Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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the " pit," was chiefly occupied by the servants
of the occupants of the boxes.

Certain peculiarities attached to the boxes. Those
at the back of the pit and on a level with it were at
first called " resurrection " boxes, for what reason
it is hard now to say, the name subsequently dying
out. A permanent distinction was the " omnibus "
box, a compartment of ample accommodation at
each end of the stage and below its level. The renters
of the " omnibus " box were permitted to go behind
the scenes, where they flirted and philandered with the
stars of the opera and ballet without let or hindrance.

A description of the interior of the theatre would
not be complete without mention of " Fops' Alley,"
a feature of almost historic interest. " Fops' Alley"
was the favourite lounge of the dandies, partly to see
the performance, but chiefly, we suspect, to be admired
by the ladies in the boxes and to ogle them when
opportunity served. Lumley, in his Reminiscences
of the Opera, thus describes it : " From an entrance
occupying the centre of the lowest tier of boxes a
few steps descended to the back of the pit, down


the centre of which a broad space was left un-
encumbered to within a few feet of the orchestra.
This formed the renowned ' Fops' Alley.' '

Although gas had been tried as an experiment in
the Lyceum Theatre in 1803, its use in 1815 was con-
fined to a few of the public streets. The lighting of
the King's Theatre was probably the plan introduced
by Garrick from the Continent when the six heavy chan-
deliers, each containing twelve candles suspended over
the stage, were done away with and the stage was lit
by lamps not visible to the audience. " Taking away
the candle rings and lighting from behind," said a
writer in a contemporary newspaper contemptuously,
" the only advantage we have discovered from Mr.
Garrick's tour abroad." There were footlights of a
sort in addition.

The imperfect lighting of the theatre would favour
the interchange of amorous glances. Such a thing
would be very difficult in these days of brilliancy and
opera-glasses at least without remark. Decorum
in places of public resort is now strictly insisted upon
and for the most part strictly observed, but a century
or so ago considerable latitude was the rule. The
days of candles and candle-snuffers were over and the
lamps no doubt gave a better light when they did
not smoke and smell. It may be that the belles in
the boxes did not find the dimness a disadvantage.
Defects in complexion, or feature, if not concealed,
were softened thereby.

Young Madame Vestris, who, It is not to be ques-
tioned, was quite conscious of her charms, might have
preferred some better illumination to show them to
advantage. On the other hand, her artistic tempera-
ment and pardonable desire to make the best of herself
probably told her that she looked better as every
woman does in a soft, subdued light than in a glaring
one. Hazlitt, writing in 1820 of the opening of the
Lyceum by Arnold under the name of the New English
Opera-house, said as much from another point of

First Husband of Madame Vestris.



view : " We like a play," he declared, " when we
do not see the faces of the actors too near. We do
not want to be informed, as at the Little Theatre
in the Haymarket, that part of the rich humour of
Mr. Listen's face arises from his having lost a tooth
in front nor to see Mr. Jones's eyes roll more meteorous
than ever. At the larger theatres we only discover
that the ladies paint red ; at the smaller ones we can
distinguish when they paint white. We see defects
enough at a distance, and we can always get near
enough (in the pit) to see the beauties. Those who
go to the boxes do not go to see the play but to make
a figure and be thought something of themselves (so far
they probably succeed, at least in their own opinion) and
if the gods cannot see they can make themselves heard."
Lucia Elizabetta Vestris to give her her full name ;
when she became famous no one thought of her as
" Lucia " commenced her career with powerful allies.
She had youth, good looks, and luck on her side.
Though she had been two years a wife, she was but
eighteen. Without claims to satisfy the exacting
connoisseur to whom regularity of features is
everything, she had what was infinitely preferable,
eyes which could be languishing or sparkling as occasion
demanded, ripe lips, mobile and delightfully shaped, a
firm, round chin, and an enchanting smile. Add to
this a melodious voice, the seductive lusciousness of
which would stir the heart of an anchorite, and a
figure a model of womanly grace. The full perfection
of that figure was, however, not developed at eighteen
years of age, and had it been the decorous dress of
Proserpina would not have revealed it. The culmina-
tion of her attractions was some six years later, when
in the daring Giovanni in London and as Captain
Macheath she took the town by storm. But as she
was in 1815 she was as well equipped for conquest as
any woman, who was burning to see the world at her
feet, could desire ; for apart from her physical endow-
ments, she had courage and plenty of will-power, she


was intelligent, she was as shrewd as she was witty,
and no common gift in those days she could tolerate
nothing that was inartistic.

