Writing my blog on Robert Dighton, with its caricatures of Elizabeth Farron, reminded me of the splendid portrait of Miss Farron by Sir Thomas Lawrence, shown at the Royal Academy annual exhibition in 1790, and now held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a close-up of what is a fascinating portrait.
Eliza Farren.Chalk drawing by John Downman,1787.Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
Elizabeth had started out as an actress as a teenager and first appeared on the London stage in 1777 aged 18. She was especially well received for her portrayal of Miss Tittup in David Garrick’s farce “Bon Ton or High Life above Stairs”, so Miss Tittup she will be. All went swimmingly for a year or two. Attractive, blue-eyed and tall, she quickly attracted the likes of Charles James Fox who very publicly lusted after her, until 11 July 1778 when she played Nancy Lovel in Colman’s “Suicide”. This was a ‘breeches’ part, and Fox, in company of many other males, was rather looking forward to seeing her in tight trousers. It was after all, a time when the theatre was much like the modern pantomime with its principal boy contrasting with the man playing a fat and florid female in a voluminous dress (think Widow Twankey…). But horror of horrors, Miss Farron did not have the legs for the part! Or more accurately, she had a backside which positively drooped and Fox was vociferous in his disappointment. Her derriere was a disaster. No matter that the poor girl was magnificent as Miss Hardcastle in “She Stoops to Conquer” or that her Hermione was second to none – she would henceforth be remembered for her saggy posterior. Mind you I am not sure what would be worse – being fancied by Fox, or not being fancied by him!
Ms Farren in character as Hermione, 1781, via the British Museum
One person who continued to pursue Miss Tittup was the (married) Earl of Derby. But if she was chased she was also chaste, and she declined his advances for a number of years. Cartoonists suggested she was playing hard to get and in 1790 this etching appeared, entitled “Beatrice Fishing for a Coronet”.
It shows Miss Tittup visiting a fortune teller and appears courtesy of the British Museum. The BM site explains:
“A fortune-teller seated in his room receives a visit from Miss Farren (right) who sits facing him in profile to the left. She is fashionably dressed, wearing a high ribbon-trimmed hat, and a cloak bordered with fur; her hands are in a large muff. She says, “The woman at the Green Rails in Store Street gives me no hopes of a coronet, I wish to know your opinion, venerable Sage.” The sage, seated in a high-backed arm-chair, a gouty leg supported on a stool, wearing a nightcap and fur-bordered robe, peers through spectacles at a book whose pages are covered with symbols. Beside him is a table on which are a telescope, celestial globe, ink-stand, compass, and hour-glass. From under the table-cloth a skull seems to peer up at the lady. The room is crowded with the wizard’s stock-in-trade: an alligator hangs from the ceiling above a number of monstrosities in bottles; there is a diminutive skeleton and also another telescope and globe; there are books inscribed: ‘Aspects of the Planets’ and ‘Astrol[ogy]‘; papers inscribed: ‘Table of the Orbs, and Planets’; ‘the Twelve signs of the Zodiac’; ‘Prediction of future Events’…”
The etching is dated 1790.
Another print of the time, showing Miss Saggybottom in a state of undress, appears courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery in an etching entitled “A peep behind the curtain at the Widow Belmour” by James Sayers. She is saying: “Here I stand a fresh proof of the Manager’s meanness, Not a rag to my back like the Medici’s Venus! At their second-hand wardrobe I turn up my nose, By the Lord I won’t act till they find my new clothes.” Lord Derby, a peeping Tom in the top left hand corner replies “Oh, fie you, Sheridan, curse your niggard heart. Why won’t you let Miss Farren dress her parts? Were I of Drury’s property the sovereign, I’d give the lovely maiden choice of covering.”
