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Madame Vestris and her times online

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fully and ascertain if possible her name and address,
follow her if need be, and perform generally the
functions of a youthful Pandarus. There is nothing
in the subsequent career of Lee to show that he did
not perform the part satisfactorily. He was a weak-
minded creature, the tool of everyone who chose to
make use of him.

There appears to be some ground for the rumour
that Vestris, in default of obtaining an engagement
in London, contemplated crossing the Atlantic. A
semi-theatrical paper which had adopted the name
of Poole's popular comedy Paul Pry had this paragraph
bearing on the subject : " We hear that Miss Paton
and Mr. Wood contemplate an expedition to America.


The undertaking would be somewhat perilous for
the Yankees are * pretty particular scrupulous.' In-
deed it is pretty well understood that the reason why
Madame Vestris does not accept the larger offers
which have been made to her to go there is that she
could not go with any reasonable degree of comfort,
as she would be obliged to leave her friend P. [Jack
Phillipson ?] behind her." Madame eventually did
undertake an American tour, but not until after she
married Mr. Charles J. Mathews.

The dullness which generally followed Vestris' s
departure from the metropolis was this year greatly
relieved by two episodes the elopement of Lady
William Lennox, better known as Miss Paton, with
Wood, a popular tenor singer, and the thrashing Molloy
Westmacott, as he was pleased to call himself, received
at the hands of Charles Kemble. Westmacott, who
had the knack of thrusting his nose into theatrical
scandals, no doubt for his own journalistic purposes,
also figured as the friend and whitewasher of Lord
William Lennox.

Molloy Westmacott was now the proprietor and
editor of the Age, which was started by one Richard
Richards, who was mostly in financial difficulties
and not infrequently edited his paper in the seclusion
of the Fleet prison. The tone of the Age was always
extremely personal, and as such, at times, offensive,
but under the management of Richards it was mild
in comparison to what it became when Westmacott
had a free hand. The man was a combination of
venom and greed. He had not the slightest conscience
and never sought to curb his coarseness if coarseness
would serve his purpose generally blackmail.

There is no necessity to go into the merits or de-
merits of the popular soprano's matrimonial differences
beyond noting the lofty attitude of the press generally,
which under the cloak of a homily indulged in gross
abuse of the lady. Lord William Lennox was, accord-
ing to the censors of morals, a model of a good husband j


Lady Lennox was all she should not be. Subse-
quently this verdict was reversed, but for the time
being the papers vied with each other in raking up
the garbage-heap, and their wrath was only appeased
when the erring couple were decently married, Mrs.
Wood at her first public appearance being overwhelmed
with praise.

Westmacott's castigation concerned himself only,
and the contemporaries of the Age left him severely
alone. He deserved punishment for his repeated
attacks on Fanny Kemble, but it may be doubted
whether her father took the right method of dealing
with her detractor. Westmacott, at the end of the
first act of the piece, was passing in front of the stage
towards the entrance, when Kemble quitted his box,
rushed at him, and felled him with a stick, continuing
to belabour him while he was on the ground. There
was certainly nothing heroic in the assault, for Kemble
was an athletic man of over six feet while Westmacott
was but five-feet-five. The behaviour of the police
superintendent who witnessed the scene was somewhat
singular, and Westmacott had good reason to complain.
The man not only did not interfere, but refused his
assistance when Westmacott begged for his arm, his
reason being that he saw the sympathy of the audience
was in favour of Kemble.

Westmacott made the most of the affair in the Age
and wanted to challenge his assailant, but, so he said,
was dissuaded from this course by his friends, and he
contented himself with legal proceedings, which,
however, came to nothing, Kemble apologising and
accepting Westmacott's assurance that he never in-
sinuated anything against the young lady's honour
and that his criticisms were strictly confined to her
histrionic abilities. It can hardly be said that the
lesson, severe as it was, made any difference to the
scurrilities of the Age. They continued to appear,
and as time went on they became coarser and more


In the late autumn Vestris returned to London and
failed to obtain an engagement at any of the larger
theatres. But she was not the only actress of light
comedy who was compelled to " rest." A newspaper
paragraph runs : " Stars out of place, Foote, Vestris,
Paton, Stephens, Mrs. Bunn, Miss F. H. Kelly, Mrs.
Humby, Miss Kelly." But Vestris was not left un-
employed for long. The enterprising manager of
the Tottenham Street Theatre doomed in after-years
to suffer many changes of fortune, at one period
sinking so low as to be called the " Dust Hole," from
which it emerged in butterfly fashion as " The Prince
of Wales," and under the brilliant management of
the Bancrofts drew all fashionable London to its
doors, and has now settled down as the " Scala "
offered her an engagement and she accepted it.

