Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Siddons, Sarah
SIDDONS, SARAH (1755–1831), actress, eldest child of Roger Kemble [q. v.] and Sarah Kemble (born Ward), was born on 5 July 1755 at the Shoulder of Mutton public-house, Brecon. Her father, a Roman catholic, married a protestant, and Sarah, with the other girls, was brought up in the religion of her mother, the sons retaining that of the father. Her certificate of baptism, copied from the registry in St. Mary's, Brecon, and dated 14 July 1755, describes her as daughter of George (sic) Kemble, a commedian (sic), and Sarah his wife. Her brothers, John Philip [q. v.], Stephen [q. v.], and Charles [q. v.], all actors, are noticed separately. Sarah's education was received at day-schools in Worcester, Wolverhampton, and other towns in which, as manager of a travelling company, Roger resided. In Worcester she was at a school in Thornloe House, kept by Mrs. Harris. There, as the child of a strolling actor, she was subjected to some rebuffs. While very young she displayed capacity in private theatricals and resource in improvising costume. She was brought on the stage as an infant phenomenon, and stirred an indifferent audience by reciting the fable of ‘The Boy and the Frogs.’ At the great room at the King's Head in High Street, Worcester, she took part, on 12 Feb. 1767, with other members of her family, in an entertainment to which admission was granted to those purchasing packets of tooth-powder [see Kemble, Roger]. Her contribution consisted of a performance of Rosetta in ‘Love in a Village,’ her future husband (William Siddons) playing Meadows. She also appeared as the Young Princess in Howard's ‘King Charles I,’ and sang between the acts. On 16 April of the same year at the same place a ‘concert’ enshrined a performance of Dryden and D'Avenant's ‘Tempest, or the Enchanted Island,’ in which she played Ariel, Siddons appearing as Hyppolito. She also acted with some military amateurs, it is reported, in the ‘Grecian Daughter,’ and caused some wrath among her military associates by bursting into laughter in the midst of a tragic situation. Her juvenile beauty brought her much admiration. Her affections were, however, bestowed upon William Siddons, a young actor who had joined the company from Birmingham, was good-looking, and able, it is said, to play anything from Macbeth to Pantaloon, or, by another version, Hamlet to Harlequin. Her preference led to his discharge from the company. At his benefit at Brecon, Siddons recited some doggerel soliciting sympathy for a discarded lover, and had his ears boxed for his pains by Mrs. Kemble. Sarah Kemble was then sent to be lady's maid to Mrs. Greatheed at Guy's Cliff in Warwickshire, where she used to recite Milton, Shakespeare, and Rowe in the servants' hall, and sometimes before aristocratic company, and also made her first essay in sculpture, an art in which she attained some facility. Returning home still constant in affection, she wrung from her parents a reluctant consent to her marriage, which was solemnised on 26 Nov. 1773 at Trinity Church, Coventry.
The young couple are said to have accepted an engagement with Chamberlain and Crump's company in Bath, where their straits were dire, and to have played in various country towns. At Wolverhampton Sarah acted with her father, as Mrs. Siddons, Charlotte Rusport in the ‘West Indian,’ and Leonora in the ‘Padlock,’ and spoke an address, presumably of her own composition, indiscreet in revelation, as many subsequent addresses were, and pitiful as literature. In 1774 she played with her husband at Cheltenham, where her acting as Belvidera conquered an aristocratic party which came to sneer, and induced Miss Boyle, daughter of Lord Dungarvan, to recruit from her own cast-off stores the actress's exiguous wardrobe.
Garrick, who heard of her promise, sent King to see her in the ‘Fair Penitent,’ and engaged her at 5l. a week for Drury Lane. At his suggestion she made her first appearance, on 29 Dec. 1775, as Portia to the Shylock of King, being announced as a ‘young lady, her first appearance.’ The performance was repeated on 2 Jan. 1776. On the 13th, and again on the 15th and 17th, after which the part was given to a man, Lamash, she was Epicœne in the ‘Silent Woman.’ On 1 Feb. she was the first Julia in Bates's ‘Blackamoor washed White,’ a piece that was damned, and on the fourth performance occasioned a riot. On the 15th she was the original Emily in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Runaway.’ This part on the 22nd was given to Mrs. King. Mrs. Siddons was, on 15 April, the original Maria in Vaughan's ‘Love's Metamorphoses.’ She also played, on 23 May, Mrs. Strictland in the ‘Suspicious Husband’ and Lady Anne in ‘Richard III.’ This last performance she repeated on the 5th, after which, Garrick having no further need of her, and no other manager wanting her, she went back to the country. Her failure was unmistakable. Woodfall, the editor of the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ said that she spoke sensibly, but that her powers were not equal to a London theatre. A contemporary critic described her Lady Anne as lamentable. Ridiculous rumours were circulated concerning Garrick's jealousy of her ability. As a matter of fact he paid her much attention, and gave her the part of Venus in a revival of the ‘Jubilee,’ and other opportunities of which little was made. She herself seems to have thought, with probability, that he was impeded in his schemes for her advancement by the morbid jealousy of Mrs. Yates and Miss Younge, against whom he wished to play her off. She was acting in Birmingham under Yates when she received the intelligence that her services would not be required at Drury Lane.
