On Portraits of Women of the Theatre in The Ricardo Album

On the first page of the Ricardo album, Charlotte and Albert Ricardo appear standing on a threshold at Ray Mead Cottage. They seem poised on a stage, presenting themselves before an audience. Their image extends a visual welcome, and then the curtain rises on the Ricardos’ world. It is a world that unfolds on successive pages, created in visual miniature by Charlotte Ricardo in assembling the album. Here are their friends, associates, and relatives; their horses, dogs, and carriages; their pastimes and playgrounds; their settings and estates. This is the world of a British family from the upper class of society, posed in photographs that often appear quite theatrical in presentation. Fittingly, that theatricality is enhanced by portraits of figures prominent on the British stage, performers of burlesque, farce, opera, comedy, and drama, whose presence in the album reveals something of the changing attitudes toward theatre and celebrity in mid-19th century Britain.

These performers, the “divinities and heroes of the footlights,”1 enjoyed fantastic popularity in the burgeoning British theatre scene at the time. Charlotte Ricardo’s inclusion of their portraits reflects the growing interest in theatre-going which had blossomed in recent years, especially following the 1843 Theatres Act, which removed various parliamentary controls governing theatres and stimulated an expansion of the theatre-going public.2 Whereas once only certain dramatic plays were considered worthy of polite audiences, now a range of entertainment was acceptable for the middle and upper classes. Theatre had, in short, become widely “respectable,” and as a result, actors and actresses enjoyed increased celebrity.

The fact that Albert Ricardo himself would co-found and join the amateur theatrical company, the Windsor Strollers, in 1860, reflects those shifting attitudes. Accordingly, theatrical scenes are peppered throughout the Ricardo album, including images from “Grand Amateur Theatricals” performed at the Melton Mowbray Corn Exchange.

Charlotte Ricardo chose to create her own “gallery of players,” devoting two full pages to portraits of famous women of the theatre. Her “wonderful bevy of beauty and talent”3 is comprised of nine full-length carte de visite size portraits on page 54, followed by nine more portraits on page 56. Some of the women she included were rising stars, having achieved recent fame. Lydia Thompson and Florence Hayden made their debuts in 1860.4 Others had enjoyed long-established fame. Rose Leclercq (c.1845-1899), for instance, debuted at the age of six in a performance for members of the Royal family at Windsor Castle.5 (Leclercq also appeared in Old Stagers and Windsor Strollers productions.6) And Mrs. Boucicault (Agnes Kelly Robertson), the ward of the famous actor Charles Kean—said to be one of Queen Victoria’s favorite thespians7—had debuted at the age of 13.8

Whether new to the scene or considered theatrical royalty, these women were celebrated and feted by a public increasingly enthralled and dazzled by theatrical entertainments. The public’s fascination with stage performers ran parallel to the development of an industry perfectly suited to promoting celebrity itself: photography. At the time Charlotte Ricardo assembled her album, photography, like London theatre, was undergoing a popular revolution.

A handful of London photographers would make their names taking celebrity portraits. Ten of the 18 actress portraits in the Ricardo album were taken by French photographer Camille Silvy, who set up his London studio at the beginning of the carte de visite craze in 1859. Silvy launched his career by taking portraits of 200 actresses,9 with both photographer and subject benefitting from the publicity those portraits generated. (“[I]f he did not think that a sitter would do him credit,” one critic noted of Silvy, “he declined to photograph him.”10)

Celebrity portraits made by Silvy and others were available to the public in shops and by mail order, for modest sums. Catalogues included long lists of available thespian portraits, known as “dramatic portraits,” which were advertised as being “photographed from life.”11 Subjects appeared dressed in street clothes or pictured “in character.” (Charlotte Ricardo chose a mixture of the two). Collectors could also choose among portrait formats, including “bust,” “vignette head,” “medallion,” and “portrait.”12 Albums offered collectors “the novelty of the arrangements for introducing” the photographic portraits, encouraging a “felicitous manner in which the portraits are at once displayed and preserved.”13

In their portraits, the women of the stage pose on another kind of stage: the portrait studio. They are pictured in settings that are inherently theatrical, complete with painted backdrops, drapery, and props.14 Some even look quite boldly into the camera lens, indicating the actress’ command of her new “role” as celebrated public figure. Indeed, the actress, once looked upon with disdain by polite society, was enjoying an upward trend in status; soon, many women would look to the stage as a viable occupation. (From 1861 to 1891, for example, the number of actresses in England and Wales grew from 891 to 3,696.15)

To the adoring public interested in collecting portraits, the famous actresses had achieved a kind of royal status. On rare occasions when actresses appeared offstage in public, such as at the Annual Fete and Fancy Fair held at London’s Crystal Palace,16 the “lieges flocked in thousands to be witnesses of so rich and rare a spectacle.”17

