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Fanny Kemble and Her Aunt, Mrs. Siddons

Fanny Kemble and Her Aunt, Mrs. Siddons, ca. 1830-31. By Henry Perronet Briggs.

 Fanny Kemble and Her Aunt, Mrs. Siddons, ca. 1830-31. By Henry Perronet Briggs, London, England ca. 1791/93-1844. Oil on canvas, 143.5 x 113.3 cm. Gift of Frances Anne Kemble, 1863.


The portrait of actors Fanny Kemble and Sarah Siddons represents an anomaly in the painting collection of the Boston Athenæum: it depicts famous British women (as opposed to American men), it is theatrical (instead of political or literary), and it is a double image. This last feature allowed the artist to construct a more interesting composition while giving him the opportunity to compare the personalities of these two members of one famous theatrical family. The painting’s presence at the Athenæum, moreover, provides a fitting memento of the mutual love affair that existed between the city of Boston and the Kemble family, especially Fanny.

In October 1829, Frances Anne Kemble (1806-1893), known as Fanny, reluctantly followed generations of Kembles onto the stage, debuting at London’s Covent Garden in the role of Juliet. She caused a sensation and within a short time was generating enough income to be of financial benefit to her father, Charles Kemble (1775-1854), actor, owner, and manager of Covent Garden. Predictably, Fanny’s success spawned a host of comparisons to her more famous aunt, the venerable Sarah Kemble Siddons (1755-1831), who at that point had long been retired from the stage. While most critics appreciated Fanny’s fresh vivacity, the majority observed that she lacked the dynamic gravitas that Siddons had brought to the stage, and Siddons herself informed her niece that “you are an extraordinary girl, but you are not Mrs. Siddons yet, though many will tell you that you are.”[1]

The comparisons probably inspired Charles Kemble to commission the double portrait, as a means to further capitalize on the excitement surrounding his daughter. Henry P. Briggs, the artist who took on the task, was no stranger to the family. Briggs studied at the school of the Royal Academy for two years (beginning in 1811), worked for a while in Cambridge, England, and then settled permanently in London. Although primarily a portraitist (especially after 1835), Briggs also painted historical subjects and became something of a specialist in theatrical imagery, having exhibited depictions of scenes from Macbeth, Henry IV, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, and Othello, among others, at the Royal Academy.[2] By the early 1830s, he had come to the attention of Charles Kemble, whose portrait he painted twice (Dulwich Picture Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, London), and it was at this time that he also undertook the painting of Kemble’s daughter and sister.[3] A study in contrast, Briggs captures Fanny’s youthful attributes, while Mrs. Siddons appears to be overcome by senescence.[4] The double portrait debuted at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1832 and likely reminded the public that the great Kemble dynasty had every intention of enduring.

After Fanny Kemble’s London triumph, Charles Kemble took her on a tour of North America, where she performed in Philadelphia and New York before making her Boston debut in April 1833 in Fazio, by Henry Hart Milman. Her performance resulted in an outbreak of “Kemble fever” in Boston. Anna Quincy, daughter of Harvard president Josiah Quincy, was so moved that she confessed to her diary that “although I did my best to hold up my head like a person of fashion and to conceal my tender feelings, it was in vain, and the more I tried the more I cried.”[5] Banker Henry Lee later remembered that, when Fanny Kemble performed, “us Harvard students . . . all went mad. As long as funds held out, there was a procession of us hastening breathless over the road to Boston” to see the young British actress.[6] He also reported that “Every young girl who could sported Fanny Kemble curls.”[6] When asked how he reconciled his Puritanism with his admiration for Fanny Kemble, no less a figure than U. S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story replied, “I don’t try to. I only thank God that I’m alive in the same era with such a woman.”[7]

While in Boston, Fanny was courted by Pierce Butler, a dashing and wealthy Philadelphian, and the two eventually married in 1834. Although Fanny terminated her budding acting career, the marriage soon proved calamitous, partially due to Butler’s family’s scorn of Fanny’s theatrical background. Forced from the stage and deprived of her personal finances, she rebelled, especially after Butler inherited the second largest slave-holding plantation in Georgia. Several months spent with Butler on the plantation crystallized Fanny’s abolitionist sentiments,[8] and the horrid conditions of plantation life, coupled with her growing awareness of Butler’s infidelities and gambling habits, finally prompted her to leave him in 1845. Three years later, Butler petitioned for divorce. Meanwhile, Fanny sought refuge in England and then in Philadelphia and Boston, where she still had many friends. She embarked on a lucrative second career by giving dramatic readings of Shakespeare, which were well received, especially in the Athens of America. Fanny later recalled “how very indulgent and friendly Boston has shown it self to me” and how appreciative she was of “all the good will that has been showered upon me in public and private.”[9]

Briggs’s portrait of Fanny Kemble and Mrs. Siddons seems to have accompanied the younger woman throughout her peregrinations. Charles Kemble evidently brought it from England and it remained with Fanny during her marriage. Pierce Butler was the nominal lender of the portrait when it was shown at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1843,[10] but Fanny retained direct ownership, lent the canvas to the annual exhibitions at the Boston Athenæum beginning late in 1859, and finally gave it to the institution in 1863.[11]

Will Evans from, Stanley Ellis Cushing and David B. Dearinger, eds., Acquired Tastes: 200 Years of Collecting for the Boston Athenæum (2006): 223-225. Copyright © The Boston Athenæum.

[1]Quoted in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds. (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1909-1914), 6: 337. This quote appears in an entry dated Philadelphia, January 7, 1843.
[2]Algernon Graves, The Royal Academy of the Arts (London: Henry Graves and Co., 1905), 282-283.
[3]For information on Briggs, see Michael Wentworth, Look Again: Essays on the Boston Athenæum’s Art Collections (Boston: Boston Athenæum, 2003), 128.
[4] Indeed, this is hardly Siddons’s finest hour on canvas, a claim that arguably belongs to the famous and often-replicated portrait of her by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1784, Huntington Library, San Marino, California).
[5]Quoted in Marc A. DeWolfe Howe, “Young Fanny Kemble as Seen in an Old Diary,” Atlantic Monthly 174 (December 1944): 99.
[6] Henry Lee, “Frances Anne Kemble,” Atlantic Monthly 71 (May 1893): 664.
[7]Quoted in Howe, 98.
[8] Her journal of this period, when eventually published in 1863, during the height of the Civil War, was read in the House of Commons, serving as additional vindication for antislavery Britons.
[9]Fanny Ann Kemble, quoted in Catherine Clinton, Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 239.
[10]Anna Wells Rutledge, Cumulative Record of Exhibition Catalogues, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 1807-1870 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1955), 37.
[11] A diverse group of portraits of the Kemble family by artists such as Thomas Sully and Sir Thomas Lawrence were added to the on-going exhibition at the Athenæum in December 1859. Briggs’s portrait was in this group but was thought by at least one reviewer to be unremarkable. See “Domestic Art Gossip,” Dwight’s Journal of Music 16 (December 17, 1859): 300.