In the estimation of the play-going world the little
Tottenham Street Theatre was much beneath the
great patent theatres, Drury Lane and Covent Garden,
but this made no difference to Madame Vestris.
She probably was of the same opinion as Mrs. Siddons,
who, when reproached by Fanny Burney for playing
at so inferior a place as Sadler's Wells, retorted, " I
will play anywhere so long as I am paid." Directly
it was noised abroad that the public's idol was at
Tottenham Street, the house was packed nightly,
although at first nothing more novel than the almost
worn-out Lord of the Manor was produced, and subse-
quently a version of Auber's Fra Diavolo Madame
of course in the title-role ; that the music of the first
was written for a tenor made no difference to her,
nor to the audience either, and she continued her
successes until December, when other ambitions began
to occupy her mind.

The effect of her popularity was to raise the Totten-
ham Street Theatre into a position which frightened
the magnates of the patent theatres. They discovered
that their exclusive privilege was being encroached
upon, and they pretended that their scanty audiences


As Apollo in Midas.


were due to the rivalry of this presumptuous " minor "
theatre. Proceedings were instituted against Chap-
man, the lessee, restraining him from " acting any
Interlude, Tragedy, Comedy, Opera, Farce, Play or
other entertainment of the stage," and notwithstand-
ing that the theatre had been properly licensed by
the magistrates, a fine of .50 was imposed.

There may have been something more than a dog-
in-the-manger spirit at the back of the prosecution.
The patent lessees could not have been unconscious
that a strong feeling against their ridiculous monopoly
was rising and that before long active hostilities might
leak out. There is little doubt that they hoped, by
pouncing upon the Tottenham Street Theatre, to
stifle the growing ferment. In this they totally
failed. The time was rapidly approaching for the
establishment of free trade in theatres, and on Decem-
ber 24th a meeting of the theatrical profession was
held and a memorial was drawn up for presentation
to the King, in addition to a petition to Parliament
calling for an abolition of the restrictive laws.

Meanwhile a powerful competition for public
favour was being prepared which neither Charles
Kemble nor Alexander Lee anticipated. It was ru-
moured that Madame Vestris intended taking the
Olympic Theatre and running it under her own man-
agement. The rumour proved true, and on December
5th a paragraph to the effect appeared in all the papers.
We quote the announcement in the Age^ because it
shows unmistakably that at this time Westmacott
was disposed to be extremely friendly towards the
budding manageress. The announcement was the
following : "La Belle, late the Olympic. Madame
Vestris, assisted by Miss Foote and we hope all the
other eminent actors and actresses who are at present
prohibited from appearing before their patrons the
public by the patent monopolists of the two major
theatres, will shortly open the above house in a style
of elegance combined with attractive pieces and


performances that will be worthy of the British metro-
polis. It will be admitted that these fascinating
and favourite performers have been driven to this
measure of self-defence by a most unfair combination
equally opposed to the interests of the public and
themselves." It was not long before Westmacott
entirely changed his tone and became one of Madame's
bitterest enemies.

The Olympic had not had a very prosperous past,
but its history was not without interest. It was built
on the site of Craven House, Wych Street, and was
a speculation of Philip Astley, of circus fame. Astley
had an eye to economy, and coming across a captured
French man-of-war, the Ville de Paris, about to be
broken up, he purchased the timbers and with them
built the little theatre, superintending the operations
personally and keeping a sharp eye on his workmen.
Hardly any brickwork was used ; the yards and bow-
sprit of the vessel formed the uprights and supports,
the deck was converted into the stage and flooring,
the sides for the outward walls, while the roof was
of tin. It had no orchestra in front of the stage,
the musicians occupying a sort of stage box, one on
each side of the house. It was thus admirably adapted
for a conflagration.