In the winter of 1776 she was at Manchester, where she became the rage. On 15 April 1777 she made, when in a bad state of health, her first appearance in York as Euphrasia in the ‘Grecian Daughter,’ Tate Wilkinson, her manager, playing Evander. She was accompanied by her husband, and played Rosalind, Matilda, Alicia, Lady Townly, Lady Alton, Indiana, Widow Brady, Arpasia, Horatia, and Semiramis. Her success was brilliant, Tate Wilkinson declaring that ‘in her Arpasia, I recollect her fall and figure after the dying scene was noticed as most elegant; nor do I recognise such a mode of disposing the body in so picturesque and striking a manner as Mrs. Siddons does on such prostrate occasions’ (Wandering Patentee, i. 254). In the summer of 1777 she was in Liverpool, and in the winter presumably in Manchester. On 24 Oct., as Lady Townly in the ‘Provoked Husband,’ she made her first appearance under Palmer in Bath, where, during the season, she was seen as Mrs. Candour, Mrs. Lovemore in the ‘Way to keep him,’ Elwina in ‘Percy,’ Lady Jane in ‘Know your own Mind,’ Belvidera in ‘Venice Preserved,’ Lady Brumpton in the ‘Funeral,’ Queen in ‘Hamlet,’ Portia, Countess in ‘Countess of Salisbury,’ Euphrasia, Millwood in the ‘London Merchant,’ Rosamond in ‘Henry II,’ Queen in ‘Spanish Friar,’ Juliet, Imoinda in ‘Oroonoko,’ Bellario in ‘Philaster,’ Princess in the ‘Law of Lombardy,’ Imogen, Miss Aubrey in ‘Fashionable Lover,’ Queen in ‘Richard III’ (after which she recited a monody on Garrick), Indiana in ‘Conscious Lovers,’ Emmeline in ‘Edgar and Emmeline,’ Sigismunda in ‘Tancred and Sigismunda,’ Lady Randolph in ‘Douglas,’ Jane Shore, and Emmelina in the ‘Fatal Falsehood’—a remarkable variety of characters for so young a woman. Most of these parts had previously been played in Liverpool, where also she had been seen as the Countess of Somerset in ‘Sir Thomas Overbury,’ Clarinda in the ‘Suspicious Husband,’ Statira, Cleopatra, Miranda in the ‘Busy Body,’ Miss Richland in ‘Good-natured Man,’ Mrs. Clerimont in ‘Tender Husband,’ and other parts. In Bath she reopened the following season in her great character of Lady Macbeth, and here she remained during the three following seasons, four seasons in all. Here or in Bristol, the theatre in which city was under the same management, she played over a hundred different parts, of which it is needless to mention more than Lady in ‘Comus,’ Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure,’ Beatrice, Queen Katherine, Desdemona, Mrs. Strictland, Lady Brute, Calista, Monimia, Andromache, Elfrida, Mrs. Beverley, Miss Hardcastle, Zara in ‘Mourning Bride’ and in ‘Zara,’ Mrs. Oakly, Nell in ‘The Devil to Pay,’ Countess of Narbonne, and Constance in ‘King John.’ She delivered occasionally addresses, not specially noteworthy for good taste. In her farewell address in Bath, written by herself in verse, she brought on the stage her three children—Henry, Sarah, and Maria—and introduced them to the audience. On 27 June 1781 she played ‘Hamlet’ in an alteration of the tragedy by Garrick and Lee, Miss Kemble being the Queen and Siddons the Guildenstern. Most of the parts mentioned were subsequently seen in London.
