1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Siddons, Sarah

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SIDDONS, SARAH (1755-1831), English actress, the eldest of twelve children of Roger Kemble, was born in the “Shoulder of Mutton” public-house, Brecon, Wales, on the 5th of July 1755. Through the special care of her mother in sending her to the schools in the towns where the company played, Sarah Kemble received a remarkably good education, although she was accustomed to make her appearance on the stage while still a child. She became attached to William Siddons, an actor of the company; but this was discountenanced by her parents, who wished her to accept the offer of a squire. Siddons was dismissed from the company, and she was sent to a situation as lady's maid to Mrs Greathead at Guy's Cliff in Warwickshire. Here she recited Shakespeare, Milton and Rowe in the servants' hall, and occasionally before aristocratic company, and here also she began to develop a capacity for sculpture which was subsequently developed (between 1789 and 1790), and of which she provided samples in busts of herself and of her son. The necessary consent to her union with Siddons was at last obtained, and the marriage took place at Trinity Church, Coventry, on the 26th of November 1773. It was while playing at Cheltenham in the following year that Mrs Siddons met with the earliest decided recognition of her powers as an actress, when by her representation of Belvidera in Otway's Venice Preserved she moved to tears a party of “people of quality” who had come to scoff. Her merits were made known by them to Garrick, who sent his deputy to Cheltenham to see her as Calista in Rowe's Fair Penitent, the result being that she was engaged to appear at Drury Lane at a salary of £5 a week. Owing to inexperience as well as other circumstances, her first appearances as Portia and in other parts were unfortunate, and when, after playing with success in Birmingham, she was about to return to town she received a note from the manager of Drury Lane stating that her services would not be required. Thus, in her own words, “banished from Drury Lane as a worthless candidate for fame and fortune,” she again in the beginning of 1777 went on “the circuit” in the provinces. After a very successful engagement at Bath, beginning in 1778 and lasting five years, she again accepted an offer from Drury Lane, when her appearance as Isabella in Garrick's version of Southerne's Fatal Marriage, on the 10th of October 1782, was a triumph, only equalled in the history of the English stage by that of Garrick's first night at Drury Lane in 1741 and that of Edmund Kean's in 1814. In her earlier years it was in scenes of a tender and melting character that she exercised the strongest sway over an audience; but in the performance of Lady Macbeth, in which she appeared on the and of February 1785 for the first time in London, it was the grandeur of her exhibition of the more terrible passions as related to one awful purpose that held them spellbound. In Lady Macbeth she found the highest and best scope for her gifts. It fitted her as no other character did, and as perhaps it will never fit another actress. Her extraordinary and peculiar physical endowments — tall and striking figure, brilliant beauty, powerfully expressive eyes, and solemn dignity of demeanour — enabled her to confer a weird majesty on the character which inexpressibly heightened the tragic awe surrounding her fate. After Lady Macbeth she played Desdemona, Rosalind and Ophelia, all with great success; but it was in Queen Catherine — which she first played on the occasion of her brother John Kemble's spectacular revival of Henry VIII. in 1788 — that she discovered a part almost as well adapted to her peculiar powers as that of Lady Macbeth. As Volumnia in Kemble's version of Coriolanus she also secured a triumph. In her early life she had attempted comedy, but her gifts in this respect were very limited. It was of course inevitable that comparisons should be made between her and her only peer, Rachel, who undoubtedly excelled her in intensity and the portrayal of fierce passion, but was a less finished artist and lacked Mrs Siddons' dignity and pathos. Though Mrs Siddons' minute and systematic study perhaps gave a certain amount of stiffness to her representations, it conferred on them a symmetry and proportion to which Rachel never attained. Mrs Siddons formally retired from the stage in 1812, but occasionally appeared on special occasions even when advanced in years. Her last appearance was on the 9th of June 1819 as Lady Randolph in Home's Douglas, for the benefit of Mr and Mrs Charles Kemble. Her most striking impersonations, besides the rôles already mentioned, were those of Zara in Congreve's Mourning Bride, Constance in King John, Mrs Haller in The Stranger, and Elvira in Pizarro. In private life Mrs Siddons enjoyed the friendship and respect of many of the most eminent persons of her time. Horace Walpole at first refused to join the fashionable chorus of her praise, but he was ultimately won over. Dr Johnson wrote his name on the hem of her garment in the famous picture of the actress as the Tragic Muse by Reynolds (now in the Dulwich Gallery). “I would not lose,” he said, “the honour this opportunity afforded to me for my name going down to posterity on the hem of your garment.” Mrs Siddons died in London on the 8th of June 1831, and was buried in Paddington churchyard.

On the 14th of June 1897 Sir Henry Irving unveiled at Paddington Green a marble statue of her by Chavalliaud, after the portrait by Reynolds. There is also a large statue by Chantrey in Westminster Abbey. Portraits by Lawrence and Gainsborough are in the National Gallery, and a portrait ascribed to Gainsborough is in the Garrick Club, London, which also possesses two pictures of the actress as Lady Macbeth by George Henry Harlow.

See Thomas Campbell, Life of Mrs Siddons (2 vols., 1834); Fitzgerald, The Kembles (3 vols., 1871); Frances Ann Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (3 vols., 1878).