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

Sarah Siddons (née Kemble) ('Mrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy'), by Sir William Beechey, 1793 -NPG 5159 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Mid-Georgian Portraits Catalogue

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

by Sir William Beechey
overall: 96 1/2 x 60 1/2 in.; 2456 x 1537 mm
NPG 5159

Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated WB p./1793 on the tree trunk.
Stretcher stamped
F. Leedham Liner, indicating a date c.1880.

This portraitback to top

Beechey’s portrait conveys Mrs Siddon’s eminence as a Shakespearean tragedienne through emblem rather than attitude or performance, thus contrasting with the great Reynolds whole length of 1784. It was criticised at the RA in 1794 by Pasquin: ‘the attitutude is affectedly disgusting. It conveys the semblance of a gipsy in sattin, disporting at a masquerade, rather than the murder-loving Melpomene. As a portrait the figure is too thin for the original ...’. [1] Ironically NPG 5159 came to bear an attribution to Reynolds between 1878 and 1894 which was dismissed by Graves & Cronin in 1900.
The head closely resembles that painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1787, see NPG 50. A reduced version, probably a preliminary sketch, the pedestal prominently inscribed Sacred/to/the Memory/of/Will:/Shakespere was in the collection of Mrs Arthur Bull at Brynderwen, Usk, in 1962. [2]

Footnotesback to top

1) Quoted by W. Roberts, Sir William Beechey RA, 1907, pp 45-46.
2) J. Steegman, Portraits in Welsh Houses, II, p 125, no.5. Possibly the small copy of Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse sold Christie’s, 26 May 1821, lot 17.

Referenceback to top

Asleson 1999
R. Asleson ed., A Passion for Performance, Sarah Siddons and her Portraitists, exhibition catalogue, Getty Museum, 1999, pp 75-76.

Graves & Cronin 1899-1901
A. Graves & W. V. Cronin, A History of the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 4 vols., 1899-1901, III, p 900.

Roberts 1907
W. Roberts, Sir William Beechey RA, 1907, pp 45-46, 266.

Physical descriptionback to top

Dark brown eyes, grey powdered hair, highly coloured complexion; a dagger in her right hand, a tragic mask in her right; wearing a black dress, a white turban topped with lace, white frilled muslin collar; a grieving putto sits on the pedestal inscribed: Shakespeare/Dedit/Loqui.

Provenanceback to top

Artist’s sale, Christie’s, 11 June 1836, lot 67, bought in; studio sale, Rainy’s, 19 July 1839, unsold; the 4th Earl Brooke(1818-93) by 1860; Trustees of Lord Brooke’s Settlement sale, Christie’s, 22 March 1968, lot 75; Dr D. M. MacDonald, by whom presented 1977.

Exhibitionsback to top

RA 1794 (127, 'Mrs Siddons with the Emblems of Tragedy'); British Institution 1860 (121) and British Institution 1867 (139), lent by the Earl of Warwick; RA 1878 (229, as Reynolds); Royal House of Guelph, New Gallery, London, 1891 (354, as Reynolds); Fair Women, Grafton Gallery, 1894 (79, as Reynolds?); The Collection of Dr D. M. Macdonald, Leggatt, 1970 (1); Regency Portraits, Kenwood, 1986; Art on the Line, Courtauld Gallery, 2001 (64).

This extended catalogue entry is from the out-of-print National Portrait Gallery collection catalogue: John Ingamells, National Portrait Gallery: Mid-Georgian Portraits 1760-1790, National Portrait Gallery, 2004, and is as published then. For the most up-to-date details on individual Collection works, we recommend reading the information provided in the Search the Collection results on this website in parallel with this text.

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