It was impossible for the London managers to shut their ears to the rumours of her triumphs in Bath. Aristocratic patronage did something for her; but Henderson, who from the first recognised her greatness, seems to have been the first who induced the Drury Lane management to make some timorous advances. Her difficulties about reappearing in London were conquered; terms were, after some wrangling, arranged; and on 10 Oct. 1782, as Mrs. Siddons from Bath, she reappeared at Drury Lane, playing Isabella in the piece so named—Garrick's version of Southerne's ‘Fatal Marriage.’ Her triumph was immediate and complete, so complete that her merit was said by Davies to have swallowed up all remembrance of present and past performers. At this moment she is thus described by him: ‘The person of Mrs. Siddons is greatly in her favour; just rising above the middle stature, she looks, walks, and moves like a woman of a superior rank. Her countenance is expressive, her eye so full of information, that the passion is told from her look before she speaks. Her voice, though not so harmonious as Mrs. Cibber's’ (to which it had some resemblance), ‘is strong and pleasing; nor is a word lost for want of due articulation. … She excels all persons in paying attention to the business of the scene; her eye never wanders from the person she speaks to, or should look at when she is silent. Her modulation of grief, in her plaintive pronunciation of the interjection, “Oh!” is sweetly moving and reaches to the heart. Her madness in Belvidera is terribly affecting. The many accidents of spectators falling into fainting fits in the time of her acting bear testimony to the effects of her exertions’ (Dramatic Miscellanies, iii. 248–9). The actors on the stage engaged for farce could not easily recover their spirits after seeing her in tragedy. It was at this time she was taken to see Johnson, who paid her many compliments, and talked long with her concerning her predecessors on the stage. The highest honour he did her was whenm in Reynolds's picture of her as the ‘Tragic Muse,’ ‘he wrote his name upon the hem of her garment. “I would not lose,” he said, “the honour this opportunity offered to me for my name going down to posterity on the hem of your garment”’ (Northcote, Reynolds, i. 246). He said to Dr. Glover that she was a prodigious fine woman. Asked if she was not finer on the stage when adorned by art, he replied: ‘Sir, on the stage art does not adorn; nature adorns her there, and art glorifies her’ (Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes, i. 114). Mrs. Piozzi said that ‘the Earl [of Errol], dressed in his robes at the coronation, and Mrs. Siddons, in the character of Murphy's Euphrasia, were the noblest specimens of the human race’ she ever saw.
The selection of Isabella for her appearance was due to the elder Sheridan, her own choice having fallen on Euphrasia. She gives in her ‘Memoranda’ a striking account of her anxieties during her rehearsals, in undergoing which she was supported by her father. The verdict of press and public was enthusiastic, and the performance was repeated eight times. Her next part was Euphrasia in the ‘Grecian Daughter,’ and revealed a new aspect of her powers. Public interest reached its highest point. People breakfasted near the playhouse, so as to be first to take their chance of seats; young barristers subscribed for her a purse of a hundred guineas. Euphrasia was played on 30 Oct. and Jane Shore on 8 Nov. On the 16th she was the original Mrs. Montague in the ‘Fatal Interview,’ assigned to Hull. The piece was coldly received, and Mrs. Siddons, unable to vitalise the character she assumed, lost ground. Sheridan accordingly, perceiving the fact, ‘damned the play in order to save the actress.’ Calista in the ‘Fair Penitent’ followed on the 29th, and on 14 Dec., for her benefit, she played Belvidera. This was one of her greatest parts, and her acting in the mad scene went ‘beyond the conception of those who did not see it.’ The receipts this night were over 800l. Her salary was advanced from 5l. to 20l. a week, and her two sisters were engaged. Frances Kemble made her first appearance in London as Alicia on 6 Jan. 1783, and Elizabeth Kemble made a second appearance as Portia on 1 March. Both were retained for some seasons, though neither showed much talent. Mrs. Siddons, for a second benefit, on 18 March played Zara in the ‘Mourning Bride.’ Recognition and presents from aristocratic patrons rained upon her, and she was, on the command of the queen, appointed reader to the royal princesses. During the season, one of the most prosperous Drury Lane had ever known, she played Isabella twenty-four times, the Grecian Daughter eleven times, Jane Shore thirteen times, Mrs. Montague thrice, Calista fourteen times, Belvidera thirteen times, and Zara twice.
The whole town was at her feet, the only discordant note in the chorus of praise being as yet inaudible. On 3 Nov., however, Horace Walpole, having seen her twice in Isabella, wrote to the Countess of Ossory: ‘She pleased me beyond my expectation, but not up to the admiration of the ton.’ He held her anything rather than the best actress he had seen, and continued: ‘She is a good figure, handsome enough, though neither nose nor chin according to the Greek standard, beyond which both advance a good deal. Her hair is either red or she has no objection to its being thought so, and had used red powder. Her voice is clear and good; but I thought she did not vary its modulations enough. … Her action is proper, but with little variety; when without motion, her arms are not genteel’ (Letters, ed. Cunningham, 1891, viii. 295). Subsequently he liked her better, and was ultimately in her train. He credited her with being modest and sensible, and refusing large dinners in order to be with her children. In each character she assumed new virtues were found in the actress. At the close of the season she visited Liverpool, Dublin, and Cork. Her first appearance in Dublin was made in Isabella on 21 June 1783 at the Smock Alley Theatre. Her engagement was for twelve nights, she taking half the receipts, and, probably, as this was elsewhere her practice, a free benefit.