Astley's building bill amounted to 800, and he
opened the house in September 1808. He styled it
" The Olympic Pavilion," and described it as " a
house of public exhibition of horsemanship and droll."
Astley's venture was a failure. He lost .10,000 and
sold the building to Elliston for .2,800 and an
annuity of 20. Astley lived only a year, so that
Elliston got a bargain.

The new owner altered the original title to the
" Little Drury Lane Theatre," forgetful of, or more
likely indifferent to, the patent monopolists of Drury
Lane and Covent Garden. The Lord Chamberlain
was at once approached, and it was pointed out that
Astley's licence, which Elliston had taken over, was


for equestrian entertainments only, and even this
was only operative when the amphitheatre in the
Westminster Bridge Road was closed. Elliston con-
sequently had to revert to the old title and depend
upon burlettas, upon the exact meaning of which the
authorities could never agree. He opened the theatre
in 1813, and five years later rebuilt it at a cost of ^2,500.
He migrated to Drury Lane in 1819, and the Olympic
became a sort of white elephant, as the articles of
the Drury Lane lease precluded him from active
interest in any other theatre. After his bankruptcy
in 1824 the mortgagees sold the property and its
accessories for .4,860.

Then following a period of lurid melodrama under
the management of John Scott, the builder of the
Sans Pareil, afterwards the Adelphi, and it was from
Scott that Madame obtained a lease of the building,
the scene, by an odd coincidence, of the first perform-
ance of Giovanni in London with the notorious Miss
Goold, in which piece, when it was transferred to
Drury Lane, Vestris laid the foundation of her fame.



Madame opens the Olympic with great eclat. The theatre entirely
remodelled and redecorated. Maria Foote and Colonel Berkeley.
Listen and Count D'Orsay. Vestris surrounded by men of fashion.
Theodore Hook and an " impromptu." Tremendous excitement on
the first night. 'The Olympic Revels the first of Planche's " extra-
vaganza burlettas." The Duke of Devonshire's compliment to
Vestris. An innovation the entertainment shortened. The Age
abusively attacks Vestris and Planche. The attacks increase in vul-
garity. Westmacott suddenly becomes complimentary. Captain
Phillipson (" Handsome Jack ") charged with threatening to " whop "
Westmacott. A lively verbal duel at Bow Street. The Age renews
its offensiveness. The paper's lying statements. Blackmail the
probable motive.

How Madame obtained the funds for the necessary
outlay in decoration and other things connected with
the Olympic can only be surmised. Probably she
was dependent upon no one man for pecuniary assist-
ance. The generosity of Tom Duncombe we may
be sure was not lacking, and there were others. It
is not a little singular and it is a tribute to Madame' s
cleverness that she contrived to keep peace among
her large circle of admirers. She was never the subject
of ill-feeling, no duels were ever fought about her,
and all were ready to be her champion. She was
not of the sentimental temperament which demands
the solace of an absorbing passion. When she had
the money she was as ready to give as to receive. She
took life lightly, and men thronged round her for
the amusement she gave them. Yet, as will be seen,
she stepped aside in one instance from this butterfly
existence, and with disastrous results. But at first



all went well, and the Olympic green-room was the
nightly resort of, among others, the Duke of Brunswick,
who rented a box, Lord Chesterfield, Count D'Orsay,
Lord Harrington, and their friends. The too-notorious
Colonel Berkeley (afterwards Lord Fitzhardinge) was
one of her supporters, but owing to Miss Foote being
a member of the company he absented himself. Liston
was engaged, but did not appear for some time, having
given offence to D'Orsay (according to Mr. T. H.
Duncombe) by wearing a coat similar to that favoured
by the Count.

Mr. Duncombe's statement is difficult to reconcile
with a paragraph in the Satirist of November 9th,
1834, wherein we are told : " Liston in the Retort
Courteous in his costume hits off the ' Royal ' Count
to a hair ; his looks do not bear the same resemblance,
as the initiated well know. Lest the public, how-
ever, should imagine the contrary, we advise D'Orsay
to plant himself in the stage box for a few evenings
in order to its being seen that he is the handsomer of
the two." The Count appears to have taken the
hint, for in the following week the Satirist noted that
he was present and was highly amused. However this
may be, it is certain that Liston was not included in
the company until October 23rd, 1834, when he
made his first appearance in the above-mentioned play.
The theatre had then been run by Vestris some three
years and nine months.