The time of her advent was propitious. The
victory of Waterloo was little more than a month old.
The stress and strain of a long war had passed away.
The dread of " Boney," of an invasion of our shores,
of the press-gang and excessive taxation, was over.
There perhaps was not so much rejoicing at the
prospect of peace as a feeling of relief that an intolerable
burden and menace no longer existed. People gave
themselves up to pleasure according to their various
tastes. The " fashionables " revelled in festivities at
their own houses. The Morning Post duly recorded
how this or that nobleman and lady leader of fashion
gave " an elegant ball and supper " " a large rout "
" a card party " " a splendid rout " " a grand
rout " " a fashionable party " " a large assembly "
" entertained a large party of fashionables " : the
Court journalist must have been at his wit's ends to
find appropriate adjectives for the innumerable society
functions. Lords and ladies with money to spend
and nothing to do hailed the announcement of a new
aspirant for operatic honours with gratitude as a relief
from ennui, for the time being the fashionable ailment.

The sudden cessation of war's alarms was not the
only thing in Elizabetta's favour. For nearly seven
years the affairs of the King's Theatre had been in a
state of apparently inextricable confusion, and only
in 1815 had the management subsided into something
approaching settlement and business-like order. The
curious circumstances attending the transition period
of the King's Theatre are such as belonged peculiarly
to the times, and for this reason the story is worth
relating, especially as the peaceful end synchronised
with the stepping-stones trodden by Elizabetta Vestris
towards fame and popularity.

When the theatre was burnt down in 1789, a Mr.
Taylor was the proprietor, and in 1803 he sold to


Mr. Francis Goold one-third of the new building.
Goold was to have the entire management of the
theatre during their joint lives, and it was to devolve,
on the decease of either of them, on the survivor.
Taylor, who, says Ebers, " had all Sheridan's deficiency
of financial management without that extraordinary
man's resources," got into difficulties and mortgaged
the rest of his interest in the theatre to Goold. In
course of time Goold died, and then commenced
interminable litigation between Mr. Waters, Goold' s
acting executor, and Taylor. Waters entered upon a
suit in Chancery against Taylor to have a manager
appointed in his place, but no change took place before
1813 when the Lord Chancellor made his decree,
ordering that the partnership between Taylor and
Waters should be dissolved, accounts taken between
them, and the house sold. But matters were by
no means settled, for the Chancellor, having no ear
for music nor sympathy with the subscribers and
owners of the boxes, refused to appoint a manager
and the house was shut up.

In April 1814, however, the house opened under
the management of Waters, and the new regime
was inaugurated with what was remarkably like a
free fight. On Waters's agents presenting themselves
at the theatre, Taylor's people, who were still there,
refused to admit the newcomers. The latter were
the stronger party and turned out the possessors. The
triumph was but short-lived, for the Taylorites, having
gathered reinforcements, returned at night and retook
the contested edifice. Hostilities were eventually
put an end to by the Lord Chancellor, and the season
commenced in 1815 and proved highly successful,
for, it being the year of the peace, various foreign
princes and ambassadors were in London and not a
night passed without several of these distinguished
persons being present. The Prince Regent was also
fairly constant in his attendance.

The odd thing was, and it is very characteristic


of that happy-go-lucky period incident to the rule
of the " First Gentleman in Europe," that for years
previous to the trouble with Waters Taylor had
never lived out of the rules of the King's Bench. Ebers,
who afterwards ran the opera for several seasons, did
his best to finance the improvident manager (it was
the interest of Ebers to do so, as he had the letting of
the boxes in his hands) and was in a state of constant
worry. " How can you conduct the management of the
King's Theatre," said Ebers to Taylor one day, " per-
petually in durance as you are ? " " My dear fellow,"
was the Sheridanesque reply, " how could I possibly
conduct it if I were at liberty ? I should be eaten
up, sir devoured. Here comes a dancer * Mr.
Taylor, I want such a dress ' ; another, l I want such-
and-such ornaments.' One singer demands to sing in
a part not allotted to him ; another to have an addition
to his appointment. No let me be shut up and
they go to Masterson (Taylor's secretary) ; he, they
are aware, cannot go beyond his line ; but if they get
at me, pshaw ! no man at large can manage that
theatre, and in faith," he added, " no man that under-
takes it ought to go at large ! "

