Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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" Widow Vestris," wrote the virulent scribbler, " is
going it, at least so the large placards in the street
tell us. Four new pieces in addition to the attraction
of the beautiful Miss Sydney, the widow herself, and
grandmama Edwin. By the bye, we heard that the
widow and Miss Sydney have been rehearsing a one-act
serious burletta called the Jealous Rivals. Prenez
garde, Miss Sydney, ' two stars shine not in the same
hemisphere.' The widow's company have obtained
the nom de guerre of the Olympic Devils \ and truly


they are for the most part eminently entitled to this
distinction ; but surely the lady herself might have
managed with the assistance of her treasurer and Mr.
Stage-manager Vining without an acting manager,
Mr. Raymond, and a master-manager, Mr. Plank, who
gives it out that he is lord paramount and intends
to regulate all the lady's affairs next season. This
is just the error that the best friends of the widow
cautioned her to avoid. Once let one of these Wooden
translators or dramatic cobblers of French pieces into
power and there is an end to your success, Madame."
The sting contained in this effusion is evident
Westmacott hoped to wound Vestris's vanity by
praising Miss Sydney, and he worked in this vein
whenever he had the chance, on one occasion going
so far as to say that Miss Sydney had " all the talent
of Widow Vestris with a more beautiful person than
the widow ever possessed."

Vestris went on her provincial tour as usual when
the Olympic season ended, but Westmacott continued
to pour out his venom, which became more and more
offensive. On her return to town in June she was
assailed with this piece of abuse : " Widow Vestris,
her foreign friend Monsieur Jouez-la (the monkey),
her two men-servants and suite have arrived at the
cottage at Mitcham Common. We regret to learn
that the widow's tour has been a decided failure
we cannot attribute this to the sedate habits which
have necessarily grown on her with advancing years
and which are so much opposed to her former gay
manners and sprightly flirtations, her * nods and becks
and wreathed smiles,' that she has lost the admiration
of millions of her fluttering and flattering beaux
and has ceased to be the idol of the Age" On the
identity of " Jouez-la " (the monkey) we are unable to
throw any light. Possibly Planche, who was of French
origin and whom Westmacott hated because of his
position at the Olympic, was intended.

In July Madame obtained a lease of the Olympic


for five years, and it was stated she intended enlarging
and improving the theatre. Meanwhile Anderson,
the adventurer with whom she had the squabble on
the Drury Lane stage, had married Josephine Bar-
tolozzi and set sail with her to America. At the
end of July something had happened either to pacify
or frighten the pest of the Age, and it went back to
some extent to its former adulation, as this paragraph
indicates : " Madame Vestris, our elegant little widow,
has returned to town after her provincial trip and is
setting every wheel in motion for the success of her
ensuing campaign. With such eminent talent as
her own, let her have but a good cabinet and success
is fully before her."

This tolerant mood was probably due to a letter from
Bunn, who afterwards came to the front as a writer
of operatic librettos, and subsequently as manager
of Drury Lane Theatre, and exploiter of Jenny Lind.
Bunn was running a theatre in Dublin and was ac-
quainted with " Handsome Jack Phillipson." It was
perfectly obvious that Vestris could make no answer
to Westmacott's cowardly onslaughts, but it was other-
wise with her friends, and Phillipson in a conversation
with Bunn made no secret of his intention to inflict
punishment on the maligner. If the soft paragraph
was intended to turn away the wrath of Madame's
defender, it utterly failed. On October 9th the
theatrical world was startled by reading in the Times
that Captain Phillipson had the day previous appeared
before Sir R. Birnie at Bow Street to answer a com-
plaint of Mr. C. M. Westmacott, by whom he was
charged with having " threatened to * whop ' him,"
or in other words to beat him with a stick. Westma-
cott explained about the letter from Bunn reporting
Phillipson's threats, but that of these threats he took
no notice. Some weeks after Phillipson came to his
house flourishing a stick and using threats of violence.
Westmacott was not at home and nothing happened,
but as he went in fear of his life he made the present


complaint as he might be assaulted, which led
Phillipson to remark that it would be rather
hard if he were to be held responsible for whatever
chastisement Westmacott might receive, seeing
that he was a gentleman who had been horse-
whipped so often. Thereupon following this lively
interchange :

Mr. Westmacott. I never was horsewhipped by-
mortal man without having taken prompt and effectual
means of resenting it.