Her reappearance in London took place by royal command as Isabella in Garrick's version of the ‘Fatal Marriage.’ Her brother, John Philip Kemble [q. v.], was now a member of the company. On 3 Nov. 1783 she essayed her first Shakespearean character in London, Isabella in ‘Measure for Measure.’ To her London repertory she added during the season Mrs. Beverley in the ‘Gamester,’ Constance in ‘King John,’ Lady Randolph in ‘Douglas,’ the Countess of Salisbury, and Sigismunda. At the close of the season she went to Edinburgh, where she appeared on 22 May 1784 at the Royalty Theatre as Belvidera. The scenes familiar in London were there repeated. People came from places so distant as Newcastle. As many as 2,575 applications were made in one day for 630 places. Strangers passing the theatre door were carried helplessly in by the crowd. At first, she said, her utmost efforts only aroused the exclamation ‘That's no bad!’ from a solitary listener. In the end she had no reason to complain of lack of enthusiasm. Her receipts for nine performances, including presents and a sum of 200l. guaranteed by Edinburgh gentlemen to the manager, and dexterously annexed by her husband, who was also her business manager, reached over 967l.
Before she returned to London the charge, too strongly insisted on, but scarcely quite unfounded, of stinginess had been heard, and she had been openly taxed with taking a large sum of money for acting in Dublin for the benefit of West Digges [q. v.], who was in embarrassed circumstances, and for that of Brereton. When seen on 5 Oct. 1784 at Drury Lane as Mrs. Beverley, she was greeted with loud hissing and a cry of ‘Off! off!’ Kemble led her off the stage. She came back, however, and denied the charges made against her, from which she was vindicated in the press by a writer signing himself ‘Laertes,’ supposed to be the pseudonym of Kemble. From the first charge she is exonerated by Lee Lewes in his ‘Memoirs,’ and Brereton somewhat tardily exculpated her from the second. Her indignation at her treatment was such that she talked about leaving the stage.
After playing Margaret of Anjou in the ‘Earl of Warwick,’ and Zara in the piece so named, she was on 2 Dec. the original Matilda in the ‘Carmelite’ of Cumberland, who declared her to be ‘inimitable.’ On 27 Jan. 1785 she was the first Camiola in the ‘Maid of Honour,’ altered by Kemble from Massinger. On 2 Feb. she assumed, for the first time in London, her great character of Lady Macbeth. This has been declared by competent judges to be perfect from beginning to end. Her acting in the sleep-walking scene has been followed ever since. She did not dare, however, to restore the scene in which, on the assemblage of the principal characters after the murder, she faints and is borne off, which was then omitted as conducive to hilarity. Desdemona, Elfrida, and Rosalind were essayed during the season. Her audiences had included Burke, Gibbon, Sheridan, Windham, and Fox. Reynolds had already painted her as the ‘Tragic Muse,’ a picture now in the Dulwich Gallery, in the attitude she at first assumed when Reynolds had addressed her, saying: ‘Ascend your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some good idea of the tragic muse.’
Her history for many years to come was confined to her appearances at Drury Lane and her summer performances in the country. In the season of 1785–6 she was seen as the Duchess of Braganza, Mrs. Lovemore in ‘The Way to keep him,’ and Hermione in ‘The Distressed Mother.’ On 9 March she was the original Malvina in Dr. Delap's ‘Captives,’ derived in part from Euripides. Portia and Elwina in ‘Percy’ followed; and she played, for her benefit, Ophelia and the Lady in ‘Comus.’ The regularity of her appearances was disturbed by the birth of her children. She was again in Edinburgh in July 1785, and played in Glasgow on 12 Aug. The following season saw her in Dodsley's ‘Cleone,’ a piece speedily withdrawn; Imogen in ‘Cymbeline;’ Hortensia in the ‘Count of Narbonne;’ Lady Restless in ‘All in the Wrong,’ and Alicia in ‘Jane Shore;’ and on 14 April 1787, as the original Julia in Jephson's ‘Julia, or the Italian Lover.’ Ill-health prevented her acting in the country. The year 1787–8 saw her as Cordelia, Katharine in ‘Katharine and Petruchio,’ and Cleopatra in ‘All for Love;’ and in two original parts—Chelonice in Mrs. Cowley's ‘Fall of Sparta,’ 31 Jan. 1788, and on 1 April Dianora in the ‘Regent.’ This last piece was by Bertie Greathead, a friend, now head of the family with which she had lived when a girl at Guy's Cliff. The ‘Biographia Dramatica’ says that this piece was acted twice, and Campbell says twelve times. Genest, for once nodding, says it was given only once, and adds it was acted nine times. Queen Katharine, her first new part in the autumn of 1788, when the management passed into the hands of John Kemble, acting for Sheridan, was followed by Volumnia in ‘Coriolanus,’ altered by Kemble. This was one of her great parts, though Genest charges her with looking like Kemble's sister, not his mother. She also played the Fine Lady in ‘Lethe,’ Juliet and the Princess in the ‘Law of Lombardy,’ and was, on 20 March 1789, the original Queen Mary in St. John's ‘Mary Queen of Scots.’ Young the actor gives a very striking account of the performance in Volumnia when she came down the stage on the triumphal entry of her son: ‘She came alone, marching and beating time to the music; rolling (if that be not too strong a term to describe her motion) from side to side, swelling with the triumph of her son. Such was the intoxication of joy which flashed from her eye and lit up her whole face that the effect was irresistible. She seemed to me to reap all the glory of that procession to herself. I could not take my eye from her.’
