Anne Bracegirdle (c.1671–1748)

Anne Bracegirdle was one of the first important female figures of the London stage during a transitional period in the history of theatre in Britain. At the height of her career the playwrights Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) and William Congreve (1670-1729) ( P.10784-R) were writing roles especially suited to her talents. She was a singing actress, which was unusual for the time, as these had traditionally been two distinct specialties. In 1695, Anne Bracegirdle and two other colleagues - Elizabeth Barry (1656-1713) and Thomas Betterton (c.1635-1710) (together the three became known as The Three Bs) - led a group of actors in the establishment of a new theatre company in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The group identified themselves as special servants to King William III. Anne and Elizabeth are depicted as allegorical figures in an equestrian portrait of the king by Godfrey Kneller (in the Royal Collections, RCIN 403986).

Because of her popularity, Anne had many male admirers. Some made her generous bequests, which enabled her to retire from the stage in 1707 and live the rest of her life in relative anonymity. However, the attention of other devotees was less welcome: a sixteen-year-old young man called Richard Hill (1676-c.1697), a captain of Colonel Thomas Erle’s regiment took offence when Anne declined his proposal of marriage. With another man, Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun (pronounced ‘moon’), he planned to abduct her. The attempt failed, but Richard Mountfort, an actor and playwright whom Hill reckoned as a favoured rival in Bracegirdle’s affections, was killed in the aftermath.

Bracegirdle’s date of birth and early life are not well documented: 1663 is sometimes stated, because she is alleged to have been 85 when she died in 1748. But other historians think that this is an error as she was not baptised until 1671. At a very early age Bracegirdle went into the care of Thomas and Mary Betterton. Mary Betterton (née Saunderson, 1637-1712) is also an important figure in the history of the theatre, being the first woman to take up some of Shakespeare’s female roles on the professional stage. Up until the time of the Restoration ‘boy players’ had been assigned female characters, unlike theatres in other parts of Europe, where it was not uncommon to see women on the stage. Mary is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diaries. He usually referred to her as Ianthe because of her part in an opera called The Siege of Rhodes (published in 1656) by William D’Avenant (1606-1668). Pepys mentions Betterton in his comment on the Indian Queene playing at the theatre on Drury Lane:

...and so home to dinner, and took my wife out immediately to the King’s Theatre, it being a new month, and once a month I may go, and there saw “The Indian Queene” acted; which indeed is a most pleasant show, and beyond my expectation; the play good, but spoiled with the ryme, which breaks the sense. But above my expectation most, the eldest Marshall did do her part most excellently well as I ever heard woman in my life; but her voice not so sweet as Ianthe’s (Monday 1 February 1663/64)

The play The Indian Queen, written by John Dryden and Richard Howard, Dryden’s brother-in-law, is not the play referred to in the title of this mezzotint. The phrase here alludes to Anne Bracegirdle’s role as Semernia, the Indian Queen, in Aphra Behn’s (1640-1689) play The Widdow Ranter, or, the History of Bacon in Virginia (c.1688). The play was posthumously performed in late 1689 and published the following year. Drawing on the writer’s own experience as a young girl in a British colony, Behn based the dramatisation loosely on Nathaniel Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia. Behn diverges from the historical events by simplifying the conflict, sympathetically portraying Bacon, and introducing a love interest: Anne’s part (Behn also sets the rebellion in 1670, six years earlier than it actually happened). Although Dryden’s The Indian Queen had nothing to do with this play, it did pave the way for Behn’s portrayal of the noble savage. The audience, removed by hundreds of miles, would be more likely to understand a rose-tinted, romanticised view of the conflict and Bacon’s conduct than a portrayal that closely followed the historical record. The native royal couple, classically named Cavarnio and Semernia to denote their nobility, are referred to as “friends” by Bacon. He unwittingly kills then during the fighting, and upon realising his mistake, takes his own life (rather more glamorous than his actual death due to dysentery).

The publisher of this mezzotint, John Smith (1652-1743), was a skilled mezzotint artist in his own right. He was in fact the first English-born artist to gain a reputation abroad. His plates were mostly portraits, but he also published mezzotints engraved by other artists, such as this one by the little-known William Vincent. Vincent produced smaller ‘fancy’ pieces, such as pastoral scenes, religious iconography, and ‘tavern’ scenes after Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85). The Fitzwilliam houses three mezzotint portraits of children by Vincent, called ‘the children of Coke or Cook’ after Jacob Huysmans (c.1630-1696) P.279-1947, P.280-1947, P.281-1947. Vincent’s plates were also published by Isaac Beckett (1653-1688), who tutored John Smith. The portrait of Anne Bracegirdle shows that there was a market for portraits of theatrical personalities before the mid-1700s. In the 18th century these portraits were large expensive objects, such as the engraving of David Garrick as Richard III (1746) issued by William Hogarth after his own painting.

Museum Number P.278-1947


Other theatrical portrait prints in the collection:

Catherine Clive (1711-1785) in the character of Philida, from Colley Cibber's “Damon & Phillida”, by Pieter van Bleeck, P.9594-R

Edward Berry (1697-1750) in the character of Dominic, in John Dryden’s “The Spanish Friar, or The Double Discovery”, by Richard Houston, P.53-1970

John Kemble (1757-1823) in Robert Jephson’s “The Count of Narbonne”, by William Sadler, P.68-1950

David Garrick (1717-1779) in the character of Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson's “The Alchemist", by Samuel Reynolds, P.10662-R

Elizabeth Hartley (c.1750-1824) in the character of Imoinda in Aphra Behn’s "Oroonoko”, by John Thornthwaite, P.2046-1991

Elizabeth Hartley (c.1750-1824) in the character of Elfrida in William Mason’s “Elfrida, A Dramatic Poem”, by William Dickinson, P.137-1960

John Henderson (1747-1785) and Mr Charteris as Shakespeare’s characters Falstaff and Bardolph, by John Kay, P.2036-1991

Miss Rose, in the Character of Tom Thumb. Edward Fisher, P.19-1953

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