Siddons would have renounced her involvement in her public image at the height of both her fame as an actress and her vulnerability as an ageing woman nearing retirement.Google Scholar
  18. 33.
    Abington’s attempts to play young women despite her advancing years was savagely attacked when she returned to the role of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in 1797, after seven years away from the stage and at the age of 60. See Monthly Visitor, October 1797, p. 352: ‘her former Beatrice was a chaste, animated, unaffected and captivating performance; but her Beatrice of this night was, for the great part, languid and unattractive … her person is too big and heavy to give any effect to the more gay and sprightly scenes. We conceive it to be the height of folly and impudence in her to come forward in the present advanced period of her existence; and that too, with a person so ill-calculated for the department, and attempt characters which demand all the vigour and activity of youth.’Google Scholar
  19. 34.
    Frederick Rehberg, Drawings Faithfully Copied from Nature at Naples (London: S. W. Fores, 1797).Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    For Hamilton and her attitudes, see Kirsten Gram Holmstrom, Monodrama, Attitudes, Tableaux Vivants: Studies on Some Trends of Theatrical Fashion 1770–1815 (Stockholm: Almquist and Wiksells, 1967); Ulrike Ittershagen, Lady Hamiltons Attituden (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1999); and Shearer West, ‘Romney’s Theatricality’, in Those Delightful Regions of the Imagination: Essays on George Romney, ed. Alex Kidson (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2002), pp. 131–58.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    See Ottaway, Decline of Life; and Pat Thane, Old Age in English History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).Google Scholar
  22. 37.
    Charles Lamb, ‘On Some of the Old Actors’, in The Works in Prose and Verse of Charles and Mary Lamb, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, 2 vols (London: Oxford University Press, 1908), I, p. 643.Google Scholar
  23. 38.
    Quoted in Yvonne Ffrench, Mrs. Siddons: Tragic Actress (London: Verschoyle, 1954), p. 238. Crabb Robinson made many similar observations about Siddons performing her last roles before retirement. As he put it, ‘Her advancing old age is really a cause of pain to me’, and his observations were undercut with nostalgia for her lost beauty and youth. See The London Theatre 1811–1866: Selections from the Diary of Henry Crabb Robinson, ed. Eluned Brown (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1966), p. 35.Google Scholar
  24. 39.
    For an analysis of some of these stories, see Shelley Bennett and Mark Leonard, “A Sublime and Masterly Performance”: the Making of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse’, in Passion for Performance, ed. Robyn Asleson, pp. 97–136; and Heather McPherson, ‘Picturing Tragedy: Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse Revisited’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 33:3 (2000), 401–30.Google Scholar
  25. 40.
    The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons, 1773–1785, ed. William Van Lennep, pp. 16–18.Google Scholar
  26. 41.
    For the origins of posing conventions in portraiture, see Lorne Campbell, Renaissance Portraits: European Portrait Painting in the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 107ff. For other conventions of regal portraiture, especially the full-length portrait, see Marianna Jenkins, The State Portrait: Its Origin and Evolution (New York: College Art Association, 1947).Google Scholar
  27. 42.
    Reynolds’ Siddons as the Tragic Muse measures 239.4 x 147.6 cm, differing only negligibly from Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte (239 x 147 cm). Other portraits of Siddons, such as William Beechey’s portrait of Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy were similarly large (245.1 x 153.7 cm). Although canvases came in standard sizes, it is notable that artists chose the largest (and most visible) canvas sizes for actors and monarchs. However, it is also worth noting that comparably sized portraits of Siddons and Queen Charlotte were not hung at the same Royal Academy exhibitions. The effect this would have had is apparent from David Solkin’s excellent Art on the Line exhibition at the Courtauld Institute Galleries in 2001. See Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1836, ed. David Solkin (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2001). For the ways in which the hanging of portraits could affect interpretation at Royal Academy exhibitions, see Mark Hallett, ‘Reading the Walls: Pictorial Dialogue at the British Royal Academy’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 37:4 (2004), 581–604.Google Scholar
  28. 43.
