Neilson, Lilian Adelaide (DNB00)

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NEILSON, LILIAN ADELAIDE (1848–1880), whose real name was Elizabeth Ann Brown, actress, was daughter of a somewhat obscure actress named Brown, subsequently known as Mrs. Bland. She was born at 35 St. Peter's Square, Leeds, on 3 March 1848, lived as a child at Skipton, and subsequently worked as a mill hand at Guiseley. Her lather's name is unrevealed. Before she was twelve years of age she used to recite passages from her mother's play-books. At the parish school of Guiseley she showed herself a quick child and an ardent reader. She then became a nurse girl, and on learning the particulars of her birth grew restless and, ultimately, under the name Lizzie Ann Bland, made her way secretly to London. Her early experiences were cruel, and remain unedifying. During a portion of the time she was behind the bar at a public-house near the Haymarket, where she had a reputation as a Shakespearean declaimer. She was first seen on the stage in 1865 at Margate as Juliet. Lizzie Ann Bland then blossomed into Lilian Adelaide Lessont, afterwards changed to Neilson, a name she maintained after a marriage contracted about this time with Mr. Philip Henry Lee, the son of the rector of Stoke Bruerne, near Towcester, from whom she was divorced in 1877. Her first appearance in London was made as Juliet at the Royalty Theatre in Dean Street in July 1865, her performance being witnessed by a scanty audience, including two or three theatrical reporters or critics, whom it profoundly impressed. Such knowledge as she possessed had been obtained from John Ryder, a brusque but capable actor, whose pupil she was. She possessed at that time remarkable beauty, of a somewhat southern type, girlish movement, and a voice musical and caressing. The earlier scenes were given with much grace and tenderness, and in the later scenes she exhibited tragic intensity. She was then engaged for the Princess's, where she was, 2 July 1866, the original Gabrielle de Savigny in Watts Phillips's 'Huguenot Captain,' and the same year she played Victorine in a revival of the drama of that name at the Adelphi. On 16 March 1867 she was, at the same house, the original Nelly Armroyd in Watts Phillips's 'Lost in London.' On 25 Sept. 1868, at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, she was seen as Rosalind in 'As you like it,' appearing subsequently as Pauline in the 'Lady of Lyons,' and Julia in the 'Hunchback.' On 2 Oct. she was the heroine of 'Stage and State,' an unsuccessful adaptation of 'Beatrix, ou la Madone de l'Art,' of Legouve. In November she played at Birmingham in 'Millicent,' an adaptation by Mr. C. Williams of Birmingham of Miss Braddon's novel the 'Captain of the Vulture.' Returning to London she 'created,' 6 March 1869, at the Lyceum, the part of Lilian in Westland Marston's 'Life for Life.' At the Gaiety she was, on 11 Oct. 1869, the first Mme. Vidal in 'A Life Chase,' by John Oxenford and Horace Wigan, adapted from 'Le Drama de la Rue de la Paix,' and on 13 Dec. the first Mary Belton in H. J. Byron's 'Uncle Dick's Darling.' At the same house she appeared the following April as Julia in a revival of the 'Hunchback,' and on 26 May 1870 she began, at St. James's Hall, a series of dramatic studies consisting of passages from the 'Provoked Husband,' 'Love for Love,' the 'Taming of the Shrew,' 'Wallenstein,' and 'Phedre,' with accompanying comments. She appeared as Amy Robsart in Andrew Halliday's adaptation of 'Kenilworth' at Drury Lane 24 Sept. 1870, Rebecca in Halliday's version of 'Ivanhoe' on 23 Sept. 1871, and Rosalind on 18 Dec. A series of well performances at the Queen's Theatre, in which she played Juliet and Pauline in the ‘Lady of Lyons,’ preceded her departure for New York, where, at Niblo's Theatre, she performed for the first time 18 Nov. 1872. In America she was extremely popular, acting, in addition to other parts, Beatrice in ‘Much Ado about Nothing,’ Lady Teazle, and Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure.’ America was revisited in 1874, 1876, and 1879, and she added to her repertory Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’ and Imogen. During an engagement at the Haymarket, beginning 17 Jan. 1876, she reappeared as Isabella, and was the first Anne Boleyn in Tom Taylor's play of that name. She played at the same house in 1878, in the course of which she acted Viola. Her Queen Isabella in the ‘Crimson Cross’ was seen for the first time, 27 Feb. 1879, at the Adelphi. This was her last original part. Her latest visit to America ended on 28 July 1880, and soon after her arrival in England she left for Paris, complaining of illness, but with no sign of disease. But she took farewell of one or two intimate friends, declaring in unbelieving ears that she should never return. On 15 Aug. 1880 she drank a glass of iced milk in the Bois de Boulogne, and was seized with a sudden attack, apparently gastric, from which she died the same day. Her remains were brought to London and interred in Brompton cemetery.

As a tragedian she has had no English rival during the last half of this century. Her Juliet was perfect, and her Isabella had marvellous earnestness and beauty. In Julia also she has not been surpassed. In comedy she was self-conscious, and spoilt her effects by over-acting. Her Viola was pretty, and her Rosalind, though very bright, lacked poetry. The best of her original parts were Amy Robsart and Rebecca. It is not easy to see how these could have been improved. She was thoroughly loyal, and quite devoid of the jealousy that seeks to belittle a rival artist or deprive her of a chance. In the popularity she obtained her antecedents were forgotten. Her social triumphs were remarkable, and but for her unhappy marriage it is certain that she would have added another to the long list of titled actresses. Many portraits of her have appeared in magazines and other publications. A miniature on ivory, a little idealised, but effective, belonged to the present writer.

[Personal knowledge; Smith's Old Yorkshire; Pascoe's Dramatic Notes; Scott and Howard's Life of E. L. Blanchard; Winter's Shadows of the Stage; Era Almanac; Times, 17, 18, 21, and 26 Aug. 1880; Athenæum, August 1880; Academy, August 1880.]

J. K.