Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 01.djvu/67

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Abington
Abington
53

her mother she knew nothing; her father, having served as a private soldier in the King's Guards, kept a cobbler's stall in Vinegar Yard; her brother was an ostler in Hanway Yard. After she had risen to fame and prosperity, her descent was traced to a certain Christopher Barton, Esq., of Norton, Derbyshire, who at the accession of William III left four sons, a colonel, a ranger of one of the royal parks, a prebendary of Westminster, and the grandfather of Frances Barton. She at first sold flowers and was known as ‘Nosegay Fan.’ Then singing in the streets or reciting at tavern doors, she was sometimes carried within the Bedford and Piazza coffee-houses, to amuse the company with the delivery of select passages from the poets. She became the servant of a French milliner in Cockspur Street, from whom she acquired a taste in dress and a knowledge of French. She was afterwards cookmaid in the kitchen ruled by Robert Baddeley, admired at a later date for his performance upon the stage of foreign footmen, Jews, and ‘broken-English’ parts. Frances Barton underwent many ignoble, painful, and vicious experiences. ‘Low, poor, and vulgar as she had been,’ a contemporary critic writes, ‘she was always anxious to acquire education. . . . She was well acquainted with the French authors, could read and speak French with facility, and could converse in Italian.’ In the summer of 1755 the Haymarket was opened under the management of Theophilus Cibber. On 21 Aug. the comedy of the ‘Busybody’ was presented, the bills announcing ‘the character of Miranda by Miss Barton, being her first essay.’ She appeared subsequently as Miss Jenny in the ‘Provoked Husband,’ as Desdemona, as Sylvia in the ‘Recruiting Officer,’ and in other parts. For more than a year she was absent from London, fulfilling engagements at Bath and Richmond. She reappeared in November 1756, as a member of the Drury Lane company, engaged at the recommendation of Samuel Foote, and personated Lady Pliant in the ‘Double Dealer,’ and various other characters. In 1759 she was first described in the bills as Mrs. Abington: she had become the wife of her music-master, one of the royal trumpeters. The marriage was of an unhappy sort. Soon terms of separation were agreed upon, and the husband and wife lived apart. She paid him annually a stipulated sum, upon condition that he forbore to approach her. At Drury Lane Mrs. Abington advanced but slowly. Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Clive enjoyed possession of the best parts in the dramatic repertory, while the younger actresses, Miss Macklin and Miss Pritchard, inherited claims to the consideration of the managers. Mrs. Abington left England for Ireland, and was absent five years. Her success in Dublin was very great, and her Lady Townley drew the most crowded houses of the season. Hitchcock, the historian of the Irish stage, writes: ‘So rapidly did this charming actress rise, and so highly was she esteemed by the public—even so early did she discover a taste in dress and a talent to lead the ton—that several of the ladies' most fashionable ornaments were distinguished by her name, and the “Abington cap” became the prevailing rage of the day.’ She returned to Drury Lane upon the pressing invitation of Garrick, and for some eighteen years continued a member of the company, the most admired representative of the grand coquettes and queens of comedy, greatly successful as Beatrice, Lady Townley, Lady Betty Modish, Millamant, and Charlotte in the ‘Hypocrite.’ She was not confined to impersonations of this class, however. She could descend to country girls, romps, hoydens, and chambermaids. Reynolds's best portrait of her exhibits her as Miss Prue in ‘Love for Love.’ She could appear either as Lucy Lockit or Polly Peachum, as Biddy Tipkin or Mrs. Termagant, as Miss Prue or as Miss Hoyden. Her Shakespearian characters were Portia, Beatrice, Desdemona, Olivia, and Ophelia. Murphy dedicated to her his comedy of the ‘Way to keep him,’ in recognition of her genius, and of those ‘graces of action’ which had endowed his play with brilliancy, and even with an air of novelty, twenty-five years after its first production. She appeared on some occasions as Lydia Languish, and she was the original representative of Lady Teazle in 1777, the actress being then but a few years the junior of the performer of Sir Peter. No one complained, however, that her Lady Teazle lacked youth or grace or charm. Horace Walpole, who had bidden her welcome to Strawberry Hill, with as many friends as she might choose to bring with her, described her acting in Lady Teazle as equal to the first of her profession—as superior to any effort of Garrick's; she seemed to him, indeed, ‘the very person.’ In 1782 she closed her long connection with Drury Lane, and transferred her services to Covent Garden. Between 1790 and 1797 she was absent from the stage, and it was believed that her professional career had closed. She reappeared for a season, however, and was warmly welcomed by the public. Boaden wrote of her return to the stage: ‘Her person had become full, and her elegance somewhat unfashionable; but she still gave to Shakespeare's Beatrice what no other actress in my time has ever conceived;