Captain Phillipson. Everyone knows that you have
been horsewhipped more than twenty times and that
you are too much of a coward to act as another man

Mr. Westmacott. You know that you were horse-
whipped by Mr. Anderson.

Captain Phillipson. Produce one person besides
your lying self who can say so.

Mr. Westmacott. The fact is sufficiently notorious,
for it was witnessed by several persons at Drury Lane

Captain Phillipson. You never open your mouth
without uttering some gross and barefaced lie, and
that which you have just uttered is in character with
the rest.

The upshot of the affair was that Phillipson was
bound over in his own recognizances of .40 and two
sureties of 20 each to keep the peace until the sessions,
and, according to the Satirist (a rival to the Age in
its own particular line), Sir R. Birnie is made to observe
of Westmacott, " Well, he is a strange fellow I
have seen him horsewhipped twice myself." This
tale, however, sounds remarkably like the Satirist's
own invention. It is not to be supposed a magistrate
would commit himself in this fashion.

Westmacott, having put himself under the protection
of the law, had no scruple about flinging more mud,
and in his braggadocio, street-gutter style explained
" why we were compelled to make our exhibition of

Widow Vestris's groom of the chamber, Mister John
Burton Phillipson, therein described as Captain, but
who never held a commission in His Majesty's service
and was therefore most improperly so described, unless
indeed he be Captain of Madame's Corps de ballet
at the Olympic and examiner of legs in ordinary to
the Widow's establishment. ... Of this same bully-
ing fancy gentleman ' Handsome Jack ' (as the man
is called in derision) we could say a great deal, but
as what we allude to would wound the feelings of
more than one lady and one of those whose professional
talents, seriously speaking, we are very great admirers
of, we shall on those points make sacrifice of our
indignation upon the altar of gallantry and so far
let the booby escape. Before, however, he enters
upon another Jracas we recommend him to settle
his differences first with Mr. T. Duncombe and
secondly with Mr. Anderson. . . . How he induced
the limes reporter, a man of the name of Archbold,
to dub him Captain we neither know nor care, but
we are not equally indifferent to that part which
concerns ourselves. In that report he, Phillipson,
is made to say that Mr. Westmacott had been
horse-whipped several times. Now, we have been
assailed several times and always by very powerful
men like the Widow's Jack, armed too like him with
bludgeons but in no instance with a horsewhip."

The satisfaction of Mr. Westmacott at having been
thrashed by a stick and not by a horsewhip has
something unconsciously humorous about it ; but
Westmacott was as dull as he was degraded and his
self-complacency was not to be penetrated. His
inordinate vanity and the motive which actuated him
in attacking Madame Vestris peeped out in the next
issue thus :

" The Widow has fallen into the error of all her
predecessors in management she commenced under
our auspices and was successful for a season. Success
produced the common disease of her class in gratitude.


She took unto herself other counsellors, and they have
beguiled her into profligate expenses which her estab-
lishment can never repay. The last week has been
fifty per cent, worse than the preceding, and the
ensuing may perhaps produce half of the last. It is
not too late, however, for her to alter and improve
her plan. If Vestris will produce pieces in which Mrs.
Glover, Miss Sydney, and herself have good parts,
we venture to promise good houses ; but she must
not depend upon Listen, who is quite out of his element
at the Olympic. . . ." The end was a typical West-
macott stab : " We do not wish to say anything un-
gallant of the little Widow, but her mirror must inform
her that ' the days are gone when beauty bright our
heart's chain wove.' '

The statement that the Olympic was doing badly
was a bare - faced untruth. Its business, on the
contrary, was exceedingly good, so much so that owing
to the demand for the higher-priced seats it was pro-
posed to take in a portion of the gallery, much to
the indignation of the gods, and to abolish the shilling
seats altogether. But truth had no place in the columns
of the Age.

