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Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) ('Mrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy')

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) ('Mrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy')

by Sir William Beechey
oil on canvas, 1793
overall: 96 1/2 x 60 1/2 in.; 2456 x 1537 mm
Given by Dr D.M. McDonald, 1977
Primary Collection
NPG 5159

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), Portrait painter. Artist associated with 252 portraits, Sitter in 7 portraits.

This portraitback to top

Following David Garrick's model of self-promotion, Siddons associated her personal reputation with that of Shakespeare and used portraiture to seal her fame. This portrait was probably inspired by her performances as Lady Macbeth, her most famous role. Siddons, holding a tragic mask and a dagger, is shown with a monument to Shakespeare. The representation caused much debate when shown at the Royal Academy in 1794, one critic thought it inappropriate and 'disgusting'. Such public furore secured Siddons's reputation and underpinned her celebrity. Beechey's portrait celebrates Mrs Siddons as the leading tragic actor of her day

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 51
  • Audio Guide
  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 45 Read entry

    The English actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), depicted here as the tragic muse, is a forerunner of modern thespians, such as Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, pioneering, as she did, a more psychological approach to the craft. The eldest of actor-manager Roger Kemble’s twelve children, she toured with his company throughout her childhood, marrying (in 1773) company member William Siddons. Her first appearance – as Portia in The Merchant of Venice at Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal, under actor-manager David Garrick in 1775-6 – did not go well, despite her recognised ability to move an audience to tears. Her second, in the tragedy Isabella in 1782, was a sensation. It led to a sequence of other tragic roles and her acknowledgement as the peerless tragic actress of her day. Her portrayal of Lady Macbeth, in a production of 1812, was her swansong. A friend of Horace Walpole and Dr Johnson, and painted by Reynolds, Lawrence and Gainsborough, she became a respected celebrity, her portraiture securing her fame. Her funeral in 1831 drew more than 5,000 mourners.

  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Asleson, Robyn (ed.), Notorious muse : the actress in British art and culture, 1776-1812, 2003, p. xviii
  • Ingamells, John, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, 2004, p. 431
  • Perry, Gill (introduction) Roach, Joseph (appreciation) and West, Shearer (appreciation), The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, 2011 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 20 October 2011 to 8 January 2012), p. 108
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 66
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 564
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 115 Read entry

    Sarah Siddons is acknowledged as one of the greatest actresses in the history of English theatre. Born into the Kemble family, a powerful dynasty of actors, Siddons showed talent early and began to act alongside members of her family. After establishing her reputation around the country she made her London debut in 1782, playing Isabella in David Garrick’s Isabella, or the Fatal Marriage (1808) at Drury Lane. A critic at the time mused, ‘There never, perhaps, was a better stage figure than that of Mrs Siddons.’ She went on to dominate the London stage for three decades, specialising in tragic roles from contemporary and classical theatre.

    This ‘Grand Manner’ portrait by William Beechey (1753–1839) conveys Siddons’s statuesque presence and eminence as a Shakespearean actress. Her association with tragedy is symbolised by the tragic mask, dagger and weeping putto, and her talent at comedy by the comic mask resting on the monument (far right). When the portrait was displayed at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1794, it was criticised by A. Pasquin (John Williams) for conveying ‘the semblance of a gipsey [sic] ... at a masquerade, rather than the murder-loving Melpomene [Muse of Tragedy].’

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1793back to top

Current affairs

Whig MP Charles Grey enters a motion for parliamentary reform but is defeated in the House of Commons.

Art and science

Radical philosopher William Godwin publishes Political Justice, an inflamatory document that promoted rational anarchism. This crystallised a wider feeling that a new era of world peace and progress was beginning.
Sir William Beechey is appointed Portrait Painter to her Majesty, Queen Charlotte.


Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette are executed and the Reign of Terror begins.
France declares war on Britain, Holland and then Spain. William Pitt addresses the House of Commons and Britain hesitantly joins the first coalition of anti-revolutionary European states to oppose the French threat.
Attack on Corsica in which Captain Horatio Nelson loses an eye.

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