Dr. Johnson & Mrs. Siddons signed and dated 'W.P.Frith 1884' (lower left) oil on canvas 98 x 77 cm. (38 1/2 x 30 1/4 in.)
Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1884, no.306.
He [Samuel Johnson] this autumn received a visit from the celebrated Mrs. Siddons. He gives this account of it in one of his letters to Mrs. Thrale [an endearing widow]:- 'Mrs. Siddons, in her visit to me, behaved with great modesty and propriety, and left nothing behind her to be censured or despised. Neither praise nor money, the two powerful corrupters of mankind, seem to have depraved her. I shall be glad to see her again. Her brother Kemble calls on me, and pleases me very well. Mrs. Siddons and I talked of plays; and she told me her intention of exhibiting this winter the characters of Constance, Catharine, and Isabella, in Shakespeare.' Mr. Kemble [Mrs. Siddons brother, a well-know actor, director and theatre manager] has favoured me with the following minute of what passed at this visit:- 'When Mrs. Siddons came into the room, there happened to be no chair ready for her, which he observing, said with a smile, "Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself." (1)
By the time of this visit, a year before his death, Samuel Johnson had withdrawn from public life. For over forty years following his arrival in London in 1737, Johnson had been one of the pivotal players in the intellectual and social circles of his time. Recognition as an author of importance came late, with the publication in 1755 of his Dictionary of the English Language, following work over a period of nine years. He himself had researched and written 40,000 entries. In 1783, he suffered a stroke and was condemned to leading a quiet life in his London residence, in Bolt Court. Then, a sick man of 74 years, troubled by gout, asthma and dropsy, Johnson became increasingly preoccupied with his oncoming death. The timing of Mrs Siddons visit to Johnson corresponded to her own ascent into the world of theatre. The preceding year, she had captured the audience in her role as Isabella in Thomas Southernes Fatal Marriage. This appearance before the London stage was to consecrate the beginning of her long and distinguished career as the great Muse of Tragedy.
Sarah Kemble had been born to Roger and Sarah Kemble, leaders of a travelling troupe of actors. The eldest of twelve children, Sarah was educated at home as well as in the local schools of the towns where the group stopped to perform seasonally. Following her marriage to fellow actor William Siddons, her talent as an actress became apparent upon her interpretation of Belvidera, from Venice Preservd by Thomas Otway. A first attempt at performing at Drury Lane was curtailed and she was sent back on tour in the country for a few more years before appearing again on the London stage. Then, in 1782, at Drury Lane, now under the management of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751-1816), her qualities as a tragic actress won the triumphal acclaim of the London public. As a result of her fame, Mrs Siddons had to adjust to the social demands linked to her new position in the theatre. A frequent participant of Londons elite circles, Mrs. Siddons also became a favourite guest at the table of Joshua Reynolds, in his residence in Leicester Square. A few years later, Reynolds painted the very memorable portrait of her as The Muse of Tragedy (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London). Here, she would have encountered the best of Londons wise, talented, ranked, moneyed and fashionable of the period. It is presumably through these new encounters that she would have met Mr. Windham, a close friend of Samuel Johnson.
The meeting between Mrs. Siddons and Samuel Johnson depicted in the present lot was recorded in writing in two instances; first, by James Boswell (1740-1795), the great admirer and first biographer of Samuel Johnson; then, by Mrs Siddons herself, in The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons 1773-85. Boswells comments, as quoted above, report on the actual event and further discuss the content of their discussions. Mrs. Siddons recalls the meeting in the following terms:
I do not exactly remember the time but it was not long before I was honoured by an invitation from Dr. Johnson. He was then a wretched invalid, and had requested my friend Mr. Windham, of whom he was very fond, to persuade me to favour him by drinking tea with him in Bolt Court. [ ] Some weeks before he died I made him some morning visits at the request of Mr. Windham. He was extremely, though formally, polite; always apologised for being unable to attend me to my Carriage; conducted me to the head of the stairs, kissed my hand, and bowing, said, Dear Madam, I am your most humble Servant. This ceremony and these words were always repeated without the smallest deviation. (2)
The choice of such a subject by the leader of contemporary genre painting may appear surprising at first. It must be recalled, however, that, by 1884, when the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, William Powell Frith had attempted several works of Hogarthian thematic. In the instance of the present painting, the theatrical and intellectual inspiration of the subject may refer to the painters personal attachment to these circles. Indeed, fond of the theatre himself, he had attended his first performance in London very shortly after his arrival in the capital from his native Yorkshire, in 1835. Then, he had been able to see Shakespeares King John with non other than Charles Kemble (1775-1854), the brother of Sarah Siddons, in the role of Faulconbridge. This weak link to our subject allows only for an appreciation of the painters fervent interest and participation in the art of human feelings. In the painting, the representation of these important meetings is treated with a great economy of detail in the dress and decorum. By concentrating on the facial characters of the two figures, Frith remains loyal to the expressive genre he specialised in. The natural humanity of the figures is recognised by the art critic of The Athenaeum, in the Fourth Notice of the Reports on the Royal Academy exhibitions:
Mr Friths Dr Johnson and Mrs Siddons (306) is not without traces of the painters best time. The ladys face and air, although less grandiose than her admirers say they were, and not so fine as they probably were, are full of wondering sympathy and respect for the dying old man who paid his last homage to her at the head of the straits in Bolt Court.
In this, Frith shows his intentions not to rival in any way with the great portraits of Mrs Siddons by Gainsborough or by Reynolds. His modest genre piece takes on the setting of the encounter between the two great figures of the English word in the manner of a historical tableau, in a way somewhat reminiscent of the departing scene of a last act. As all great things must come to an end, the younger generation secures the legacy of their predecessors as their heirs and keepers. In this relay of Triumph and Success, Frith, as a man of 65 years, is perhaps brought to reflect upon the legacy of his own artistic production, which contributed so significantly to the visual identity of Victorian culture. Known of course for the great crowd scenes of his Ramsgate Sands (1854s, the Derby Day (1858) and The Railway Station (1862), William Powell Frith had begun his career as a painter of portraits and small scale genre subjects, often of literary inspiration. He drew from the great novels of Sir Walter Scott - Hearth of Midlothian, The Bride of Lammermoor and Kenilworth -, Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge - and Oliver Goldsmiths The Vicar of Wakefield and She Stoops to Conquer, to name a few. An avid theatre attendee, Frith had many actor friends and contacts in the stage world. His interests in the theatre were widespread and it is in this context that the present double-portrait of Dr. Johnson with Mrs. Siddons must be considered.
(1) James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, part IX: 1782-83, London, 1791 (2) The Reminiscences of Sarah Kemble Siddons 1773-85, ed. William Van Lennep, Cambridge, Mass., Widener Library, 1942, pp. 13 and 15.