In the following season (1789–90) she retired from Drury Lane, partly on account of ill-health, partly because of the difficulty of getting money from Sheridan, who, besides leaving salaries unpaid, took the receipts from benefits. She acted a few times in the country. In this period also she practised modelling, to which she had always a disposition. In the summer of 1790 she was in France and the Netherlands. A great reception was accorded her on her return, but she was seldom seen. In 1791–2 she played the Queen in ‘Richard II’ and Mrs. Oakly, and for her benefit recited Collins's ‘Ode to the Passions.’ On 12 March 1793 she was the original Ariadne in Murphy's ‘Rival Sisters.’ No new part was essayed in 1793–4. On 28 Oct. 1794 she was the first Countess Orsina in ‘Emilia Galotti,’ a translation from Lessing, and, 21 March 1795, Elgiva in Madame d'Arblay's ‘Edwey and Elgiva.’ She also played Horatia in the ‘Roman Father,’ Palmira in ‘Mahomet,’ and Emmeline in ‘Edgar and Emmeline.’ Almeyda in Miss Lee's ‘Almeyda, Queen of Granada,’ 14 April 1796, belongs to the following season, in which she was seen as Roxana, the Queen in ‘Hamlet,’ and Julia in ‘Such Things were.’ Vitellia in Jephson's ‘Conspiracy’ (‘La Clemenza di Tito’) was seen on 15 Nov. 1796, and in the same season she appeared as Eleonora in ‘Edward and Eleonora,’ Millwood in the ‘London Merchant,’ Athanais in ‘Theodosius,’ Arpasia, Queen of Carthage, Agnes in ‘Fatal Curiosity,’ and Emily in ‘Deuce is in him.’ Julia in the ‘Rivals’ preceded her appearance, 24 March 1798, as the original Mrs. Haller in the ‘Stranger.’ This was one of her great parts, though it was reasonably objected that no man would have dared to take a liberty with so important a creature. She played Mrs. Haller twenty-six times during this season. That of 1798–9 saw her in four original parts: Miranda in ‘Aurelio and Miranda,’ a version by Boaden of ‘Monk’ Lewis's ‘Monk,’ 29 Dec. 1798; the Countess of Montval in the ‘Castle of Montval’ of her friend and correspondent, Dr. Whalley, 23 April 1799; a part in the ‘Trials of the Heart,’ 24 April, a piece unprinted and not acted again, and Elvira in ‘Pizarro,’ 24 May. Over the production of Dr. Whalley's piece she had been much exercised. She did her best, and succeeded in saving it from failure. Elvira, in Sheridan's adaptation from Kotzebue, was at first distasteful to Mrs. Siddons. It proved in the end one of her best characters, and has been described as the only capital part among the characters of which she was the original exponent. On 25 Jan. 1800 she was the first Adelaide in Pye's ‘Adelaide,’ in which she did not score, and on 29 April, Jane in Joanna Baillie's ‘De Montfort.’ On 13 Dec. she was Helena in Godwin's ‘Antonio, or the Soldier's Return,’ and, 25 April 1801, Agnes, Countess of Tortona, in Sotheby's ‘Julian and Agnes.’ This was her last original part. In 1801–2 she added to her repertory Hermione in the ‘Winter's Tale,’ and in the following season she was not engaged. At the close of the customary tour she appeared for the first time at Covent Garden, under Harris, with her brother John as acting manager, and taking a share in the profits, playing on 27 Sept. 1806 Isabella. She took no new part, and in the following season, that of the Master Betty craze, was only seen about twice. She remained at Covent Garden until her retirement from the stage. On 29 June 1812, for her benefit, she took her practical farewell of the stage, as Lady Macbeth. After the sleep-walking scene the curtain was dropped, and the performance ended. After changing her dress she came forward and recited an address by her nephew, Horace Twiss. Subsequently she gave private readings at Windsor Castle before royalty, and probably in the Argyll Rooms. Strongly urged to return to the stage, a regular committee having been formed for the purpose of persuading her, she had the good sense to refuse.
