Charles E Pearce.

Madame Vestris and her times online

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money on those needing it, especially Italians ; and
he seems to have been a bon-vivant without any
serious vices. Meanwhile his wife with their son
Gaetano remained in Italy and never rejoined her
husband. Gaetano married Theresa Janssen, the
daughter of a dancing-master at Aix-la-Chapelle,
an accomplished musician and a pupil of dementi,
and brought her to England. His father set him up
as a print-seller in Great Titchfield Street, but he was
more attached to music than to business or to engraving,
for which he had been trained, and he was indolent
withal. In 1797, a few months after the birth of his
first child, Elizabetta, he became insolvent, and he
went to Paris, where he opened an academy for dancing
and fencing. Gaetano did very well at first, but
soon fell into his old careless ways and, like father,
like son, he quarrelled with his wife and they separated.
Probably there were faults on both sides, Madame


Bartolozzi having the reputation of being vain,
inordinately fond of bright colours in dress, and pro-
digiously proud of her small feet and ankles.

All these domestic differences could not but have
had a disturbing effect on their children. Elizabetta
and her sister Josephine must have longed for the
day when they could shake themselves free from family
shackles and face life in their own way. Meanwhile
their mother, after leaving her husband in Paris,
brought her children to England and supported them
by giving music lessons. Whatever faults Madame
Bartolozzi may have had, neglect of her children was
not one of them. Elizabetta received her scholastic
training at Manor Hall, Fulham Road, and studied
music under Dr. Jay and Domenico Corri, the pro-
genitor of numerous Corris all more or less connected
with the musical profession. Mr. T. P. Grinsted, in
his obituary notice of Madame Vestris in Eeniley's
Miscellany in 1856, says of her at this period : " In
the course of a liberal education she evinced an early
talent for music as well as a most retentive memory ;
she soon became mistress of the French and Italian
languages, and, we are pleased to add, had not for-
gotten the purity of her own. At the age of fourteen
she was a visitant at the principal places of resort
in the metropolis her brilliant eyes attracting towards
her considerable notice. With the symmetry of youth
and the grace of mien there were blended in her

' The glance that wins'us and the life that throws
A spell that will not let our looks repose,
But turn to gaze again and find anew
Some charm that well rewards another view.' "

Another version of the early history of this most
elusive lady is given in John Coleman's Players and
Playwrights I Have Known, the authority being a
Madame Mariotti, a servant of the Bartolozzi family.
Madame Mariotti says that Elizabetta was born at
Marylebone in 1800, and that " at that period it was
customary at all the foreign schools in London to


have a play performed by the pupils in French or
Italian every Saturday in the presence of their parents
and guardians," and thus the girl's proficiency in these
two languages is explained. The same informant
tells us that at fourteen she entered the school of
Her Majesty's Theatre and danced in the ballet there
for the season. She then went to the Academic
of Paris for the winter, and on her return to London
became a pupil of Armand Vestris, who kept her hard
at work for twelve months before bringing her out.

Mrs. Baron- Wilson, a lady journalist of the thirties,
who writes in the semi-sprightly, semi-sentimental
style of the Keepsake and Book of Beauty days, provides
us a further variation in Our Actresses for the be-
wildered biographer to ponder over. She remarks :
" Her parents denied her none of the amusements of
the metropolis, and her interesting and brilliant features
might have been seen at opera, concerts, balls, etc.,
during the winter of 1811. At this period, it has
been observed that she played the piano pleasingly,
but her singing was wild and rather uncultivated.
She had been from her Infancy very impatient of
control, and as she was not intended for the stage
little pains were bestowed upon her vocal powers."

Mrs. Baron-Wilson makes mention of a Captain
Best who was said to have been " much interested
in the education of the brilliant-eyed little Eliza,"
which one can well believe, though the nature of this
" interest " may be left in doubt. At any rate, the
elements of a love-affair were present. Elizabetta
was precocity personified. Though but fifteen, she
was a woman in everything but years. Captain Best
(of whom it may be remarked that he was destined in
after-years to pass mysteriously in and out of her
life, but why or wherefore is not to be explained)
was greatly her senior ; a man of fashion, neither
better nor worse than the rest of his class, most of
whom in those frivolous and self-indulgent days lived
only for intrigue. Some seven years previous to his


association with Elizabetta, Best had the doubtful
honour of fighting a duel with the notorious Lord

The quarrel arose out of the usual cause a woman.
The lady in question had lived with Captain Best,
but they had quarrelled and parted. Subsequently
she met Best at the opera and wanted to make up their
differences. He refused, upon which she declared
she would " set Lord Camelford upon him." Lord
Camelford was a professed duellist, the hero of number-
less disturbances at theatres and elsewhere, and always
ready to pick a quarrel and fight on the slightest
pretext. Apparently he thought of nothing else
and a portion of his drawing-room must have been
designed with that object, as according to Horace
Smith (of Rejected Addresses fame), over the fireplace,
" a long thick bludgeon lay horizontally supported by
two brass hooks. Above this was placed parallel one
of lesser dimensions, until a pyramid of weapons gradu-
ally rose tapering to a horse-whip."

On being told by the irate lady that Best had spoken
disrespectfully of him, Camelford, meeting the Captain
at the Prince of Wales's coffee-house in Conduit Street,
challenged him, and as the pugnacious nobleman would
accept no denial, Best was compelled to fight. Men
no longer wore swords, when a quarrel could be settled
there and then at the rapier's point, but the duelling
spirit was as strong as in the days of Sir Lucius O'Trig-
ger. It was typical of the duellist that Camelford,
while convinced that he had wronged Best, should
persist in fighting ; the real reason, however, was that
Best was a skilled marksman and this was an affront
not to be smoothed over. They met, and Best killed
his man. Public opinion easily found an excuse for
duelling, and though there was no doubt who was
Camelford's antagonist, a coroner's jury returned a
verdict of " wilful murder against some person un-

Elizabetta was but fifteen when by an unlucky stroke


of fate she made the acquaintance of Armand Vestris,
the grandson of the famous Vestris whom the en-
thusiastic Parisians termed " Le Dieu de la Danse"
Beyond his dancing there was little that was attractive
about Armand Vestris. According to Mrs. Baron-
Wilson, " he was rather of a clumsy make and by no
means the man that a casual observer would fix
upon to put in training either for a dancer or an Adonis.
His visage was chubby and inexpressive, and his eye
had an expression of dissipation that was displeasing.
It was the gloating of passion without its fire." Else-
where Mrs. Baron-Wilson says : " He was just two-
and-twenty, but was fast sinking into old age from his
dissipated course of life." Evidently when he was on
the light fantastic toe one forgot his face and figure.
His dancing in a Spanish fandango with the celebrated
Madame Angiolini turned the heads of half the women
in the audience. But off the stage he could not have
had much to recommend him, and how Lucia Eliza-
betta came to fall in love with a young man of such
doubtful reputation and unpleasant appearance is a
puzzle. However, married they were, after a very
brief courtship, on January 28th, 1813, at St. Martin-
in-the-Fields, the church in which lies buried another
actress of fascination equal to that of Madame Vestris,
if not of equal ability Nell Gwynne.

The marriage had not long been celebrated when
Armand Vestris, who did not know what economy
was, discovered that matrimony brought with it extra
expenses. He was heavily in debt, the fashionable
circle amid which he moved involved constant de-
mands upon his purse, and accustomed all his life
to the theatre he saw in his young wife the makings
of a clever actress. Madame had not the slightest
objection to a theatrical life, and after some prelimi-
nary training, for she knew nothing of stage-craft, she
stepped upon the boards of the King's Theatre.


The husband of Maria Foote.

(From the collection of the late A. M. Broadley.)



Von Winter's // Ratio di Proserpina. Grassini and Billington's
curious arrangement. Their dispute. Michael Kelly's ruse to
reconcile them. Vestris's success in the opera. A fashionable audience
of 1815. Gentlemen's dress for the opera de rigueur. " Calls " before
the curtain their origin. Princess Charlotte of Wales enthusiastic
over Vestris's voice and acting. Her charm of expression. Her
husband, Armand Vestris, arrested for debt. A doubtful story of an
intrigue with the Prince Regent. Scurrilous scribblers. // Ratio
di Proserpina with Elizabetta Vestris, repeated in 1816. Curious
reason for the postponement of the opening performance. Furore over
Braham's singing in Mozart's Clemenza di Tito. Armand Vestris's
ballet. Elizabetta as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro.

THE opera selected for Madame Vestris's debut on
July zoth, 1815 Peter von Winter's // Ratio di
Proserpina was a happy choice. Von Winter was
not a genius and his music at best is but a mixture of
Mozart and water,but this did not trouble the audience,
who were quite satisfied with the general prettiness
of the melodies. The Handelian operas had long
since been out of date. Mozart was beginning to be
popular and Rossini, Weber, and Meyerbeer had yet
to come. Proserpina had been a great success when
produced at the King's Theatre some eleven years
before and many of the airs were familiar to the 1815
audience. Winter composed the opera for Madame
Grassini and Mrs. Billington, the first taking the
title-role and the second the part of Ceres, Proserpina's

Michael Kelly says that Proserpina (which was
written in three weeks) was the only opera in which
these two celebrated cantatrices appeared together.
3 33


He describes a curious arrangement by which the two
ladies were to appear on alternate Tuesdays and Satur-
days, so far as operas other than Proserpina were
concerned, and it happened that on one particular
Tuesday Mrs. Billington was attacked by a cold which
brought on so severe a hoarseness that she could not
sing a note nor indeed leave her bed. Grassini was
entreated by Mr. Goold, one of the lessees of the King's
Theatre, to sing in her stead, but she declared that no
power on earth should induce her to do so, as Saturday
was her night and not Tuesday. Kelly tried to per-
suade her to oblige, but in vain. Kelly, however, knew
the ways of prima donnas and was equal to the occasion.
After apparently coinciding with the lady's views, he
was leaving the room when he suddenly turned and
said, " To be sure, it is rather unlucky you do not sing
to-night, for this morning a message came from the
Lord Chamberlain's office to announce the Queen's
intention to come incog., accompanied by the Princess,
purposely to see you perform, and a loge grillee is
actually ordered to be prepared for them, where they
can perfectly see and hear without being seen by the
audience ; but of course I'll step myself to the Lord
Chamberlain's office and state that you are confined
to your bed and express your mortification at dis-
appointing the Royal party." " Stop, Kelly ! " said
she. " What you now say alters the case ; if Her
Majesty Queen Charlotte wishes to hear me, I am
bound to obey Her Majesty's commands. Go thou
to Goold and tell him I will sing."

Grassini accordingly did sing, but during the evening,
the Queen not having arrived, she suspected a trick,
taxed Kelly with it, and he confessed. It is to her
credit that she forgave the astute manager. She was,
according to all accounts, an amiable soul. Some
prima donnas would have gone into a passion, after
the fashion of one of the most celebrated queens of
song of modern times, who, according to Mr. Mapleson,
when a rival singer received more applause than she,


went into hysterics, threw herself down, and beat a
tattoo on the stage with her heels !

There was nothing in Winter's music with which
even an immature vocalist could not grapple success-
fully. Elizabetta, it is pretty certain, did not show
any nervousness when she faced her audience. She
had ever unbounded confidence in herself. The
audience probably interested her far more than the
opera, which to-day would be pronounced decidedly
dull. A brilliant sight must have met her eye. Extra-
vagance in dress was then at its height. Women of
fashion vied with each other in the daring cut of the
short-waisted corsage and in the display of jewels.
For all that the costume of the period was a very
charming one, as the fashion plates in the Ladies'
Magazine for 1815 show. It was simple and classical,
especially as to the hair, which was arranged naturally
and without adornment, save perhaps a flower at the
side. The ugly turban and prodigious feathers were
monstrosities of a later date.

No sumptuary laws governed the dress of the ladies
at the opera, but it was otherwise with the gentlemen.
We read that the costume de rigueur for admission
to the opera " consisted of a long-tailed coat with ruffles
at the wrists ; white cravat with stand-up shirt collar,
small clothes with gold or diamond buckles ; silk
stockings, shoes, a waistcoat open to show the shirt
front or frill, and white kid gloves. A cocked hat
called a chateau bras, because usually carried under
the arm, and a sword at the side, completed the cos-
tume, while the hair was always carefully dressed."