Shut up though he was, Taylor contrived to set
everyone by the ears to his own great satisfaction.
As a protest against his raising the rate of subscription,
a number of the subscribers combined and the Pan-
theon in Oxford Street, celebrated in the eighteenth
century for its masquerades, being disengaged, Caldas,
a Portuguese wine merchant, undertook the manage-
ment under a licence to Colonel Greville (an enter-
prising man about town and sportsman to whom the
early- and mid- Victorian bloods owed that place of
gaiety the Argyll Rooms, and who was the originator
of " picnics ") for the performance of concerts, bur-
lettas, and such other musical entertainments as could
be performed without infringing the exclusive licence
of the King's Theatre.

The effect of the opposition was to reduce the


receipts of the older house, and the opinion was
expressed that could the Pantheon have been licensed
as an opera-house the other theatre had inevitably-
been ruined. The litigious Taylor cared little for
this, and when the Pantheon closed he had a project
of taking it and turning it against the opera-house, as
it had formerly been turned against himself. But this
project he was never able to bring about. Ebers
says, " It was impossible to do anything effectually
for Taylor. It seemed his delight to involve himself
and, as much as it was possible, to perplex others.
He quarrelled with everybody, ridiculed everybody,
and hoaxed everybody." He was a fellow of infinite
merriment, and his manner was so persuasive that
Ebers found it difficult to refuse his requests for

Taylor was as disregardful of the rules of the King's
Bench as he was of the rights of Waters and of the
box owners. Whenever inclined to indulge in his
favourite amusement of fishing, he would somehow
manage to escape and live in perfect tranquillity in
some obscure village, until recaptured. It was a
mystery how, utterly impecunious, as he was believed
to be, he contrived to obtain the money for his mad
freaks. On one occasion he bought an estate in the
country and " here he lived and ate, drank and fished,
till at the end of two or three months the officers of
the law hooked him." On another occasion he actually
went down to Hull and put up as a candidate for
Parliament. Needless to say he was not returned.

The man seems to have been more at home inside
the King's Bench Prison than anywhere else. Here he
entertained his friends, and some of his parties must
have been exceedingly free and easy. Ebers mentions
one of these Bohemian gatherings at which Sir John
Ladd, Lady Ladd, and Nelson's Lady Hamilton were
among the guests, and Taylor having drunk too much
wine, Lady Ladd thought fit by way of correction
to pour the contents of a boiling kettle upon him !


Others times, other manners. This Sir John Ladd
(or Lade) had been the manager of the royal stables,
and having married a very pretty wife, formerly a
cookmaid in the royal kitchen, received a knighthood
from the Prince Regent in consequence. He was an
illiterate fellow, and was happier in his groom's dress
than in the high collar and stiff cravat of fashion. He
was probably as much entitled to his knighthood as hosts
of others who had received the same dignity during
the Regency. As for Lady Ladd, the manners of
the kitchen came more naturally to her than those of
the drawing-room. Her method of administering
a rebuke certainly belonged to the first.



Madame Vestris's good luck. Her chances in Italian opera. The
King's Theatre green-room. Its bad reputation. " Omnibus-box "
admirers of singers and dancers. Madame Vestris's family history.
The mysterious Captain Best. His fatal duel with Lord Camelford.
Vestris's dissolute husband, Armand Vestris, an unprepossessing

WHEN Madame Vestris made her debut there was,
so far as the operatic stage was concerned, no rival of
any consequence against whom she could be pitted.
No great Italian star was in the ascendant. Madame
Grassini's glories had faded and she had left London,
never to return. Catalani was in retirement in Paris.
Mrs. Billington, who was able to sing higher than
any of her compeers, and excelled all in the abundant
elaboration of her roulades which she introduced in
season and out of season, was past her zenith and had
quitted the operatic world ; Miss Paton, a charming
singer and an accomplished vocalist but with very
little imagination, was too young for public life ; and
the only operatic artist of any importance was Miss
Stephens. But where Eliza Vestris was concerned,
Kitty Stephens hardly counted ; she never essayed
Italian opera and was contented with British musical
plays, in the ballads of which she was acknowledged to
be the most delightful warbler who had ever appeared
on the stage.

