Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Following a Trail

I'm reading, for reasons vaguely connected with something I'm planning to write, The Private Life of Mrs Siddons by Naomi Royde-Smith. Published in 1933, this is a product of that expansive period when (following the example of A.J.A. Symons, among others) biography became something much more than a dutifully exhaustive chronicle of the known facts of a life, and developed into an art form in itself, and a rich and various one for which there was an eager, educated public. 'The plan of this book,' says Miss Royde-Smith at the outset, 'is that of the full-length and ceremonial portraits of the late eighteenth century, the greatest period of English painting till our own day [really?], and the period during which Mrs Siddons lived and was actually painted by Stuart, Hamilton, Romney, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Lawrence and other less important artists.' The author begins by assembling her materials, then painting in the background, then adding some 'cloudy symbols', and finally the sitter herself. 
  Sarah Kemble (Siddons to be) was the granddaughter of John Ward, manager of a troupe of travelling players, whose daughter had married an aspiring actor, Roger Kemble. Sarah's brother, John Philip Kemble, was to become, like her, one of the leading actors of their time. The Kemble family were a big presence in Hereford, where Roger Kemble was born and spent his first 30 years – and it was in Hereford also that another great actor was born: David Garrick (whose father, I learn, was a Huguenot called Garric). His family moved, not long after his birth, to Lichfield, where he attended Lichfield grammar school.
  Where is all this leading, you may ask? Actually it's leading to Bromley, which just goes to show what can happen when you follow a trail of biographical associations.... After leaving the grammar school in Lichfield, David Garrick enrolled at Edial Hall, a small (very small) private school that had been set up by Samuel Johnson, son of a Lichfield bookseller, and his wife Elizabeth ('Tetty'). Elizabeth, some 21 years older than her husband, had invested her dowry of £600 in the school, but it soon failed. Johnson and Garrick, who were now fast friends, headed for London, where Tetty duly followed. Later in life, she was in poor health and seems to have become addicted to alcohol and opiates, but her husband loved her devoutly and grieved for her all his life. 'I tried to compose myself,' he wrote in his diary on an anniversary of her death, 'but slept unquietly. I rose, took tea, and prayed for resolution and perseverance. Thought on Tetty, poor dear Tetty, with my eyes full.' 
  When Mrs Johnson died, she was buried in, of all places, Bromley, at the church of St Peter and St Paul. The old church was nearly destroyed by wartime bombing and was rebuilt in the 1950s – but Elizabeth Johnson's memorial stone, inscribed with her husband's heartfelt Latin epitaph ('formosae, cultae, ingeniosae, piae' etc.) survived, and can still be seen in the church. If I ever find myself in Bromley, I shall seek it out... 



No comments:

Post a comment