Stephens, Catherine (DNB00)

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STEPHENS, CATHERINE, Countess of Essex (1794–1882), vocalist and actress, the daughter of Edward Stephens, a carver and gilder in Park Street, Grosvenor Square, was born on 18 Sept. 1794. Having shown, like her elder sisters (for one of whom see below), musical capacity, she was placed in 1807 under the charge of Gesualdo Lanza [q. v.], with whom she remained five years. Under his care she sang in Bath, Bristol, Southampton, Ramsgate, Margate, and other places, appearing early in 1812 in subordinate parts at the Pantheon as member of an Italian opera company, headed by Madame Bertinotti Radicati. At the close, in 1812, of her engagement with Lanza, her father placed her under Thomas Welsh [q. v.], as whose pupil she sang anonymously on 17 and 19 Nov. in Manchester. On 23 Sept. 1813 she appeared at Covent Garden as Mandane in ‘Artaxerxes,’ obtaining a conspicuous success, especially in the airs ‘Checked by duty, racked by love,’ and ‘The soldier tired of war's alarms,’ and being compared to Catalani and Mrs. Billington (cf. Theatrical Inquisitor, 23 Sept.) She was depicted as rather above middle size, and ‘inclinable to the embonpoint,’ looking older and graver than her years, and was credited with pathos, tenderness, and sweetness. On 22 Oct. she sang as Polly in the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ and on 12 Nov. as Clara in the ‘Duenna.’ Rosetta in ‘Love in a Village’ was also taken. Her marked success evoked a fierce polemic between Lanza and Welsh, who both claimed the honour of instructing her. At the concert of ancient music in March 1814 she was assigned the principal soprano songs, and she sang later in the year in the festivals in Norwich and Birmingham.

At Covent Garden, where she remained with but few interruptions from her first appearance in 1813 down to 1822, she at first received 12l. a week; this was successively advanced to 20l. and 25l. a week. On 1 Feb. 1814 she was the original Mrs. Cornflower in the ‘Farmer's Wife’ of Charles Dibdin, jun. She played Ophelia to the Hamlet of Young and that of Kemble, and was injudicious enough on the first occasion (21 March) to introduce into the character the song of ‘Mad Bess,’ for which she was hissed. She played Matilda in ‘Richard Cœur de Lion,’ and on 31 May, as Desdemona to Young's Othello, sang the original air of ‘My mother had a maid called Barbara.’ On 1 Feb. 1815 she was the original Donna Isidora in Dimond's ‘Brother and Sister;’ on 7 April Donna Orynthia in the ‘Noble Outlaw,’ founded on the ‘Pilgrim’ of Beaumont and Fletcher; and on 7 June Eucharis in ‘Telemachus.’ Next season she was Sylvia in ‘Cymon,’ Hermia in ‘Midsummer Night's Dream,’ Imogen, Cora in ‘Columbus,’ and on 12 March 1816 the first Lucy Bertram in Terry's adaptation ‘Guy Mannering.’ On 23 Sept. she was the original Sophia Fidget in Tobin's posthumous ‘Yours or Mine,’ on 12 Nov. the first Zelinda in Morton's ‘Slave,’ on 27 Feb. 1817 Laurina in the ‘Heir of Vironi,’ on 15 April Rosalind in Dimond's ‘Conquest of Taranto,’ on 20 May Zerlina in the ‘Libertine’ of Pocock, and she played Eudocia in the ‘Humorous Lieutenant’ and Peggy in the ‘Gentle Shepherd.’ Among many original parts of no importance in the next season stands conspicuous Diana Vernon in Pocock's ‘Rob Roy Macgregor.’ She also played Cowslip in the ‘Agreeable Surprise.’ On the first production of the ‘Marriage of Figaro’ on 6 March 1819 she was Susanna to the Figaro of Liston, and in that of the ‘Heart of Midlothian,’ by Terry, on 17 April, she was Effie Deans. On 14 Dec. she played Adriana in the ‘Comedy of Errors,’ converted by Reynolds into an opera. In Terry's ‘Antiquary’ on 25 Jan. 1820 she was the first Isabella Wardour, and in an adaptation of ‘Ivanhoe,’ which followed on 2 March, she was Rowena. Morton's ‘Henri Quatre, or Paris in the Olden Time,’ on 22 April, furnished her with a part as Florence St. Leon. In ‘Don John, or the Two Violettas,’ 20 Feb. 1821, an opera founded by Reynolds on the ‘Chances,’ altered from Fletcher by the Duke of Buckingham, she was the second Violetta. She also played Dorinda in Dryden's ‘Tempest.’ On 14 Feb. 1822 she was the first Annot Lyle in Pocock's adaptation ‘Montrose or the Children of the Mist,’ and on 11 May Nourjadee on the production of Colman's ‘Law of Java.’