When Madame took upon herself the responsibility
of running a theatre, she was sure of a big following
among ordinary playgoers. But she had another
string to her bow. At this time she was pre-eminently
the " toast " of men of wealth and fashion, who
divided their homage between her and Crockford,
who started as a fishmonger and became the owner
of the most sumptuous gambling-house to be found
in London or the Continent. There were many
other gaming resorts, and one of them, at 14, Park
Place, St. James's, found its patrons among high-class


" punters." Four men ran the establishment, one
of them being the brother of Mazzinghi, the composer
of the music to Dibdin's opera Ihe Cabinet, made
famous by Braham, and of a pretty pastoral trio,
" The Wreath," very popular once but long since
forgotten. Theodore Hook was a constant visitor
here. Tom Duncombe, Horace Clagitt, Jack Phillip-
son ("Handsomejack "), and other admirers of Madame
Vestris were also often to be seen. Hook was some-
times persuaded to give one of his extemporaneous
poetic effusions for which he was so celebrated. One
of these efforts, bringing in most of the men present,
ended with a reference to the " bucks " and Vestris,
running thus :

And the first in my fist

I will place on the list
Is * D'Orsay," that beau of renown.

Oh, him I've oft met

Lady Blessington's pet
At her ladyship's soirees and meetings,

When all eyes would scan

The elegant man
Who receives with much grace all their greetings.

There are " Duncombe " and " Clagitt,"

When bitten by maggot
Would venture to Vestris select,

Though parochial duty

Is performed in its beauty
By Phillipson, tall and erect.

The fair manageress and her lieutenant, William
Vining, were in attendance at the theatre every day
planning and devising attractions, improvements,
and decorations. Planche was at hand whenever
there were difficulties or when new effects were desired,
and public curiosity was kept on the qui vive. Among
the profession not less interest was excited. The
Memoirs of an Old Stager (whose identity we have been
unable to fix), quoted in John Coleman's Plays and
Playwrights, contains a vivid picture of the commotion
created. He writes : " The morning following the


appearance of the announce bills the stage door was
surrounded by a motley group, composed of almost
every grade in the profession, from the decayed Hamlet
downwards, all applying for situations. There were
heavy fathers, and ditto villains, utility men, chamber-
maids, chorus singers, ballet-girls, etc., not forgetting
the materials for organising an army of * sandwich-
men,' or board bearers. The names of the most likely
of the lot were taken down by Ireland, the copyist
of the theatre, and a selection made from the list by
Madame herself. Meanwhile, artists and tradesmen
were busy at work, both inside and outside the build-
ing, getting it into order for opening. Planche and
Charles Dance prepared a burlesque-extravaganza,
called Olympic Revels, which was to have been pre-
ceded on the opening night by A Roland for an Oliver
had not the Covent Garden management interdicted
its performance. . . . On the Saturday prior to the
opening, the liberal lessee presented to every member
of the company a week's salary."

Nothing was heard but praise for the transformation
which had been brought about. The ceiling repre-
sented an ornamental silk canopy, drawn tight by
garlands of flowers held by flying cupids. The pros-
cenium was divided by gilt beading into panels each
containing flowers. The door at the side opening
on to the stage, as was the fashion in those days, had
been removed and proscenium boxes substituted.
Emblematical figures set in panels surrounded by an
arabesque scroll ornament decorated the fronts of
the upper tiers of boxes, and those of the lower
tier had their subjects selected from the works of
Bartolozzi, Vestris's grandfather. There were many
other decorative details, but these may be passed
over. The general effect was so novel and so different
from the heavy crimson and gold in vogue that the
audience who crowded into the building on the night
of January 3rd, 1831, was taken by surprise.

As early as from four o'clock the house was besieged.