Meanwhile the Satirist was doing its best to rake up
the inner history of Westmacott's enmity towards
Madame and everybody connected with her. On
October 16 it alleged that the reason why Westmacott
was so bitter against Vestris was that when she took
over the Olympic " the sweep proffered his valuable
services. . . . But what will our readers think that
he demanded in return ? . . . a private box to his own
sole and particular use. . . . We need hardly say
that Madame Vestris distinctly and directly re-
fused to accede to his demand, and the consequence has
been that he has ever since turned the paltry influence
of his paper against her. It is disgusting to think that
such a man, utterly void as he is of all liberal feelings,
but ever actuated by selfishness and malevolence, should
have the power to frighten others into concession to


his impudent and base demands. . . . However, the
dog has had his day."

Westmacott's reply was a piece of coarse abuse
directed against his only vulnerable target. " Mrs.
Vestris," he remarked, " has favoured the town this
week, under the idea of starting an opposition to the
other theatres, with a stated version of the Philtre,
even stealing the very title adopted at Drury Lane
Theatre. It is, of course, nonsense to talk of such
a little Fantoccini hole as the Olympic interfering
with, or rather forestalling, the performance of the
larger houses ; but it is diverting to fancy the Widow
herself fancies it does (and we know what things she
fancies at times). We had the curiosity to go and
see her Love Spell on Thursday, and we can only say,
as we have before recorded, that she may throw them
around her with perfect impunity. . . . The only
thing well done throughout the whole was a song by
the Widow, which was not Auber's, called ' Man's
Conundrum.' It is a very funny name to call it,
but Mrs. V. knows more about these matters than
we do, so we have no doubt she was quite right. The
opera was delayed for two days owing to the inability
(with all Horn's teaching) of the lessee to get the
music into her head. . . . The sole prerogative of
her little theatre is burletta let her stick to them
and her monkey ; and in God's name do not let us
hear for the future of a person producing musical
pieces who (though she manage fifty theatres) cannot
play a note on the pianoforte. A more ignorant
compilation or one more impudent in its adaptation
than this we never sat out ; it is from the regular
Vamp, Vamp, Gag & Co. School, and Mrs. V. has
made a great mistake if she thinks to Filter the public
with it, for though she long has been the Flirt of the
Village, her day has gone by for possessing any ' Love
Spell: '

The Age's persecution never ceased during the
year. Madame, alluded to as " our passee friend,"


was requested to take a leaf out of Miss Paton's " book
of acting " at Drury Lane (another version of Auber's
Le Philtre was being played here under the name of
'The Love Charm), and better still to study her costume.
The absurdity of this was patent, as Miss Paton had
no notion of acting and was not celebrated for her
taste in dress. But absurdity was nothing to this
detestable fellow. He would write anything so long
as it wounded. Madame chanced to be in a box
at Drury Lane with Sir Andrew Barnard, a well-known
banker of the day, upon which the Age declared :
" There is nothing like having a friend at court, and
although Barnard only comes in at the fag end of
the list of courtiers, he must be a much better specula-
tion than the Olympic this year is likely to turn out."

After reading this and other spiteful snarls it is
amazing to come across the following on December
1 8th : " The pretty widow's Dumb Belle has been
received with the favour we predicted, and although
we cannot say a great deal for the piece, we cannot
say too much for the fair lady. . . . There is a tone,
after all, about Vestris that none others possess, and
it is no wonder therefore that the people go where
fame and fashion both preside."

Bludgeons could not silence the pest, but bank-notes
could. Westmacott was as mercenary as he was male-
volent. A passage in one of her letters, to be quoted
later on, seems to indicate that Vestris had convinced
herself of this.




Madame Vestris's regime at the Olympic. Her novelties and
innovations. J. R. Planche installed as her adviser. The Olympic
Revels and The Olympic Devils. Puzzling volte face of Molloy Westma-
cott. The 1832 season ends successfully. Vestris's address. Season
1832-3. Great attraction of Blanche's Court of Queen's Bench and
The Paphian Bower. Madame's anxieties and luxuries. Her inner
life. Impending misfortunes. A disastrous intrigue. Sudden dis-
appearance of Vestris. Fracas between Mr. T. S. Duncombe and
Molloy Westmacott. Westmacott's cunning to obtain credit for
preventing a duel. Westmacott's insinuations against Vestris. Big
sums of money paid to Vestris. Vestris, saddled with debts, takes
flight with an aristocratic admirer to Devonshire. Vestris's despairing
letters. Westmacott paid to hold his tongue. Vestris appeals to
Harris to send her money. Vestris'g bitterness at having been

