Flowers, Theatre and Fashion – Fanny Abington

Flowers, Theatre and Fashion – Fanny Abington

The actress Frances Barton or Frances “Fanny” Barton was the daughter of a private soldier who started her working life as a flower girl and a street singer. As an actress, she performed in taverns and resorted to selling herself as many hard-up women did in those days before she made it onto the stage.

Her first step to success came when she got a job as a servant to a French milliner. Fanny learned about costume and acquired some French which afterward stood her in good stead as she mingled in London’s high society as a famous actress.

Actress Fanny first appeared on the stage was at Haymarket in 1755 as Miranda in Mrs. Centlivre’s play, Busybody. Following that she became a member of the Drury Lane Company, where she was overshadowed by its more established actresses Hannah Pritchard and Kitty Clive. However, Fanny was an she was an ambitious actress and travelled to Ireland where she had her first major success Lady Townley in The Provok’d Husband by Vanbrugh and Cibber. Fanny worked at her trade, she became a consumate actress and five years after she began her career she received an invitation from David Garrick to return to Drury Lane.

Fanny married her music teacher, James Abington, a royal trumpeter, in 1759. It was not happy and the pair separated but she retained his name calling herself Mrs. Abington. She remained at Drury Lane for eighteen yearsFanny played Mrs. Teasel in Sheridan’s School for Scandal making the role her own. She also played Shakespearean heroines – Beatrice, Portia, Desdemona and Ophelia and the comic characters  Miss Hoyden, Biddy Tipkin, Lucy Lockit, and Miss Prue. Mrs. Abington’s Kitty in “High Life Below Stairs” put her in the foremost rank of comic actresses, making the mop cap she wore in the role the reigning fashion“.

This cap was soon referred to as the “Abington Cap” and frequently seen on stage as well as in hat shops across Ireland and England. Adoring fans donned copies of this cap and it became an essential part of the well-appointed woman’s wardrobe. The actress soon became known for her avant-garde fashion and she even came up with a way of making the female figure appear taller. She began to wear a tall-hat called a ziggurat adorned with long flowing feathers and began to follow the French custom of putting red powder on her hair.

An example of Fanny’s influence on fashion – the high ziggurat style hat.

Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her as Miss Prue a character from Congreve’s Love for Love. The portrait is the best-known of his half-dozen or more portraits of her. In 1782 she left Drury Lane for Covent Garden. After an absence from the stage from 1790 until 1797, she reappeared, quitting it finally in 1799. Her ambition, personal wit, and cleverness won her a distinguished position in society, in spite of her humble origin.

Source; Wikipedia

Illustrations: Fanny Abington, Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Marie-Dauncey,1789, James-Northcote, Fanny as Miss Prue, Joshua Reynolds.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

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Mary Moser – Founding Member of London’s Royal Academy

Mary Moser – Founding Member of London’s Royal Academy

Mary Moser (1744-1819) was “one of the most celebrated women artists of 18th-century Britain,” yet today she’s mostly overlooked. Along with Angelica Kauffmann, Mary Moser was one of only two female founding members of 36 member Royal Academy. It would be more than 115 years until the next woman, Dame Laura Knight, would be invited to become a member.

Mary Moser by George Romney

Although Moser specialised in flower-painting, which was at the bottom of the hierarchy of academic art, her ambition for professional standing is nevertheless conveyed in this portrait which shows her at work on an oil painting. By placing her at an easel, dressed in generic painter’s robes, it refers to a tradition of portraits of (male) artists dating back to the Renaissance. But at a time when most male artists asserted their academic status by stressing the intellectual rather than the technical aspects of their work, the oil palette that Moser holds also distinguishes her from the many women amateurs who practised flower-painting in the less taxing medium of watercolour. The close focus, dramatic colours and sidelong glance also emphasised that her professional status did not need to compromise her femininity.

Moser’s flower paintings are less a celebration of the wonders of God’s creation but a careful observation of nature. Flowers were a popular subject and London print sellers sold countless decorative flower prints, depicting them in baskets, vases, or tied in bouquets for use as pattern books for ladies to embroider or draw, for glass painting, japan work or even for copying onto undecorated china-in-the-white. By the later part of the eighteenth-century, drawing masters specialising in teaching this type of painting were much in demand and many women who had given up flower painting on their marriage found it a useful means of support when they lost their husbands.