Madame Vestris consequently had every chance
of making a name in Italian opera. Writing of her
last appearance at the King's Theatre in 1827, Mr.



H. F. Chorley said : " There, if she had possessed
musical patience and energy, she might have queened
it, because she possessed (half Italian by birth) one
of the most luscious of low voices found, since Hero's
time, excellent in women great personal beauty,
an almost faultless figure, which she knew how to
adorn with consummate art, and no common stage
address. But a less arduous theatrical career pleased
her better ; and so she, too, could not one might
perhaps say because she would not remain on the
Italian stage."

Of a truth she had the ball at her foot, but when
she appeared at the King's Theatre she did not know
her capabilities and maybe also she did not know her
own mind. Then there were the attractions of the
green-room. She was adventurous. She loved to
fascinate, and young as she was she had a past, if the
vague stories which have been written concerning
her are to be trusted. She could dance as well as
she could sing, and this accomplishment added to
her attractions, for in 1815 the "fashionables" were
dancing mad. Scottish reels and country dances
which up to 1813 were the vogue, two years later came
to be regarded as antiquated ; and quadrilles and the
waltz the last-named looked upon with horror by
Mrs. Grundy and Byron imported from Germany,
were the rage. The new dances had to be taught and
Madame's husband, Armand Vestris, was much sought
after. He had a weakness for drinking, gambling,
and gallantry, and his young wife was left to take
care of herself.

It was hardly likely that she, still in her 'teens,
with her warm southern blood, her exuberant vitality,
and her impetuous temperament, would tamely submit
to neglect. She was not without resources, with the
theatre, its Bohemian surroundings, and the unre-
strained gaiety of the green-room or what passed as
such in the King's Theatre. " Arthur Griffinhoofe,"
one of the chroniclers (or inventors) of scandalous


gossip appertaining to Madame Vestris and other
stage ladies, averred that " of all the places for intrigue,
downright lasciviousness, and intemperate intrigue
there is nothing to equal the King's Theatre."
Griffinhoofe was writing of the King's Theatre as it
was some ten years later, but in 1815 it was possibly
not free from reproach. " Arthur Griffinhoofe," it
has been asserted, was the pen - name of George
Colman the younger, who, a boon companion of the
" First Gentleman in Europe," got himself appointed
Censor of Plays, and is credited with a propensity for
cutting out the double entendres and oaths he met with
in the manuscripts sent in for inspection for use
in his own conversation. It is doubtful whether
" Griffinhoofe " was really Colman, as the latter had
been dead three years when his Memoirs of Madame
Vestris was published.

Mr. T. H. Duncombe, in his biography of his
father, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe (who as M.P. for
Finsbury is not forgotten by political students and
whose name was closely associated with that of Madame
Vestris), to some extent confirms Griffinhoofe. " It
was not unusual for the dilettanti among them (the
* omnibus-box ' renters) to cultivate rather intimate
relations with the l reigning favourite.' It passed
for admiration of genius. The ' protector ' of the
beautiful cantatrice or danseuse was certain of exciting
the envy of his less fortunate associates till the lady
left him for a more liberal admirer. This was so
expensive a luxury that only an opera-goer with a
handsome income could venture to indulge in it,
but it was so fashionable that married men and even
elderly men were proud of the distinction. Highly
respectable grandfathers established themselves as
patrons of the prima donna, while grave and reverend
seigneurs competed with beardless ensigns for the
smiles of the coryphee. This was particularly the
case when the clever and fascinating granddaughter
of Bartolozzi the engraver joined the Italian opera


company. Few actresses enjoyed such celebrity.
Later when on the English boards performing Don
Giovanni (i.e. Giovanni in London) she was so much
the rage that a modeller made a capital speculation by
selling plaster casts of la jambe Vestris."

