At the turn of the 19th century the Kemble family dominated the London stage. Actor John Philip Kemble was said to be the finest actor in England and his sister, Sarah Siddons, was regarded as one of the greatest ever tragedians. Their parents had been strolling players and John had earned a similar living on the road and in provincial theatres. Their younger brother Charles Kemble and his daughter Fanny were later stars of the London stage in the 1820s.
Coloured and engraved print of Siddons & Kemble begging after the Covent Garden fire, ink on paper. London, 1808. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
Sarah Siddons, the toast of London theatre for more than three decades from 1782, is shown begging for assistance in the street after her brother's theatre, Covent Garden, was burnt to the ground on 30 September 1808. The cartoon doesn't record the actual truth, but rather reflects the attitude of the press to the financial contributions received towards the repairs. The monies for rebuilding were raised by public subscription, insurance and a hefty donation from the Duke of Northumberland. It is this that the papers satirised. The cartoon is captioned 'Theatrical mendicants relieved. Have pity on all our wants and needs', implying that there were more worthy causes of charity. Both Siddons and her brother, John Philip Kemble, though were most concerned with the loss to posterity of the library, music and costumes collected at the theatre. Sarah's own theatrical wardrobe was completely destroyed. She wrote to a friend: 'Of all the precious and curious dresses, and lace, and jewels, which I have been collecting for these thirty years, not one article has escaped'.
Coloured engraving of John Philip Kemble as Mentevole, 1787, Drury Lane Theatre, London. Museum no. S.4548-2009. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
After the excitement caused by his Drury Lane debut in 1783, John Philip Kemble's progress was slightly hindered by theatrical etiquette. He had to wait 'in line' behind the established actors of the company, Tom King (the manager) and 'Gentleman' Smith (a favourite in comedy). He worked consistently but could not leapfrog into the major roles. However, three years later Smith decided to retire, and in the same 85-86 season Henderson, his chief rival as tragedian of the day, suddenly died at the age of only 39. From then on Kemble sometimes appeared as often as six times a week in repertoire, in roles such as Macbeth and Othello, and his reputation was secured. This lithograph shows him in the role of Mentevole in Jephson's tragedy Julia, or The Italian Lover. Mentevole was an Italian of 'darkly designing subtlety', given to fits of 'ungovernable passion', and Kemble made a great impression in the role. Sadly he worked so hard in preparing for Julia that 'a severe indisposition was the consequence, which procrastinated its future representations'.
Portrait of Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), oil on canvas, England, about 1784. Museum no. DYCE.76. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
Sarah Siddons was the eldest child of the actor and theatre manager, Roger Kemble (1722-1802) and his wife, Sarah Ward (1735-1807). From the age of 12, Sarah began to appear with the Kemble's company while attending Mrs Harris's School for Young Ladies at the Thornloe House in Worcester. It was in her father' company that she met William Siddons (1744-1808). They were married in 1773. Hearing of her talent, David Garrick (1717-1779) engaged Sarah in his company at Drury Lane in 1775, where she appeared as Portia in The Merchant of Venice on 29 December 1775. Her London debut, however, was not successful and she spent the next six years touring the theatres in England, working in York, Liverpool and Manchester in 1776-77 and Bath in 1778. Her successful return to the London stage in 1782 made her a cult figure whilst she was still in her 20s. She was a highly charismatic performer and was able to convey specific types of suffering to her audiences in the many tragic roles that she played. She continued to act for the first two decades of the 19th century. Her funeral, which took place on 15 June 1831, drew over 5,000 mourners. Sarah Siddons was a mythical figure before her death, with countless visual representations being made of her as well as reviews, eulogies, letters and diary accounts. This portrait is one of two known painted by Beach, the other being 'Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble in 'Macbeth', Act 2, Scene ii' (1786, London Garrick Club). Both works show the artist's interest in the theatre. In comparison to the Garrick portrait, this representation is of a more intimate nature. The face emerges from a brown neutral background, allowing the artist to focus on the actresses' earnest expression. The hairstyle is not as highly dressed as in the Garrick portrait, however, both show the same expression of anguish. This could suggest that it was an oil sketch made at the same time as Beach painted 'Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble in 'Macbeth', Act 2, Scene ii'.