Moser, Mary; Vase of Flowers; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

Due in part to her father’s royal connections, Moser received several commissions from King George and Queen Charlotte. The most prestigious and famous of those commissions was a floral decorative scheme for the Frogmore House in the 1790s. The “prestigious and lucrative commission” Moser was paid £900 which made Moser “the envy of her male colleagues.”

She married remarkably late in life when she was 49 years old. The man she chose was a man called Hugh Lloyd. It was also one of her last professional works, as she retired upon her marriage in 1793. However, she did not pack up her paint box and retire to the country with her new husband and a cat. Her marriage it seems did not live up to her expectations and within six months she was on a sketching tour of Europe with miniaturist Richard Cosway.

Cosway left his Anglo-Italian artist and composer wife Maria Hadfield who was 20 years Moser’s junior. Cosway was a “well known as a libertine and commonly described as resembling a monkey.” The film Jefferson in Paris which dramatises Maria Cosway’s own romance with the future American President Thomas Jefferson depicts Richard Cosway as effeminate but it seems he was anything but in bed. His diary entries for the time he spent with Mary Moser describe a hot and steamy affair.

Richard Cosway – Self Portrait

Mary Moser’s death in 1819 marked the start of a long stretch of time when, despite no explicit ban, women remained excluded from the Academy. Lady Elizabeth Butler, renowned at the time for her paintings that reported the realities of the Crimean War, came close to becoming a member in 1871 but according to committee reports, she missed out by a mere one vote. It wasn’t until 1936 that Dame Laura Knight became the next woman to be fully elected as an Academician, and although having previously had her work rejected by the Academy on grounds of embarrassing the art establishment with what a critic described as “vulgar” and “obviously an exercise” for a self-portrait, she helped pave the way for greater recognition of women in the arts and the continuation of female membership at the Academy.

Illustrations: Study of flowers; roses, marigolds and stocks Watercolour, The British Museum

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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Giovanna Bassi – Ballet Dancer, Mother and Spy

Giovanna Bassi – Ballet Dancer, Mother and Spy

The Royal Swedish Ballet is one of the oldest ballet companies in Europe. Based in Stockholm, Sweden, King Gustav III founded the ballet in 1773 as a part of his project to bring his kingdom to the fore in European culture. Gustav III wanted to create Swedish ballet dancers and to do this he encouraged foreign dancers to live and work in Sweden and Giovanna Bassi (1762–1834), an Italian trained ballet dancer, responded to the king’s request as her brother; the architect Carlo Bassi (1772–1840); was already living there.

Giovanna who had trained in Italy moved to Paris where she was the student of Jean Dauberval the creator of La Fille Mal Gardée, one of the most enduring and popular works of the ballet repertoire today. Giovanna became a star of the Paris Opera then in 1783, at the age 19, she moved to Sweden.

Her technique was entirely Italian; she was described as noble with beautiful black hair.  At her debut in Stockholm, the applause was said to loud enough “to outdo the thunder”, and caused what was to be referred to as the “Bassi fever” to begin. She danced many roles and gave dancing classes for girls from the upper classes, and occasionally performed as an actor at the French Theatre. All this work made Giovanna a very wealthy woman.

She began an affair with one of the king’s close friends, Adolf, Count Munck. Munck was a notorious womaniser, the king even asked him to give sex lessons so that he could consummate his marriage to Sophia Magdalena of Denmark. Munck himself writes in his written account, which is preserved at the National Archives of Sweden, that in order to succeed, he was obliged to touch them both physically. This “aid” resulted in the birth of the future King Gustav IV  in 1778. The story of baby Gustav’s conception did not however remain private and scandal erupted with rumours circulating that Munck was either the child’s father or the lover of both the king and queen. Accusations from the political opposition were circulating as late as 1786 and in 1789 there were still claims that the King had asked Munck to make the Queen pregnant.

Bassi had a daughter, Johanna Fredrika, by Munck in 1787; she was 25 and he was 38. Bassi’s daughter was said to have a strong resemblance to baby Gustav so Munck might have been his father after all. Munck was forced to leave Sweden 1792 when Gustav III died, he was too tainted with scandal and the rumours about the Regent’s parentage just would not go away. Bassi left the Swedish Ballet and followed him to Rome where she expected him to formally acknowledge their daughter and to marry her. He did neither.