The new operatic star was rapturously applauded,
and had she appeared a few years later she would
have been called before the curtain. But in 1815
this method of showing appreciation had not come
into vogue. " Calls," Parke, the oboe player, records
in his Musical Memoirs, were introduced during the
opera-season of 1824, when Rossini was director and
composer to the King's Theatre. Madame Catalan!


was the first recipient of the unusual compliment.
Pasta, who was a member of the same company, " also
had a call when the curtain fell and was brought back
to receive the reward due to her distinguished talents."
The fashion caught on, and Parke, two seasons later,
speaking again of Pasta, says : " At the end of the
opera [Rossini's Otello\ by desire of the audience she
came forward once more to receive that reward which
is becoming so common that it will shortly cease to
be a mark of distinction." It is hardly necessary to
add that in modern days the observance has been
carried to excess, and in some cases where an actor
or actress insists upon a " call," whether the audience
asks for it or not, fashion degenerates into a

The newspapers did not commit themselves con-
cerning this first performance. The Times and the
Morning Chronicle were silent. The Morning Post
was contented with the following brief paragraph :
" M. A. Vestris gave an exquisite treat last night at
his Benefit, but we have no room at present for
particulars. Madame Vestris (pupil to Mr. Corri)
made her debut on this occasion ; and her performance
was such as leaves no doubt of her becoming a splendid
acquisition to this theatre."

The debutante was, however, much talked about
at clubs and dinner-tables, and when the opera was
again presented the house was crowded, and the Post
was moved to give one of the gushing notices in which
it excelled : " Madame Vestris's second appearance
in Proserpina" wrote the critic, " received the most
extraordinary marks of approbation ; in fact her
reception was almost beyond all precedent. Her
voice is a contr'alto, and from its compass capable of
all the most touching and delicious influences of
music ; her skill seems sufficiently practised ; time may
be required and her youth has much to give for the
perfect development of her powers ; but even in their
present state they are attractive in the extreme. The


Princess Charlotte, who came to the opera at an early
hour, seemed uncommonly delighted with the whole
of her performance. In the trio between Madames
Sessi and Vestris and Signer Graam the attention
of Her Royal Highness was excited to such a degree
that she actually got up from her seat and joined in
the general plaudits so profusely bestowed on this
exquisite composition. . . . The house was crowded
in every part. Among the fashionables we perceived "
well, it does not matter much now who were per-
ceived. One is quite contented to know that there
were dukes and duchesses, marquesses and marchion-
esses, the Romish and Spanish Ambassadors, and a host
of smaller fry. The enumeration of titled " fashion-
ables " was a task dear to the heart of the journalist
whose duty it was to provide material for the column
headed " Fashionable World."

Equally laudatory was the Theatrical Inquisitor,
and the praise is the more noticeable because later on
the magazine changed its tone, and its criticisms
were carping, and when fault could not be found,
approval was given grudgingly. In its first notice,
however, it was enthusiastic enough. It remarked
of Madame Vestris : " Her voice is a perfect contralto
possessing a peculiar sweetness accompanied by a
correct harmonious articulation which imparts to
each note a mellowness creating delight rather than
astonishment. She appears about eighteen, is elegant
in her person, and has a countenance expressive rather
of modest loveliness than of any marked passion. There
is a chasteness in her acting which seldom fails to
please, yet we know no representation so little calcu-
lated for a display of an actress's powers as that of
an opera, no situation so embarrassing as that of
patiently awaiting the conclusion of another's song.
Yet we scarcely ever remember to have seen so much
ease and simplicity evinced on a first appearance. . . .
It appears extraordinary that the managers should not
have brought this lady forward at an earlier period of


the season ; it would undoubtedly have been more to
their advantage. . . . Madame Vestris has only been
announced as appearing for the benefit of her husband,
but we presume she is permanently engaged."