Colour print of Fanny Kemble, ink on paper, 1830. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
Fanny, the daughter of Charles Kemble, was hugely popular, rescuing her family and the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden at a time when it was struggling. In 1832 she went to America and was as great a success there as she had been at home. Despite her popularity, she was a reluctant performer, and only worked in the theatre when poverty made it essential. Portia however, she described as 'my favouritist of all Shakespeare's women'. In America, Fanny Kemble met and married Pierce Butler who owned a plantation in Georgia. Once she became aware of the conditions of slaves on the plantation, she left him and returned to Europe. She lived by acting and writing and published a number of anti-slavery works. Once Butler had been granted a divorce, she returned to America where she supported herself by giving Shakespearean readings.
Charles Kemble's gloves, kidskin embroidered with silk and metal thread, about 1835. Museum no. T.640-1913. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
Charles Kemble was the manager of Covent Garden from 1817, taking over from his older brother, John Philip Kemble. Interest in achieving historically accurate staging had grown under David Garrick and John Philip Kemble. An important milestone in this process was King John of 1823, produced by Charles Kemble and designed by J R Planché which influenced the future elaborate 'historical' productions of Charles Kean and Henry Irving. From the fine condition of these gloves, it would seem that they were carried rather than worn by Charles Kemble in Othello. They are very elaborate in the tradition of Elizabethan gloves, which were often gorgeously embroidered and intended as decorative gifts rather than practical clothing. On each is embroidered a winged lion, the symbol of St Mark, the patron saint of Venice where the action of Othello opens.
Sarah Siddons' gloves, silk with the initial 'S' woven into the cuff, 18th century. Museum no. S.188-1978. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
These gloves are said to have been worn by the great actress, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). It is impossible to prove whether this is true. These gloves were in the possession of the same family for over 100 years, which brings them within a generation of Siddons herself. It is not possible to say whether they were worn on stage or in private. Even with photographic evidence, it can be difficult to prove that a costume or accessory was worn by a particular performer in a specific performance. In Siddons’ day, engravings never recorded costumes in photographic detail and productions were not ‘designed’ as today, but were put together from a theatre’s wardrobe or the actor’s own costume collection.
Engraved print of Sarah Siddons as Isabella with her son, Henry Siddons, in Isabella by Thomas Southerne, ink on paper, painted by William Hamilton RA, engraved by J Caldwell, published in London, England, 1 June 1785, Harry Beard Collection. Museum no. S.280-1988. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
Sarah Siddons was the most famous tragedienne of the 18th century. This is one of her most celebrated roles, the title part in Thomas Southerne's tragedy Isabella or The Fatal Marriage. The heroine, believing herself widowed, marries again, purely for the welfare of her child (who was played by her real son, Henry Siddons). The day after the marriage, she discovers that her first husband is still alive, and driven distracted, she kills herself. Audiences of the time adored such emotional works, and Isabella was known to make grown men cry and women to have fits of hysterics.
Figurine of John Philip Kemble as Hamlet at the Drury Lane Theatre, London in 1783, probably made by Thomas Parr, polychromed glazed earthenware, Burslem, Staffordshire, England, about 1852, Eddison Collection. Museum no. S.1022-1996. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Known as a Tallis figure because the pose was originally copied from an engraving in Tallis's Shakespeare Gallery (1852-1853), which was in turn copied from a painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830).
Sarah Siddons' boots, silk, 18th century. Museum no. S.187-1978. © Victoria & Albert Museum, London</p>
These boots are said to have been worn by the great actress, Sarah Siddons (1755-1831). It is impossible to prove whether this is true. These were in the possession of the same family for over 100 years, which brings them within a generation of Siddons herself. It is not possible to say whether they were worn on stage or in private. Even with photographic evidence, it can be difficult to prove that a costume or accessory was worn by a particular performer in a specific performance. In Siddons’ day, engravings never recorded costumes in photographic detail and productions were not ‘designed’ as today, but were put together from a theatre’s wardrobe or the actor’s own costume collection.