The following season she joined Elliston at Drury Lane, and was purposely, it is said, kept in the background. Curious alleged instances of Elliston's behaviour are preserved, such as his fining her for not coming to the rehearsal of the pantomime, not in order to play, which was outside her contract, but to swell with her voice the chorus. For her benefit on 27 April 1823 she played Annette in the ‘Lord of the Manor.’ In Beazley's ‘Philandering,’ on 13 Jan. 1824, she was the first Emile, and in Reynolds's operatic version of the ‘Merry Wives of Windsor,’ on 20 Feb., Mrs. Ford. On the production of an anonymous version of ‘Faustus’ on 16 May 1825 she was the Adine (Margaret). Malvina in Macfarren's ‘Malvina’ was seen on 28 Jan. 1826; Edith Plantagenet in ‘Knights of the Cross’ followed on 29 May. Gulnare in Dimond's ‘Englishmen in India’ was seen on 27 Jan. 1827. In the following season she was again at Covent Garden, where she played Blanch Mackay in ‘Carron Side, or the Fête Champêtre,’ on 27 May 1828. High as was the reputation Miss Stephens had made in opera, it was still higher as a concert singer. She was playing with Duruset in Dublin in July 1821 and again in 1825, and in Edinburgh in 1814. She also visited Liverpool and other places. Until her retirement in 1835 she occupied the highest position at the best concerts and festivals. On 19 April 1838 Miss Stephens married, at 9 Belgrave Square, George Capell Coningsby, fifth earl of Essex, an octogenarian widower, who died on 23 April 1839. Lady Essex survived him forty-three years, taking until near the end an interest in theatrical matters. She died on 22 Feb. 1882 in the house in which she was married, and was buried at Kensal Green.

Miss Stephens was held to have the sweetest soprano voice of her time—‘full, rich, round, lovely’—a natural manner, a simple style, disfigured by no affectation. In oratorio she lacked passion, but was always pure, sensible, and graceful. As a ballad singer she was unequalled, and her rendering of ‘Auld Robin Gray,’ ‘Savourneen Deelish,’ ‘W'are a' Noddin',’ ‘A Highland Lad,’ and a hundred others, and of songs such as ‘Angels ever bright and fair’ and ‘If guiltless blood,’ has not been surpassed. Hazlitt, who spoke of her and Kean as the only theatrical favourites he had, wrote his first theatrical criticism on her in the ‘Morning Chronicle.’ Mrs. Billington told him his idol would never make a singer, but, after hearing her as Polly and as Mandane, arrived at the conclusion that she sang some things as they could never be sung again. Of the same performances Leigh Hunt said that they ‘are like nothing else on the stage, and leave all competition far behind;’ adding that ‘the graceful awkwardness and naïveté of her manner, more captivating than the most finished elegance, complete the charm.’ Talfourd recalled the days when he heard her send forth ‘a stream of such delicious sound as he had never found proceeding from human lips.’ That first impression was never changed. Oxberry bestows more unmixed eulogy upon her than upon any other actress with whom he deals. On her retirement from professional life she carried with her a character for virtue, kindness, and generosity such as few actresses have enjoyed.

A portrait painted by John Jackson hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, London; another by Dewilde, as Mandane in ‘Artaxerxes,’ is in the Mathews collection of the Garrick Club, which contains also an anonymous portrait. A portrait of her as Rosetta in ‘Love in a Village,’ showing a bright, sparkling, intelligent face, accompanies the memoir in Oxberry's ‘Dramatic Biography.’ Other portraits of her were painted by Linnell and Sir William John Newton (cf. Cat. Victorian Exhib. Nos. 414, 427).

A Miss Stephens, possibly an elder sister, made, as Polly in the ‘Beggar's Opera,’ a very successful first appearance on the stage on 29 Nov. 1799, and played in 1800 and 1801 Sophia in ‘Of Age To-morrow,’ Violetta in the ‘Egyptian Festival,’ Blanche in Mrs. Plowden's ‘Virginia,’ Rosetta in ‘Love in a Village,’ and other parts.

[Genest's Account of the English Stage; Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, vol. ii.; Dramatic Essays by Hazlitt; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Theatrical Inquisitor, various years; Grove's Dict. of Music; Georgian Era; Dibdin's Edinburgh Stage; Biography of the British Stage, 1824; Robert's Hannah More, iv. 163; New Monthly Mag. various years; History of the Theatre Royal, Dublin; Liverpool Dramatic Censor; Burke's Peerage; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. xii. 329, 357, 417.]

J. K.