The opera continued to the end of the season, which
terminated in August, and was shown, in all, seven
times. The final performance is thus noticed by the
Inquisitor : " The revival of the beautiful opera of
Proserpina has been attended with deserved success
and reflects credit on the taste of the manager. Much
of its attraction, however, has doubtless been owing
to the exquisite performance of the debutante ; it
introduced to public notice, Madame Vestris, of whom
we spoke in such high terms of admiration on her first
appearance. . . . We consider this lady as by far the
most valuable acquisition which the strength of this
company has received for a length of time. . . . That
she is already a perfect mistress of her art we do not
assert, but whatever * trifling errors ' the critic may
discern, we may truly say with the poet :

* Look at her face and you'll forget them all.' "

The weak, vain head of Armand Vestris was turned
by the triumph of his young wife a triumph which
augured well for the future of the debutante. Her
husband indulged in golden visions and on the strength
of them plunged into extravagances. Maybe Madame
helped him. She was certainly entitled to some
reward. Armand increased his already heavy debts ;
but whether he was arrested and sent to a debtors'
prison at this period, as reported, is not so certain,
though such an episode in the life of a man of fashion
was common enough in 1815. The anonymous writer
of a scurrilous production privately printed (for very
good reasons) and published in 1830 without any
printer's name, purporting to be a life of Madame
Vestris, makes the assertion, but there is reason to
believe that this arrest took place at the end of Eliza-
betta's second engagement at the King's Theatre.


The object of the author of the book in question
(an edition of which considerably Bowdlerised appeared
in 1839 under the auspices of the notorious Molloy
Westmacott, editor of the Age, and best known to
fame as an associate of the disreputable Captain
Garth and as the persistent maligner of Harriot Mellon
after she became Mrs. Coutts and subsequently Duchess
of St. Albans) in fixing the arrest between the two
seasons of 1815 and 1816 was to give him the framework
of a scandalous story and to provide a fitting denouement.
All that it is necessary to say of this farrago is that it
represents Madame while walking in the Park with a
girl-friend during the incarceration of her husband
making the acquaintance of a couple of beaux. An
intrigue follows in the manner of Boccaccio, told
without the Italian's grace. After the release of her
husband Madame happens to be in the green-room
of the King's Theatre when she perceives the afore-
said two beaux and discovers, to her consternation, by
the deference paid them, that one is the Marquis of
Hertford and the other the Prince Regent ! !

Whatever may have been Elizabetta Vestris's adven-
turous proclivities and however fond she may have
been of pleasure, she was no fool and was not likely
to indulge in promiscuous escapades of this nature.
The narrative, like others in the book, may be dis-
missed as a gross concoction intended to gratify
the vicious taste of those who patronised this kind of
literary garbage. An ample supply of the stuff was
to be had in the Regency days, and the mystery
is that the perpetrators were allowed to go scot-free.
But the hunger for scandal was so intense even respect-
able journals did not scruple to publish paragraphic
innuendoes concerning well-known personages, and
especially ladies of the stage that it was probably
thought that more harm than good would result from
a prosecution. The papers might not report the
action in full, but publishers of the Stockdale and
Duncombe class were always ready with the muck-rake


and before long a " verbatim account " would be on
sale. Eighteenth-century shorthand writers, in fact,
derived a good part of their income from the taking
of notes of crim. con. cases in extenso, not for the
newspapers, which could not in decency print them,
but for certain unscrupulous booksellers. Volumes
of unsavoury records are still in existence, as may be
seen by the occasional appearance of some of them in
the book-auction rooms of to-day.

Of the interval between August 1815 and February
of the following year nothing can be said of the doings
of either Armand Vestris or his wife, since nothing is
recorded. It may be imagined, however, from what
is known of the temperament and tastes of the couple,
that their domestic happiness did not increase. Mrs.
Baron- Wilson says : " The husband spoke of the wife's
temper and the wife of the husband's indifference."
In all probability they went their own way. Armand
Vestris certainly had more than a penchant for Made-
moiselle Mori, a figurante, and it is scarcely likely that
Madame looked upon his faithlessness with equanimity.
But professionally all seemed well.

In the beginning of 1816 Armand Vestris resumed
his post as ballet master at the King's Theatre, and
// Ratto di Proserpina was announced to open the
season with an accomplished vocalist Madame Fodor
as Ceres to Elizabetta's Proserpina. The first per-
formance was advertised for January 3ist, but was
postponed for what in these days would be deemed a
very inadequate and even ludicrous reason. On
January 3Oth appeared the following advertisement :

Online LibraryCharles E PearceMadame Vestris and her times → online text (page 3 of 24)