18th C Art / 18th C Society / Eighteenth Century / Paintings / Women

Profile: Sarah Siddons ‘tragedy personified’

Though acclaimed authors, poets, and playwrights are often remembered and discussed decades, if not centuries, after they have ceased to write (or, indeed, live), actors are rarely make even a footnote in an essay on this or that. The ephemeral nature of their art, unrecorded until very recently, has much to do with the inevitable disappearance of Britain’s greatest actors into relative obscurity.

Thank the Lord for Twitter!

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A tweet from the National Gallery today commemorated the birthday of Sarah Siddons with a lovely Gainsborough portrait of one of England’s greatest tragic actresses.

Sarah Kemble was born on the 5th of July in 1755 and over the following years was joined by no fewer than 11 siblings. The family she was born into were a well-known acting family. Sarah had an unusual childhood, moving around the country with her parents who led a troupe of travelling actors. Lucky Sarah had a good education as her mother sent her to school in the towns they visited. She did occasionally trot onto stage as a child but apparently, her parents were disappointed when she chose the stage as a career.

Women had been legally allowed on stage since 1662 but almost a century later it was still an unrespectable vocation for a woman (check out this Telegraph article ).

Married by 18, Siddons joined an acting company and was almost immediately successful. Her first appearance at Drury Lane – the London big time – was a failure. However, after building up a solid reputation touring around the country she returned to Drury Lane in 1782 and was a huge success.

Mrs Siddons as the tragic Muse_1784_Joshua Reynolds

Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Joshua Reynolds (1784)

One of her most famous roles was Lady Macbeth – though she excelled in many tragic roles. William Hazlitt wrote that her ‘passion emanated from her breast as from a shire. She was tragedy personified.’ Siddons held audiences spell bound as she appeared to totally inhabit the character of Lady Macbeth in both her majesty and her murderous rage. She played Macbeth’s helpmate for the first time in 1785 and would reprise it multiple time in the next four decades.

Siddons is credited with the major cultural shift which saw acting become a respectable career for a woman. As a member of an acting dynasty, she had experience on her side and is said to have raised the status of both actresses and theatre itself.

“Take it all in all was fine & powerful acting; and when it has ceased we of this generation can never look to see the like again.” Joanna Baillie to Sir Walter Scott

A well-loved anecdote tells of her farewell performance when she retired from the stage in 1812. Siddons returned to her famous role as Lady Macbeth for the last time but the audience would not let her get past the sleepwalking scene. She was drowned out by applause. The play stopped, the curtains closed, then Siddons reappeared to give am emotional adieu speech.

Though we can pick up a work by Samuel Johnson or flick through a poetry anthology, we will never truly know or appreciate the acting abilities of people like Sarah Siddons.

The Painting

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Mrs Siddons, Thomas Gainsborough, (1785). See it in the National Gallery, Room 34. 

Siddons’ portrait was finished by March of 1785. Studies of this painting have found several changes focused in one area of the portrait. According to the National Gallery, Gainsborough had trouble with Siddons’ nose saying, ‘Confound the nose, there’s no end to it’. Charming!

Despite Gainsborough’s issues with Siddons’ nose, the overall effect of the portrait is a depiction of a beautiful and dignified woman.

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