    The influence that this portrait had on Lawrence persisted until late in his career, when he delivered a eulogy to Reynolds’ portrait of Siddons in one of his lectures to the students at the Royal Academy, calling it ‘a work of the highest epic character, and indisputably the finest female portrait in the world’. Thomas Lawrence, An Address to the Students of the Royal Academy delivered before the General Assembly at the Annual Distribution of Prizes (London: W. Clowes, 1824), p. 14.Google Scholar
  29. 44.
    Later portraits of Charlotte, such as that of Joshua Reynolds and John Downman, return to the chair motif and correct the impression of ordinariness conveyed by Lawrence’s portrait. But even in these works, the impact is less striking than in Reynolds’ earlier portrait of Siddons as the Tragic Muse.Google Scholar
  30. 45.
    The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons, 1773–1785, ed. William Van Lennep, p. 22. This interpretation was reported by Siddons herself.Google Scholar
  31. 46.
    John Philip Kemble Promptbooks, ed. Charles H. Shattuck, 11 vols (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1974), IV, p. 31.Google Scholar
  32. 48.
    Piozziana, or Recollections of the Late Mrs Piozzi, ed. by Edward Mangin (London: Edward Moxon, 1833), pp. 85–6.Google Scholar
  33. 50.
    This is mentioned in Michael R. Booth, John Stokes and Susan Bassnett, Three Tragic Actresses: Siddons, Rachel, Ristori (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 36.Google Scholar
  34. 52.
    For the politicisation of the Old Price Riots, see Shearer West, ‘Thomas Lawrence’s “Half-History” Portraits and the Politics of Theatre’, Art History, 14:2 (June 1991), 225–49; and Marc Baer, Theatre and Disorder in Late Georgian London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  35. 53.
    For Kemble’s despotism, see, for example, Morning Chronicle, 20 October 1809; for his royalist inclinations, see his act of closing Covent Garden Theatre when Louis XVI was beheaded in January 1794, despite Sheridan’s express wishes to the contrary. See James Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, 2 vols (London: Longman et al., 1825), II, p. 77.Google Scholar
  36. 56.
    See, for example, the radical publication ‘Comparison between the Disastrous Reigns of Charles I and Louis XVI’, in ‘A Collection of Miscellaneous Cuttings … Relating to the French Revolution’, London, British Library [1791, 1792].Google Scholar
  37. 57.
    See Michael Levey, A Royal Subject: Portraits of Queen Charlotte, Exhibition Catalogue (London: National Portrait Gallery, 1977).Google Scholar
  38. 58.
    Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837, new edn (London: Pimlico, 2003).Google Scholar
  39. 59.
    For a discussion of Charlotte’s reputation and a positive gloss on her contribution to British culture, see Clarissa Campbell Orr, ‘Queen Charlotte, Scientific Queen’, in Queenship in Britain 1660–1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture and Dynastic Politics, ed. Clarissa Campbell Orr (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 236–66.Google Scholar
  40. 60.
    London Chronicle, 19 November 1785, p. 485. See also Boaden, Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble, I, pp. 299–300. This occurred on the occasion of the revival of David Garrick’s Jubilee. Google Scholar
  41. 61.
    Memoirs of Mrs Siddons, II, pp. 277–8. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was common for women of the middling sort with royalist leanings to dress as Britannia for patriotic parades (see Colley, Britons, p. 227).Google Scholar
  42. 62.
    Here I am using the semiotic terminology of C. S. Peirce, The Icon, Index and Symbol’, in Collected Works, ed. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 8 vols (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931–58), II, pp. 156–73. In Peirce’s view, the index refers to something, whereas the icon is a more direct reference to it. In Siddons’ case, the indexical reference enhances her iconic status as a queenly figure.Google Scholar
  43. 63.
    Simon Schama, ‘The Domestication of Majesty: Royal Family Portraiture 1500–1850’, in Art and History: Images and their Meanings, ed. Robert Rotberg and Theodore K. Rabb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 159.Google Scholar
  44. 65.
    For the audience’s role in helping construct celebrity, see especially Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), especially pp. 381–2.Google Scholar
  45. 66.
    This is the idea of the ‘King’s two bodies’ put forward originally and most forcefully by Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Ideology, new edn (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  46. 67.
    See especially, John Cannon’s argument about ‘the paradox of a developing capitalism within the framework of a non-capitalist order’, in Aristocratic Century: The Peerage in Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. ix.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Shearer West 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shearer West

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations