Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sarah Siddons v. Anonymous Lady v. Mrs. Robinson

Ever since Fashion Police gained a weekly spot on E!, I’ve been watching the show religiously.  “Bitch stole my look” is among my favorite segments and I thought it might be fun to take an occasional break from longer posts by comparing 18th century look-alikes.  We’ll call them Lady Brawlers and categorize them under Fashion Hurts.

This week I have two (or three depending on your opinion) ladies sparring for top props.  While Sarah Siddons and anonymous lady are copycats from the neck up, anonymous lady and Mrs. Robinson could very well be the same person.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

Portrait of unidentified English lady after a painting by Hoppner or Reynolds (late C18) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Telegraph identifies the print as Mrs. Robinson

Mrs. Robinson as Perdita by John Hoppner, 1782

Clearly, anonymous lady and Mrs. Robinson are sporting similar poses and ensembles, but they can’t steal each others’ look if they are indeed the same person!  Going on a facial comparison alone, I see two different women, but they do resemble one another with the anonymous lady slightly more pinched in her features.

What say you?  Is there some sartorial thievery going on here?  And, of course, the essential question: who wears the look with the most panache?

Rubens’ Majestic Marchesa

One can imagine the Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria held a secret behind her lively expression.

Peter Paul Rubens painted her in 1606 when he, a keen student of the Italian masters, was 28.  She was 22, a pink-cheeked newlywed from a leading family in Genoa.  A year prior in July 1605, she had married her cousin Giacomo Massimiliano Doria after receiving a matrimonial dispensation from the pope.  This was a common exemption in canon law that allowed members of consanguineous aristocratic families to marry and proved especially useful where powers were centralized among the exalted few.

Although this portrait is considered one of Rubens’ finest, not much is known about the Marchesa.  We know that her first husband died and that she remarried, but there is no recorded date for her death.  If lengthy accounts of her life exist, they appear to be moldering in libraries somewhere.

Given the date of the portrait and her elaborate styling, she is believed to be wearing her wedding finery.  The original portrait was cut down to its current size between 1854 and 1886, possibly because of water damage, and showed an open landscape to the Marchesa’s right.

In full view, she would have stood on the terrace of a palace, a scene intended to arouse an impression of wealth and power.  The tight crop makes the detailing all the more exquisite, from her luminescent silk gown to the crimson drapery behind her.  Similar to Rubens’ portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino, her Elizabethan ruff is among the most elaborate I’ve ever seen.  I half wonder how she managed to move her head, although perhaps this is apropos her fate.

A Spinola by birth, the Marchesa married into the Dorias.  By the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dorias–a feudal, soldiering lot–had become the richest family in Genoa.  Their principal spheres of influence resided in banking and the military, and as part of the “aristocratic republic”, they occupied seats in government as ambassadors and prelates.  Six Dorias rose to power as doges between 1528-1797, which ensured their place at the top of Genoan society.

The Spinolas had a similar pedigree.  Although having descended from their heights in the 13th and 14th centuries, they held prized roles in society, making a match between the two families an exceptional one.

The Marchesa’s portrait currently hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  It has had a long ownership history and is one of Rubens’ few surviving portraits from his Italian period of 1600-1608.  Influenced by Veronese, Tintoretto, and principally by Titian, Rubens’ style in painting the Marchesa would later make its mark on Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, two prominent 18th century painters.

This portrait of the Marchesa is one of my favorites.  She’s more than beautiful; she’s intriguing, and I’m not sure if it’s Rubens skill in enlivening his subjects or merely reflecting their depths that makes the portrait so compelling.  All I know is that canvassing the Italian aristocracy in his search for greatness works for him here.  He captures the Marchesa’s elegant intensity with such mastery that it’s hard to look away once she’s held you in her gaze.

The Story of a Diva: Mary Ann Yates, Forgotten Actress

Portrait of Mrs. Yates as Mandane in The Orphan of China – Tilly Kettle (1765)

Mary Ann Yates began her career as an afterthought.  Originally criticized as a feeble-voiced, small-talented nobody–“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” that she should be paid to stay away from the stage–she would make her critics reconsider their words.

Before Sarah Siddons eclipsed her as the tragedienne of the age, Mary Ann was a leading actress at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden.  By the time she retired at age 55, she and her husband Richard Yates had banked £36,000-40,000 for retirement.  No small sum in those days.

She had spent 31 years on the stage, debuting in Dublin in 1753 and then performing bit parts in Drury Lane’s 1754-55 season.  One can suppose she often sulked around Drury Lane muttering, “Damn that David Garrick!”  The actor-cum-theater manager was underwhelmed by her and merely tolerated her which was why, in 1756, when he refused to offer her a contract for the next season, she did what any rational young creature would do.

She got married.

Her choice was prudent.  Richard Yates was a comic actor in his fifites, a widower whose former spouse (also an actress) had left him a considerable sum.  Incidentally, he was known for his ability to develop promise in his fellow actors–and he polished Mary Ann until she was golden.

Mary Ann returned to Drury Lane the same year she married, but it wasn’t until 1759, when she served as understudy to Mrs. Cibber, that she blindsided Garrick with a sly interpretation of Mandane from Murphy’s Orphan of China.  Mrs. Cibber, whose inability to perform ocassioned the opportunity, would have been displeased to discover that Mary Ann’s coup was the result of a well-laid scheme.