Bell's Life in London informs us : " The boxes had
all been engaged by fashionable company for some
time past, and the train of carriages before seven
o'clock, unable to set down their company, owing to
the thronging and confusion at the doors, completely
blocked Wych Street, and extended up Drury Lane
beyond Drury Lane Theatre. Very soon after the
opening of the doors, the boxes, pit, and gallery were
completely filled, and boards were exhibited outside
to that effect, but numbers still continued to pass
in and pay their money, though only to crowd the
lobbies and stairs. The box office was the scene
of the greatest confusion. . . . Immediately after
the overture Madame Vestris entered amid universal
acclamations and spoke with her usual grace and
naivete an introductory address, written of course
for the occasion. She was interrupted at every pause
with plaudits, bestowed as much upon her pleasing
assurance as the witty point of her prologue." The
opening lines of this prologue or address ran thus :

Noble and gentle matrons patrons friends !
Before you here a venturous woman bends !
A warrior woman that in strife embarks,
The first of all dramatic Joan of Arcs.
Cheer on the enterprise thus dared by me !
The first that ever led a company.

And this was true. Never before had a woman
essayed the management of a theatre.

The piece chosen to inaugurate the new venture
was a pot-pourri entitled The Olympic Revels.
Planche, who wrote it, tells how he ran across Vestris
in Long Acre and how Madame told him she had taken
the Olympic with Miss Foote and would be glad if
he had anything ready for immediate production.
It so happened that he had a classical burlesque which
he could never get accepted. This was altered and
brought up to date, and was put on as the opening
piece, Vestris sustaining the part of Pandora. Planche


says : " The extraordinary success of this experiment
for it may justly so be termed was due not only
to the admirable singing and piquant performance
of that gifted lady, but also to the charm of novelty
imparted to it by the elegance and accuracy of the
costume, it having been previously the practice to
dress a burlesque in the most outre and ridiculous
fashion." Ike Olympic Revels caught on, and was
the first of a series which the public appreciated for
upwards of thirty years.

The Age was foremost in its congratulations and
prognostications of future success. " Madame Vestris,"
it proclaimed previous to the opening, " is fairly en-
throned in managerial state, directing the most
active preparations for opening her theatre on a style
of supreme elegance. The female Giovanni deserves
the greatest praise for the spirited manner in which
she contrived to overcome the combined tactics of
the two great monopolists who had petitioned the
Duke of Devonshire, as Lord Chamberlain, to refuse
her licence. Nor must we withhold the praise due
to his Grace for his independent and gallant conduct
upon the occasion. * There is your licence,' said the
generous nobleman ; ' I cannot refuse to Madame
Vestris what would have been granted to any person
of less powerful attractions. I shall come and see you
often and bring all my friends, and I have no doubt
your speculation will prove eminently successful.' '

Westmacott, however, had his own schemes in
regard to Vestris and her venture, and when these
schemes proved abortive he came out a few weeks
later in his true colours, as will be seen.

The theatre was crowded every night, the papers
were enthusiastic in their praise, and all went well.
Quite by accident an innovation was introduced which
was at once accepted by the public. The fashion of
the theatrical managers in those days was to give
plenty for the money. The performances commenced
as a rule at half -past six and did not end much before


midnight. A " three," sometimes a " four-piece
bill," was a common thing. The Olympic had a four-
piece bill, one of the items being a drama in two acts
entitled Mary Queen of Scots, Miss Foote taking the
part of the heroine. One night, for some reason, the
drama had to be removed and the performance ter-
minated at eleven instead of twelve. The difficulty
of reaching the suburbs late at night was at that time
considerable, and the extra hour for the journey was
so much appreciated that the abridgment was adopted
permanently and continued during the whole period
of Vestris's lesseeship.

Towards the end of January the tone of the Age's
criticisms suddenly changed and Molloy Westmacott
exhibited the spite and vulgarity which he always had
at hand when he was so inclined. The first missile
was hurled at Planche on January 23rd, in the follow-
ing, apropos of a translation from the French under
the English title of The Chaste Salute : " Chaste
Salute is the worst of the bad, without point and
without plot," declared the critic. " We have not
heard who is the perpetrator of this ' villainous
compound,' but we shrewdly suspect it has emanated
from the person whom the carpenters call Plank,
and if so we can only say that his name and his
nature cannot be more wooden than this miserable

A fortnight later Westmacott returned to the
charge, and this time Vestris was the object of attack :

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 13 of 24)