MADAME VESTRIS'S management of the Olympic
marked the beginning of a new era not only in stage-
craft but in drama itself. She began by abolishing
the worn stock pieces, whether of the so-called " legi-
timate " variety or of the musical play of which the
public had had more than enough. Madame herself
had long been heartily sick of both. The Lord, of
the Manor, The Siege of Belgrade, Artaxerxes, and
other productions of a similar class she resolutely
banished from her programme. Even Giovanni in
London she cast behind her, and it was years before
she again looked at The Beggar's Opera, and when
she did it was a Beggar's Opera different from that
the public had been accustomed to which she put
on the stage. Nearly all the pieces she produced
mostly with the aid of Planche were novelties,



not perhaps so novel in themselves as in their mounting.
Managers, owing to ignorance, indifference, and cheese-
paring economy, had lowered stage accessories to a
deplorable level. Anything was considered good
enough. When a new play was produced, old, battered
scenery had to do duty. In dramas of a bygone period
dresses were a ridiculous medley of anachronism
and shabbiness. Vestris would have none of this.
Her innovations might be costly, but she never per-
mitted money to stand in the way of anything she

No one was better qualified to act as adviser to
Madame than Planche. He was an authority on
costume, he had a fertile and poetical fancy and a
peculiar faculty in adapting classical stories and old
fairy-tales to modern taste At first his or her ambi-
tion had to be modified : " The scenery of the Revels"
says Planche, " had been limited to a few clouds,
the interior of a cottage, and a well-used London
street which was made a joke of in the bill to anticipate
criticism. Haste and lack of funds had something
to do with it." But the Revels was a tremendous
success notwithstanding, and when the season of
1831-2 commenced and The Olympic Revels was
followed by The Olympic Devils, there was time to
devote to the mounting and money forthcoming to
pay for it. " It was suggested," writes Planche,
" that the scenery should be picturesque and in
keeping with the dresses. We had a most infernal
Tartarus, a very gloomy sty, and a really beautiful
Greek landscape with the portico of the Temple of
Bacchus, the colours of which joined in the general
dance when

Orpheus with his lute made trees, etc.

to the great delight of the audience. . . . The success
of Olympic Devils exceeded, if possible, that of its
predecessor, and the popularity of this new class
of entertainment was thoroughly established."


Meanwhile the position of Madame Vestris at
this time was beset by anxiety. She had embarked
upon a hazardous enterprise the result of which she
could not foresee. The incessant excitement of her
adventurous life ever since she was a child, its ups
and downs, its jealousies, its monetary difficulties,
must have made great demands upon her wondrous
vitality, and as time went on a penalty would have
to be paid. Maybe her sybaritic tendencies came
to her rescue. She lived for the moment and did
not meet troubles half-way. It was written of her
in after-years that " her reckless personal expenditure
often brought her into untoward circumstances. But
even when the wolf was at the door the butter on
her breakfast table had to be trimmed with roses as
early as the month of March, on the plea that she
had been so long deprived of them, and throughout
the winter her home was scented from attic to base-
ment with violets." She adored flowers, and at one
period of her Olympic management she owed a florist
in Covent Garden 300 for bouquets. So says
Edward Sterling in his Recollections of Drury Lane
Theatre. Whether these bouquets were for presenta-
tions to herself on the stage he does not tell us.
Probably they were. Her disregard for money was
a growth of many years. Clement Scott, in his
Drama of Yesterday and To-day, says that Vestris
" was known to have cut up a three-hundred-guinea
Indian shawl merely to use a portion of it for a tartan
and sash in Oberon"

Vestris was in truth a creature of refinement, and
herein we suspect was her attractiveness to men of
intellect and education, and so enabled her to retain
their fidelity despite her frailties. With all her
faults and caprices she was free from the weakness
of intemperance. In not one of the many stories
told of her by those whose only object was to bring
her into disrepute has this reproach ever been hurled
against her.


In one direction, however, she was spared an inflic-
tion. At the beginning of 1832 Westmacott suddenly
ceased his persecution and throughout the year his
comments were entirely complimentary. Madame,
in his opinion, was now the best of manageresses and
everything she did met with his approval. What had
brought about this change can only be conjectured.
The fact remains that hostilities had ceased. No more
was heard of the Phillipson episode and apparently
Westmacott and Vestris were friends.

The record of the pieces in which Madame Vestris
appeared during her first Olympic season is represented
by 'The Olympic Revels, Fra Diavolo, 'The Grenadier,
and A Duke for a Day. There were many other novel-
ties, but these concerned other members of the com-
pany. The season ended on March 3Oth, 1832, when
Vestris delivered an address couched in the form of
a parody of the terms of a prorogation of Parliament.
The only part that need be quoted ran : " Gentlemen
of the Pit and Galleries, I thank you for the cheerful-
ness with which you have furnished the supplies, and
I have the highest satisfaction in informing you that
they have not only been adequate to our current
expenses but that a surplus remains. This surplus
I have directed to be funded and it will remain
applicable to the future exigencies of my manage-

There is no reason to doubt this statement. Madame
filled up the summer months with provincial engage-
ments, and the winter season of 1832-3 commenced
on September 3Oth, and so far as outside appearances
were concerned, prosperity was attending her. The
usual tour in the country was successfully accomplished,
and the third season commenced with one of Planche's
fanciful burlettas, The Court of Queen's Bench,
in which the jury of women were, said the Age,
" composed of all the flowers in the garden, the
Widow as a full-blown rose and Miss Murray as a


In the early part of November the Age was extremely
suave and complimentary, declaring that " the dramas
produced at this theatre must be admired ; they are
not too long and generally of a light and pleasing
character." A classical extravaganza of Planche with
the taking title of The Papbian Bower took the 'town
mightily. It had quite a long run and the treasury
must have benefited accordingly.

Despite this satisfactory result, a storm was gathering
for Madame and burst upon her in full force during
the summer of 1833. It is impossible to gather the
facts which brought about this catastrophe, even if
it were desirable so to do. The story relates to one
of the inner passages of Vestris's life and probably
only a few of her most intimate friends knew what
was happening. This at least can be said her mis-
fortunes were the result of her own folly and of her
weakness in acts of misplaced generosity. The truth
seems to be that she departed from the gaiety and
frivolity which had marked her former love-affairs
and engaged in one in which she showed a blindness
and a sentimentality altogether surprising in a woman
of her level-headedness. The young nobleman upon
whom she bestowed her affection was not worthy of
her. He appears to have been one of the reckless
spendthrifts characteristic of the times. He was
living apart from his wife, and from the very first
he was the source of embarrassment and worry to
Madame, who sacrificed herself and her fortune
in his behalf. Her association with him seems to
have lasted from 1833 until the catastrophe came
in 1837. But in the interval the public knew nothing
of this. The two were rarely seen together, and it
is by no means certain that the gay Lothario's wife
was aware that her husband had formed a liaison with
the idol of the theatrical world until the matter
became known through the newspapers. From the
very first the unfaithful husband was overwhelmed
with debt and there is cause to believe that a portion


of Vestris's earnings went into his pocket. Her
generosity was a saving grace in her character and she
could be easily imposed upon.

At what period the unlucky intrigue began, or how,
it is impossible to say ; but the unusual absence of
any provincial tour during the 1833 summer vacation
was noted. Neither was she engaged at the Haymarket
as in former years. As a matter of fact, she had
vanished, and no one could say why or wherefore. It
may be suspected, however, that Vestris's dark shadow,
Westmacott, pursued her. An incident, the scene
of which was Drury Lane Theatre, suggests as

It was on the night of February I5th, 1833. West-
macott was, to quote his own words, " standing in
the front wing P.S. during the last act of the ballet
when T. S. Duncombe approached him, and after
a few words of general abuse he collared Mr. W., who
returned the compliment by seizing him (Mr. D.)
in the same way. In the scuffle Mr. W.'s hat was
knocked off and Mr. Duncombe aimed a blow at him
which was parried and returned." The result was
bloodless, says Westmacott. The Satirist gave a
different version. According to this print, which
was of the same disreputable class as the Age, Dun-
combe's blow landed on Westmacott's face, a black

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Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 14 of 24)