The story goes something like this:  When Mrs. Cibber falls ill, disagreements over the schedule ensue and a postponed premiere makes for an impatient playwright.  The hungry Mary Ann readily agrees when the playwright proposes to teach her in secret how to play the role.  At the first rehearsal, she demurs to Garrick (who highly opposes Mary Ann as a substitue) saying she is unfamiliar with Mandane.  That way, Garrick is absolutely flabbergasted at the second rehearsal when he realizes she is Mandane.

From then on, it was a lot like this for poor Garrick . . .

David Garrick as Richard III – William Hogarth (1745)

During her years at Drury Lane, Mary Ann enchanted the crowds, and for a while, Garrick was pleased.  He went on a continental tour in 1763, and despite his absence, Drury Lane flourished.  When Mrs. Cibber died in 1765, ridding Mary Ann of her only competition, Mary Ann rose to the height she had formerly dreamed of.

She flirted with a generous contract from Covent Garden for both her and her husband, and by 1767 she switched theater houses.  She was a bit of a diva at this point, and although she stayed at Covent Garden until 1771, she fought with her fellow actors and declined roles that inconvenienced or displeased her.

She left London to play two seasons in Edinburgh but had difficulty finding employment upon her return to London.  The famous playwright Oliver Goldsmith championed her work, yet still nothing came her way.  It was only after a friend and admirer of hers wrote a novel exposing what went on behind the curtain of a certain theater and with a certain *wink, wink* manager that she gained a little attention . . . and a lot of avoidance.

Garrick rightly pinpointed Mary Ann as the source of gossip, but nevertheless, by 1774 he offered Mary Ann a generous salary, hoping she might return to Drury Lane.  She replied as follows:

Whatever amounts they settled on concerning the letters of Spring 1774, Mary Ann bedeviled Garrick for the remainder of his life.  She missed premieres and showed up to rehearsals late or not at all.  As a “capital actress”, she refused roles undeserving of her talent, and even when she requested particular roles, she would abandon them upon her whim.

Over the years, her absences only increased and she partied hard, flitting around town from one masquerade to the next.  As Garrick had spent his career making Drury Lane a first-rate theater, he was justifiably incensed.  But this was the way with them.

Mary Ann was a talented tart; we’ve no doubt about that.  Some of her roles were so well played that other actresses refused to attempt them for the remainder of her life.  She had leagues of admirers and likely just as many critics, making her a person of great interest during the Georgian period, but why then didn’t her contemporaries write biographies of her?  Why wasn’t she the subject of national obsessions like many of her fellow actresses?

What makes one person forgotten and not another?

An 1839 edition of Bentley’s Miscellanya literary magazine first edited by Dickens, by no means provides answers to these curiosities, but the following exchange between a pew opener and a group of gentlemen touring a Richmond graveyard is a testament to Mary Ann’s one-time popularity:

“But, surely, sir, you’ll go and see the grave of the great Mary Ann Yates?  Lord bless you, sir, more people go to see that grave more than any other in the church.”

“The great Mary Ann Yates!” said we in some perplexity; for, to our shame be it spoken, we had forgotten the name, and we did not like to expose our ignorance to the pew opener.”

“She was very celebrated,” said she [the pew opener], after a pause; “and, indeed, I’ve heard that Mrs. Siddons wasn’t anything like equal to her.”

More Images of Mary Ann:

Additional Resources:

“her figure so much encumbered with corpulence” was said of Mary Ann by Thomas Sheridan, actor-manager in Dublin

Pretties in Pink

“Pinks” was originally the common name for the dianthus flower.  Regardless of hue’s popularity in fashion, the singular “Pink” didn’t gain its definition as rose colored until around 1733.  Even as late as 1769, when Jacob Christian Schäffer created his lovely baroque color table, what we now call pink was often considered a pale shade of red.


Jacob Christian Schäffer’s Color Table – Roth (or red in German)

The ladies loved their pink no matter what the color was called.  In Queen of Fashion, Caroline Weber recounts an amusing exchange between Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI regarding a color that remained à la mode into the 19th century:  “When the Queen asked her husand how he like the confection, which was made from tafetta of an odd pinkish-tan hue, he replied laconically: ‘It is the color of a flea [puce].’ ”  

The exact color of puce is damnably hard to pin down.  Sources tend to disagree whether puce is pinkish-tan or reddish-brown/reddish-purple and as I’m not inclined to examine fleas by age or anatomical part (both of which define puce, apparently), we are going to rely on source material.

As Baronne D’Oberkirch–also noted in Queen of Fashion–wrote in her Memoires“ . . . every lady at court wore a puce-colored gown, old puce, young puce, ventre de puce [flea’s belly], dos de puce [flea’s back], etc.  [And] as the new color did not soil easily, and was therefore less expensive than lighter tints, the fashion of puce gowns was adopted by the [Parisian] bourgeoisie.”


The Royal English Dictionary of 1775 defines pink as: “A small fragrant flower, of the gilliflower kind; anything supremely excellent; a reddish color, resembling that of a pink.”   I rather like the middle definition.  The ladies below are supremely excellent.

 Self-portrait with Farinelli and friends – Jacopo Amigoni (1750-52) Full Portrait

The Archduchess Marie-Antoinette, future Queen of France at 7 years of age –  Jean-Étienne Liotard (1762)

Portrait of Elizabeth Hervey, 4th Marchioness of Bristol – Anton von Maron

Duchess of Medinaceli – Anton Raphael Mengs

 Mrs-George-Watson-(Elizabeth-Oliver) – John Singleton Copley

More about color: