Siddons (1755-1831) is the renowned tragic actress who dominated British
theater during the late Georgian era.
Sarah was born July 5, 1755 into the family of strolling actors Roger Kemble and Sarah Ward Kemble. She began to perform with her parents rather early, the first documented stage appearance of Sarah Kemble, aged 11, is dated December 22, 1766; she played Ariel in the Tempest with her father’s company at Coventry. Four of Sarah’s siblings -- out of eleven total -- were to become actors; besides Sarah the most famous was John Philip Kemble (1757-1823), but also Stephen Kemble (1758-1822), Charles Kemble (1775-1854) and Elizabeth Whitlock (1761-1836).
In 1767 William Siddons, a handsome 22-year-old actor, was accepted into the Kemble company. To stop the relationship between their daughter and William Siddons, the Kembles sent Sarah away to serve as maid to Lady Mary Greatheed. However, the feelings between the two young people were stronger than her parents realized and in 1773, aged 19, Sarah married William Siddons and returned to the stage as Mrs Siddons, continuing to perform with her father’s company.
In 1775 the famous Garrick, then manager of Drury Lane Theatre in London, invited her to perform with his company, but she failed to produce a favorable impression on the public and was dismissed within several months. She spent the next 2 years working with various touring companies, until 1778, when she was engaged at the Theatre Royal in Bath. She was an astonishing success with the Bath public and in 1782 the new manager of Drury Lane Theatre, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, invited her back to London. She appeared in the title role of the tragedy Isabella. Her performance moved the public to tears and critics to enthusiastic praise. A string of very successful roles followed. The actress was even popular with the royal couple, George III and Queen Charlotte, known for their antipathy to theater. They appointed Mrs. Siddons “Reader in English” to the royal children.
In May 1784, Reynolds exhibited Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse at the Royal Academy. The picture was instantly proclaimed a masterpiece, increasing the popularity of both its creator and the model. The actress spent that summer touring Scotland and Ireland. Scotland greeted the actress enthusiastically, but in Ireland, she refused to participate in a benefit performance and the irritated Dublin public assaulted her with apples and potatoes during the show. The reason for the refusal was not the selfishness of the actress, but exhaustion and poor health – her constant pregnancies, childbirth, miscarriages, anxiety to secure the future of her growing family and financial problems could not but tell on her health. Unfortunately, rumors of her “selfishness” reached London and she was booed on her opening night as Mrs. Beverley in Edward Moore’s tragedy The Gamester. The uproar lasted for forty minutes, during which the actress fainted. After recovering she addressed the public with explanations and apologies. Tempted to abandon her profession by this incident, she decided to continue for her children’s sake.
Siddons’s brilliant career lasted till 1812, when she made her official farewell performance at Covent Garden in her signature role of Lady Macbeth. Impatient with retirement, Siddons made several benefit appearances, among them ten performances in Edinburgh for the benefit of her son Henry’s widow and their children after his death in 1815.
Sarah Siddons died on May 31, 1831, aged seventy-six, in her house on Upper Baker Street, London. She outlived five of her seven children, her husband, her brother John Philip Kemble, and the painters Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence (1768-1830) on whose remarkable portraits she appears. She was buried at St. Mary’s, Paddington, on 15 June. Five thousand people attended her funeral.
Sarah Martha “Sally” Siddons (1775-1803) and Maria Siddons (1779-1798) were two of the famous actress’s daughters. The painter Thomas Lawrence was involved first with the elder Sally, then with the younger Maria, until her death in 1798. It seems that Maria made her sister promise not to marry the painter, and that Sally stayed true to this wish until her own early death in 1803. This affair ruined Lawrence’s good relations with the Siddons and Kemble families.
See: Thomas Gainsborough. Mrs.
Sir Thomas Lawrence. Mrs Siddons. Sarah Siddons. Portrait of Sarah Siddons. Sarah Martha (Sally) Siddons (1775-1803).
Sir Joshua Reynolds. Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse.
A Passion for Performance : Sarah Siddons and Her Portraitists by Shelley Bennett, Mark Leonard, Shearer West, Robyn Asleson. Getty Trust Publications, 1999.
The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons, 1773-1785 by Sarah Siddons. Widener Library, 1942.
A Troubled Grandeur;: The Story of England's Great Actress, Sarah Siddons by Marian Jonson. Little, Brown, 1972.
First Lady of the Theatre Sarah Siddons by Molly Costain Haycraft. Kingston House, 1958.