Her subsequent incidental appearances were as follows: on 25 May 1813, for the Theatrical Fund, she played Mrs. Beverley; on 22 June 1813, for the Theatrical Fund, Lady Randolph; on 11 June 1813, at Covent Garden, Lady Macbeth, for the benefit of her brother Charles. After the death of her son, Henry Siddons [q. v.], she acted in Edinburgh ten times for the benefit of his children, appearing, 18 Nov. 1815, as Lady Macbeth, and being also seen in Lady Randolph, Queen Katharine, Constance, and Mrs. Beverley. On 31 May 1816, at Covent Garden, she played Queen Katharine for the benefit of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kemble; on 8 and 22 June, Lady Macbeth by the express desire of the Princess Charlotte; on the 29th, Queen Katharine, for the Theatrical Fund; on 5 June 1817, Lady Macbeth, for C. Kemble's benefit; and on 9 June 1819, Lady Randolph, for that of Mr. and Mrs. C. Kemble. This was her last appearance.
From 1790 to 1802 Mrs. Siddons had resided at 49 Great Marlborough Street; thence she seems to have moved to Gower Street, where the back of her house was ‘effectually in the country.’ Her temporary dwellings included a cottage at Hampstead, lodgings in Prince's Street, Hanover Square, and (1805) a cottage known as Westbourne Farm, which stood until 1856, where she was visited by Miss Berry, Madame d'Arblay, Incledon, and other friends. Subsequently, during the winter at least, she lived in a house (now marked by a memorial slab) in Upper Baker Street, overlooking Regent's Park. There, until a year or two before her death, she frequently gave large parties, reading from Shakespeare to her guests. In April 1831 she suffered from erysipelas, which on 31 May took an acute form, and on 8 June she died at her house in Upper Baker Street. She was buried on 15 June in Paddington churchyard, where is a tomb to her memory. A slab is also in the church. On 14 June 1897 a memorial to her (in the shape of a white marble statue by L. Chavalliaud, after the famous painting by Reynolds) was unveiled at Paddington Green by Sir Henry Irving. A statue by Chantrey, colossal in size, is behind the Norris tomb in Westminster Abbey. It was erected mainly through the exertions of Macready.
Her husband, William Siddons, died on 11 March 1808 at Bath, where, on account of failing health, he had long dwelt. He was a handsome man, and an actor of some versatility but little talent, who finally abandoned the stage. He is said to have been a good judge of acting, and to have given his wife serviceable advice. They had for some years lived apart without apparently a formal separation. She spoke of Siddons to the last with a certain amount of regard and even of affection, visited him in the winter before his death, and after it took place interrupted her performances for a fortnight. She received, however, the intelligence with a placidity contrasting strongly with her agonies after the loss of her children. She had five children, of whom Maria died in 1798 and Sarah in 1803. The others were: George, who lived in India; Henry [q. v.]; and Cecilia, who married, in 1833, George Combe, writer to the signet, Edinburgh, (for her descendants see Fitzgerald's Lives of the Kembles, ii. 392–3; Notes and Queries, 7th ser. iii. 4).
Great annoyance was caused to the actress by the proceedings of her sister Ann or Anne Siddons (Mrs. Curtis), who read lectures at Dr. Graham's Temple of Health, led a discreditable career, attempted to poison herself in Westminster Abbey, made appeals to the public, and announced herself everywhere as the youngest sister of Mrs. Siddons. Anne's endeavours to wring money from her helped to burden Mrs. Siddons's memory with avarice. Mrs. Siddons allowed her 20l. a year on the condition, it is said, that she lived a hundred and fifty miles from London. Under the name of Hutton she wrote novels, and was known as ‘Anne of Swansea’ (see Notes and Queries, 7th ser. viii. 415; Fitzgerald, Lives of the Kembles, iii. 98, 107). She is described as a large woman with a squint. A volume is in existence, ‘Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, by Ann Curtis, Sister of Mrs. Siddons,’ London, 1783, 8vo, printed for the author. It was dedicated to the Duchess of Devonshire, and is now very scarce.