During her stay in Italy, she received large sums of money from the Swedish government to spy on their ambassador Gustaf Mauritz Armfelt in Naples who was courting the support of Catherine the Great for a military intervention to change the Swedish government. With Bassi’s help the plot was discovered. The Swedes sent a man-of-war to Naples to seize him but he escaped with the help of the exiled British Queen Caroline and fled to Russia. At home, he was condemned to death as a traitor and his property confiscated. His mistress, Magdalena Rudenschöld, was judged for complicity and pilloried on the Riddarhus Square before being imprisoned for two years in Stockholm.

Bassi returned to Sweden in 1794 and re-entered the Swedish Ballet, but she was only to remain there for a short while. Munck later made her daughter a beneficiary in his will, but Bassi refused to accept it and denied Munck’s claim on her daughter. She made her break with Munck final in 1794, when she married the German-Swedish merchant Peter Hinrik Schön (1765–1821) following her last performance. In her marriage contract, Bassi stipulated that her spouse should acknowledge her daughter with Munck as his, and that her great fortune should remain her personal and sole property. Schön was bankrupt at the time of the marriage, but was afterwards able to buy Ekholmsnäs Manor at Lidingö; an island in the inner Stockholm archipelago, northeast of Stockholm; where Bassi spent the rest of her life as a business woman, attending to her manor, a brick factory and a snuff factory. She lived with her mother and her friend, the actress Elise Dubelloi from the French Theatre in Sweden and had three sons with Schön.  She died a wealthy and successful woman in 1834, aged 72.

Sources: Wikipedia

Illustrations: Ballet Dancer, Jean-Frederic Schall 1752-1825, miniature of Giavanna Bassi

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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The Woman Who Painted Marie-Antoinette

The Woman Who Painted Marie-Antoinette

Between 1780 and 1810, many French women painters reached impressive heights of artistic achievement and professional success. They achieved this despite a cap on the number of women admitted to France’s prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and restrictions that barred women from the life drawing classes. At the end of the eighteenth century women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Europe.

One such was Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Le Brun was born in Paris on 16 April 1755, the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter and a hairdresser. Her early childhood was spent in the country where she attended a residential convent school until she was eleven. When she returned home, her father recognised his daughter’s natural ability with paint and gave her access to his studio to develop her skills. Unfortunately, her father died a couple of years later but luckily her mother married Jacques Le Sèvre, a highly successful jeweller a year later and the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal where Elisabeth continued to paint. By the time she was in her early teens Elisabeth was painting portraits professionally although ran into trouble with the Paris artists’ guild for practising without a license.

Elisabeth married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer in 1776 and the pair began what was to become a very successful business and family life. Four years later Elisabeth gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter, Julie and a year after that she set off to tour Flanders and the Netherlands with her husband to paint members of the Dutch aristocracy. While she was there she was inspired by the Dutch paintings she saw and adopted some of their techniques. In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal with a self-portrait, that showed her smiling which was at the time considered outrageous as no Greek statue ever showed their teeth!

Her growing fame won her an invitation to the Palace of Versailles and the patronage of Marie Antoinette. Le Brun painted the queen and her children more than thirty times over a period of six years. Le Brun supported the queen’s campaign to present herself as a doting mother and in return the queen supported Le Bruns’ application to France’s most prestigious academy, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. She was admitted in 1783 on the same day has another female artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard giving the press an opportunity to cast the two women as rivals, pitting Le Brun’s “feminine” style of loose brushstrokes, high-toned colour, and flattering renderings of her sitters against the more “masculine” characteristics of crisp, muted tones, and truth to nature of Labille-Guiard’s work. Although many critics applauded the women’s prominence, others lambasted them for immodesty and pamphleteers frequently depicted them naked.

Royal patronage was fine until the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 when association with the royal family was tantamount to a death warrant so Le Brun, who was now separated from her husband, took her daughter and fled to Italy where she lived and worked from 1789 to 1792. From Italy she moved to Austria where she worked for three years then to  Russia where she painted the portraits of aristocrats until 1801.

After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Le Brun was finally able to return to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804. In spite of being no longer labelled as émigrée, her relationship with the new regime was never totally harmonious, as might be expected given that she was a strong royalist and the former portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

Much in demand by the élite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables, including Lord Byron. In 1807 she travelled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Société pour l’Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.

She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies. Still very active with her painting in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home. Her tombstone epitaph states “Ici, enfin, je repose…” (Here, at last, I rest…).

Sources: Wikipedia,

Katharine Baetjer, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Illustrations: Self portrait with Julie. Marie-Antoinette with her children.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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