Mr. Duncombe is here somewhat involved in his
chronology. Giovanni in London, in which Vestris
made her name as one of the most fascinating of
male impersonators of her or any other time, was
not produced until 1821, and when she "joined the
Italian opera company " there was only an apology
for a green-room. Ebers in 1820 was the creator of
this most desirable adjunct to the King's Theatre,
much to the delight of the wealthy habitues. Thomas
Duncombe probably did not become acquainted with
Madame prior to 1819, as he was up to that time
occupied with his military duties abroad.

Whatever the green-room experiences of the debu-
tante may have been in 1815, it is presumable that
she had the advantages of a circle of aristocratic
male admirers and possibly of the curiosity of ladies
of fashion. The age was one of tittle-tattle, and it
may be hazarded that the wife of the butterfly
Armand Vestris did not escape the attention of society
gossipers. Moreover, she was not a nobody sprung
from nowhere. She was the granddaughter of a
man who occupied a unique position in the world of
art Francisco Bartolozzi. It is hardly an exaggera-
tion to assert that though a hundred years ago the
name of Vestris was better known than that of Bar-
tolozzi save among art connoisseurs the reverse is
the case to-day. Bartolozzi's granddaughter in the
twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century was
the most-talked-of woman in London, and her fame
rested as much upon her reputation as a Circe whom
few men could resist as upon her powers as an actress,
great as they were. It is probable that the man in
the street of to-day regards her more as a " gay lady "
rather than as one who had a never-tiring devotion


to stage-craft, to lighting, colour, grouping, and
appropriate scenery and costume.

Mr. A. W. Tuer has told all there is to tell con-
cerning the Bartolozzis, and a summary of the family
history is alone necessary here. Francisco, the father
of the family, the son of a goldsmith and artificer
in filigree work, was born in Florence on September
2 ist, 1727, and was trained as an artist and engraver.
After his marriage he removed to Rome, where his
son Gaetano was born. Apparently Francisco's talent
was not recognised in the Papal city, and he went to
Venice and subsequently came to England, where he
was " discovered " by Mr. Dalton, the royal librarian,
and by him introduced to George III. A description
of this introduction, which took place about six
months after his arrival, may be given in Bartolozzi's
own words :

" I was shaving myself in the morning," he says,
" when a thundering rapping at the door announced
the glad tidings, and I cut myself in my hurry to go
to Buckingham House, where I was told His Majesty
was waiting for me in the library. When I arrived, I
found the King on his hands and knees on the floor,
cleaning a large picture with a wet sponge, and Mr.
Dalton, Mr. Barnard, the librarian, and another person
standing by. The subject of the picture was the
' Murder of the Innocents,' said to be by Paul
Veronese, and I was sent for to give my opinion of
its originality. Mr. Dalton named me to the King
as a proper judge, as I had so lately come from Venice ;
and I suppose he intended to give me some previous
instructions ; but when delay was proposed, the King
said, ' No, send for Mr. Bartolozzi now, and I will
wait here till he comes.' On my entering the room,
the King asked me whether the picture was an un-
doubted original by Paul Veronese, to which I gave
a gentle shrug, without saying a single word. The
King seemed to understand the full force of what I
meant to convey, without requiring any further


comment, asked me how I liked England, and if I
found the climate agree with me, and then walked
out at the window which led into the garden and
left Mr. Dalton to roll up his picture ; and here
ended the consultation. The picture was an infamous
copy, and offered to the King for the moderate price
of one thousand guineas."

The result of this interview was Bartolozzi's appoint-
ment as " Engraver to His Majesty." He remained
thirty-five years in England, during thirty of which
he was an exhibitor at the Royal Academy. At first
he lived with Cipriani, once a fellow-student, in
Warwick Street, Golden Square, and about 1780 he
removed to North End, Fulham. When he was
seventy-five he was invited by the Prince Regent
of Portugal to reside in that country. Despite his
age, he accepted the invitation, was created a knight
by the Prince, and resided in Portugal until he died at
the advanced age of eighty-eight.

In England Francisco is said to have lived " a
tolerably gay life." He entertained freely ; he lavished

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 2 of 24)