Viewers of the album will note the “tall, slender, elegant, fair-haired,” Caroline Heath, “a special favorite with the royal family.”18 And here is the opera star Marietta Piccolomini (1834-1899), an “artist young and spiritual,” judged to possess “rare perfection.”19 We meet the gaze of Rose Leclercq, about whom one London writer recalled hearing “a lady well known in London society say that she would have given anything to have been able to engage Rose Leclercq to receive her guests at her big receptions!”20

Charlotte Ricardo’s “felicitous” manner of displaying her collected portraits presents these famous performers as inhabiting the Ricardos’ own world. There, they lend a touch of panache, a bit of cachet to the album’s owners. Photographic portraits had, after all, become “social currency,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes noted.21 Even if one did not travel to London to attend the theatre, one could assemble the leading figures of the stage on one’s own miniature stage, the photograph album. “There is scarcely an educated lady,” as one writer observed at the time, “fashionable or unfashionable, whose table is not adorned with the album of cartes de visite, containing a full allowance of royalties, half-a-dozen leading statesmen, and a goodly row of particular friends—all highly useful in furnishing subjects of conversation to guests.”22

The Ricardo album was assembled just after the 1856 establishment of London’s National Portrait Gallery, an institution designed with the “explicit intention of displaying portraits that would embody a grand national history.”23 By assembling her own gallery, Charlotte Ricardo can be seen as having created her family’s own grand history, mixing and mingling portraits of friends and relatives with those whose fame connected to a larger, national narrative.

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© 2016 Jenny Thompson. All rights reserved.

Jenny Thompson is a freelance writer and history consultant based in Evanston, Illinois and you can view more of her work at www.jennythompson.org

Notes

1 A. H., “A Half-Holiday with the Actors,” London Society, September 1862, 193.

2 For more information, see: The Theatres Trust. “Nineteenth Century Theatre.” Accessed January 30, 2016. http://www.theatrestrust.org.uk/resources/exploring-theatres/history-of-theatres/nineteenth-century-theatre.

3 “Our Gallery of Players,” The Illustrated American, December 26, 1891, 276.

4 Kurt Ganzl, Lydia Thompson: Queen of Burlesque. London: Routledge, 2002, 45. Advertisement, The London Review, September 8, 1860, 235.

5 Charles Smith Cheltnam, The Dramatic Year Book and Stage Directory for the United Kingdom. London: Trischler and Company, 1892, 123. “Our Omnibus Box,” September 2, 1889, in Theater: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts. Ed., Clement Scott. London: Eglington and Co., 1889, 160.

6 Other actresses in the album, including Emma Murray, Mrs. Stirling, and Louisa Ruth Hebert, also performed in Old Stagers productions.

7 Helen Rappaport, Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003, 356.

8 James Fisher, Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015, 379.

9 Mark Haworth-Booth, Camille Silvy: Photographer of Modern Life, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2010, 64.

10 “Chips from a Photographic Workshop,” Wilson’s Photographic Magazine, Volume 38, May 1901, 167.

11 Pamphlet, “Alphabetical List of Full Length and other Album Carte de Visite Dramatic Portraits, photographed from life, by Messrs. Bassano, Clarkington ... and the Parisian photographers,” sold by Thomas Hailes Lacy, 89, Strand, London, nd.

12 Ibid.

13 “Cartes-de-Visite,” The Art Journal, Vol. VII, London: James S. Virtue, 1861, 307.

14 American actress Olive Logan (1839-1909) described her difficult (and comic) visit to a studio to have her portrait made: there, she had to “endure the excruciating agony which awaits all those bleeding lambs who are mildly led to the sacrificial photographic altar. The long waiting, the fatigue of ‘posing,’ the choice of attitudes, the anxiety about back hair, the effort to look pretty.” Olive Logan, Apropos of Women and Theatres: With a Paper or Two on Parisian Topics. London: S. Low, Son, and Co., 1869, 53.

15 Michael Baker, The Rise of the Victorian Actor. Oxon: Routledge, 1978, 2016, 106. 

16 C.A.W., “Passing Events Re-Edited,” The Ladies’ Companion and Monthly Magazine, Vol. XX, 1861, 112. The event was held to raise money for the college dramatic fund.

17 “A Half-Holiday with the Actors,” 193.

18 “Our Gallery of Players,” The Illustrated American, December 26, 1891, 276.

19 Henry Morley, LLD, The Journal of a London Playgoer, from 1851-1866, London: George Routledge and Sons, 1891, 114.

20 Cyril Maude, The Haymarket Theatre: Some Records & Reminiscences. London: Grant Richards, 1903, 199.

21 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Doings of the Sunbeam,” Soundings from the Atlantic, Cambridge: University Press, 1864, 255.

22 “Photography,” The London Quarterly Review, October 1864, 250.

23 John Plunkett, “Celebrity and Community: The Politics of the Carte-de-Visite,” Journal of Victorian Culture, Volume 8, 2003, 61.