Things continued until the Spring of 1797 when the earl’s wife went and died, aged 44, on 14th March. Within days the Earl had proposed marriage, and so it was that Miss Tittup made her last appearance on stage on 8 April 1797 when she was thirty-eight years old. The marriage took place on 1st May – in other words just six weeks after the first wife died – and gave rise to this fairly vicious print from the normally light and frivolous Richard Newton. It is called “Darby and Joan or The Dance of Death.”
The British Museum describes it as:
“Miss Farren and Lord Derby dance together in frantic exultation from right to left. His right arm is round her waist, his left arm is raised, he gazes up at her. She, much taller and more active, leads him forward, a bunch of flowers in her right hand; a tress of hair streaming in the wind (from right to left) appears to be artificially attached to a wig decked with pearls. Her right foot kicks the back of a doctor who is departing on the extreme left, a medicine-phial protruding from his pocket; her leg is indecorously raised. A barking dog runs between the couple. She looks over her left shoulder at a coffin, one end of which is visible on the extreme right, on draped trestles. The end of the coffin lid is open to show the head of a dead woman (evidently Lady Derby), at which a lady looks down, weeping despairingly.”
The idea of “Darby and Joan” – in other words an elderly couple, all passion spent, content in each other’s company, had first appeared in print in the Gentleman Magazine some 60 years previously and cartoonists obviously liked changing “Darby” to “Derby” and mocking the idea that the relationship was purely platonic.
Another etching from just before the betrothal was this one, also from the BM, called “Contemplations upon a Coronet”. The site describes the scene as:
“Miss Farren (left) sits at her dressing-table, contemplating with rapt admiration an earl’s coronet on a wig-block which is a caricature of Lord Derby’s head. The voluminous draperies of her dress define a thin and angular figure, with a long thin neck. At her feet is an open book: ‘Tabby’s Farewell to the Green Room’; near it is a torn paper: ‘Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady. How Lov’d how valued once avails thee not To whom Related or by whom Begot.’
A pad for inflating the figure lies across a stool (right). A ‘Genealogical Chart of British Nobility’ hangs from the dressing-table; the tree issues from the recumbent figure of ‘Willm Conqr’; on it lies a small-tooth comb beside which is an insect. Behind Miss Farren are the closed curtains of an ornate bed, whose valance is decorated with the cap of Libertas and the words ‘Vive la Egalite’. On the wall hangs a ‘Map of the Road from Strolling Lane to Derbyshire Peak’; the places, from S. to N., are: ‘Strolling Lane’, ‘Beggary Corner’, ‘Servility Place’, ‘Old Drury Common’, ‘Affectation Lane’, ‘Insolence Green’, ‘Fool-Catching Alley’, ‘Derbyshire Peak viz Devils Ar.’
A jewel-box, bottles, &c, are on the dressing-table, some inscribed: ‘Bloom de Ninon’, ‘For Bad Teeth’, ‘Cosmetick’, ‘For the Breath’. On the ground, under the valance of the table, is a large bottle of ‘Holland[s]‘. After the title: ‘”A Coronet! – O, bless my sweet little heart! – ah, it must be mine, now there’s nobody left to hinder! – and then – hey, for my Lady Nimminney-pimmenney!– O, Gemmini! – no more Straw-Beds in Barns; – no more scowling Managers! & Curtsying to a dirty Public! – but a Coronet upon my Coach; – Dashing at the Opera! – shining at the Court! – O dear! dear! what I shall come to!”
So it was that Miss Tittup lost a soubriquet but gained a coronet, and went on to give her husband a son and two daughters. The stage lost a fine comic actress – someone described by Horace Walpole as being one of the most perfect actresses he had ever seen. Even Sarah Siddons mourned the loss of “our comic muse” on the day she became Lady Derby.
Her husband was not actually quite the poisoned dwarf shown by the caricaturists. Here he is as Edward Smith-Stanley, otherwise known as the Right Honourable the Earl of Derby, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Privy Councillor.
He lent his name to horse races which still bear his name today – the Epsom Derby and the Kentucky Derby, to name but two. And The Oaks – named after his house.