Mrs. Siddons's greatest parts were Isabella in Garrick's version of Southerne's ‘Fatal Marriage,’ Lady Macbeth, Zara in ‘Mourning Bride,’ Elvira, Constance, Queen Katharine, Belvidera, and Lady Randolph. She was probably the greatest actress this country has known, and it is indeed doubtful whether in any country she has had her superior or even her equal in tragedy. Her school, ‘the Kemble school,’ was what is known as declamatory. Its influence has been depreciated, but never demolished, and it is doubtful whether it has entirely yielded even to the genius of Rachel. Christopher North spoke of the ‘divine, inspiring awe’ which she evoked (cf. Wilson, Noctes Ambrosianæ, 1863, ii. 355), and Hazlitt spoke of her, with a like enthusiasm, as ‘not less than a goddess, or than a prophetess inspired by the gods. Power was seated on her brow, passion emanated from her breast as from a shrine.’ More intelligible than these raptures is Tate Wilkinson's declaration, ‘If you ask me “What is a queen?” I should say Mrs. Siddons.’ Byron said that she was worth Cooke, Kemble, and Kean all put together. Lord Erskine declared her performance a school for oratory, asserting that he had studied her cadences and intonations, and was indebted to the harmony of her periods and pronunciation for his best displays. Haydon said that she always seemed to throw herself on nature as a guide, and follow instantaneously what it suggested. Many instances are given of the effect she produced not only on the audience, but on those with whom she acted. Charles Young, acting Beverley with her, says that he was so impressed as to lose his power of utterance. It was not until Mrs. Siddons said to him in a low voice, ‘Mr. Young, recollect yourself,’ that he recovered speech. Leigh Hunt calls her sleep-walking scene and her stare of misery by the corpse of Beverley two of the sublimest pieces of acting on the English stage, and says that one of the marks she bears of a great actor is that she seems unconscious that there is a crowd called a pit waiting to applaud her, or that there are a dozen fiddlers waiting for her exit. If she had any shortcoming, he writes, it was in the amatory pathetic.
At the outset of her theatrical career she expressed a wish, neither too generous nor too loyal, that Mrs. Crawford would withdraw from the stage and leave the field clear for herself. She said, with some justice, that the public had a sort of delight in mortifying their favourites by setting up new idols, and added that she herself had been thrice threatened with an eclipse, first by means of Miss Brunton (Lady Craven), next by Miss Smith (Mrs. Bartley), and lastly by Miss O'Neil, but was not yet extinguished. She left unmentioned Mrs. Jordan in parts such as Rosalind, a more formidable rival or successor. She was never easy after she left the stage, and used to complain to Rogers, ‘Oh, dear! at this time I used to be thinking of going to the theatre.’ She was jealous of the dinner given to John Kemble, a far inferior actor to herself, on his retirement from the stage, and said, ‘Well, perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this’ (Rogers, Table Talk, pp. 188–9, ed. Dyce).
Mrs. Siddons's private character was excellent, and she retained to the last the esteem of her friends and of the aristocratic world. Of Horace Walpole she made a convert. Washington Irving found every disposition in her to be gracious, but said that she reminded him of Scott's ‘knights’ who
Carved the meat with their gloves of steel
And drank the wine through their helmets barred.
In her conversation she was apt, like her brother John, to talk in rhythmic phrase. Scott, whom she used to visit, was accustomed to mimic her speech to an attendant at dinner:
‘You've brought me water, boy; I asked for beer.’
She certainly, throughout life, inspired more admiration than affection; she had the manner to command, but not the tact to manage. Determined to make money for her children, she was sharp in money matters, quarrelled with her Dublin managers, and incurred, in a wider circle, an unjust reputation for stinginess. The plea advanced by Johnson in favour of Garrick that ‘he was very poor when he began life, so when he came to have money’ was unskilful in giving it away, may with equal justice be urged in her favour. Her obtrusion of private affairs upon the public ear prejudiced her in the eyes of many; and the press, for the most part, treated her with no superfluous generosity. An indiscreet and impulsive friendship between her and a fencing-master named Galindo caused the latter's wife to publish ‘Mrs. Galindo's Letter to Mrs. Siddons; being a circumstantial detail of Mrs. Siddons's life for the last seven years, with several of her letters,’ London, 1809, 8vo. This charged Mrs. Siddons with improper connections with Galindo, but established nothing worse than grave indiscretion.
Her physical gifts were great. Her face was noble; her tall figure, which was at first slender and eminently graceful, was always dignified and statuesque. In her later days she became unwieldy, and had to be assisted when she rose. To divert attention from this, other actresses on the stage received like attentions.
A replica of Reynolds's portrait of Mrs. Siddons as the ‘Tragic Muse’ is at Grosvenor House. Portraits of her by Sir Thomas Lawrence are in the National Gallery and in the National Portrait Gallery. A portrait by Gainsborough is in the National Gallery, and one attributed to the same artist in the Garrick Club, which has besides two portraits of her by George Henry Harlow [q. v.] as Lady Macbeth. Engraved portraits of her in the National Art Library, South Kensington, are a whole-length by W. Hamilton, with her son, in Isabella; a second by the same artist in the ‘Grecian Daughter,’ both engraved by J. Coldwell, and one by Reynolds as the ‘Tragic Muse,’ engraved by F. Harward, A.R.A. A portrait by T. Beach of Bath has been engraved by W. Dickinson; one by T. Lawrence, æt. 13, engraved by J. R. Smith. A portrait of her as Sigismunda, assigned to Wheatley, is of dubious authority. A sketch of her by Lawrence, in the same character, has been engraved. A portrait by C. Turner, after Lawrence, is given in Boaden's ‘Memoirs.’ A miniature of her by Horace Hone, engraved by Bartolozzi, is said to have served for the likeness in the ‘Thespian Dictionary.’ A coloured print of her as Lady Macbeth, after Harlow, serves as frontispiece to Terry's ‘British Theatrical Gallery,’ 1825. Many likenesses are to be found in theatrical works. She herself executed busts of herself and of her brother John. A correspondent of ‘Notes and Queries,’ 5th ser. i. 77, recollected a bust of herself at Newnham in Oxford. Professor Attwell (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 335) speaks of a portrait, presumably of her, by Romney in his possession. Genest says that the best idea of her figure, face, and manner is obtainable from a print of the trial scene in ‘Henry VIII’ published in 1819. William Combe, whom her mother in early years refused as her tutor, gives a picture of her in girlhood standing in the wings and tapping with a pair of snuffers on a candlestick to imitate the sound of a windmill.[The principal facts concerning the life of Mrs. Siddons are given in the Memoirs of Mrs. Siddons, by James Boaden, London, 1827, 2 vols. 8vo, and 1831; Life of Mrs. Siddons, by Thomas Campbell, 1834, 2 vols. 8vo (reprinted in 1839); The Kembles, by Percy Fitzgerald, London, n.d. , 2 vols. 8vo; Mrs. Siddons, by Mrs. A. Kennard, London, 1887, 8vo, in the Eminent Women series. The most trustworthy chronicle of her artistic career is derived principally from playbills furnished by Genest. Campbell's work contains her own memoranda and her letters to Whalley, giving some biographical particulars. Facts and fancies concerning her early days were assiduously collected by the writer known as Cuthbert Bede, and contributed under the title Siddoniana (sic) to a periodical called Titan, for August 1857, and to Notes and Queries (see specially 7th ser. vi. 241–3). In addition to those named, the following works concern Mrs. Siddons's career: A Review of Mrs. Crawford and Mrs. Siddons in the Character of Belvidera, 1782; Verses addressed to Mrs. Siddons by the Rev. Mr. Whalley, London, 1782, 4to; The Beauties of Mrs. Siddons … in Letters from a Lady of Distinction to her Friend in the Country, London, 1786, 8vo; Critique on the Theatrical Performances of Mrs. Siddons, Edinburgh, 1788, 4to; Edwin's Pills to Purge Melancholy … with a humorous account of Mrs. Siddons's first reception in London; Ballantyne's Dramatic Characters of Mrs. Siddons, 1812 (reprinted by the author at her request); Dibdin's Hist. of the Scottish Stage; Wheatley and Cunningham's London Past and Present; Tate Wilkinson's Memoirs; Masson's De Quincey, 1889, ii. 446–454; Memoirs of Charles Lee Lewes; Monthly Mirror and the Theatrical Inquisitor, various years; Lockhart's Life of Scott; Walpole's Letters; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill; Stanley's Westminster Abbey; Marshall's Cat. of Engraved National Portraits, 1895; Smith's Cat. of Engraved Portraits; Catalogue of Mathews Collection; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Lowe's Bibliographical Account of English Theatrical Literature; Hazlitt's Dramatic Essays; Leigh Hunt's Critical Essays on Acting; Dramatic Table Talk; Gilliland's Dramatic Mirror; Thespian Dictionary; Doran's Dramatic Annals, ed. Lowe; Theatrical Biography; Pollock's Macready; Notes and Queries, passim. See also articles: Kemble, Charles; Kemble, John (1599–1679); Kemble, John Philip; Kemble, Roger; Kemble, Stephen.]