Fanny Abington as Prue in Congreve's Love for Love, her most famous comic role, 1771
Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Paul Mellon Collection.
Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art.
Enter Fanny Abington, stage right...
Born Frances Barton, her story was not so different in its particulars from her predecessors Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien. She apparently filled the void caused in the artist’s life by the premature deaths of his loveliest and most favorite models and they became very close. She was to outlive him by 23 years.
Frances Barton/Fanny Abington (1737-1815) was, in looks, a far cry from the refined and classic beauty of Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien. Her features were on the cute side: pert and elfin. Born into poverty in London’s Drury Lane, she was the daughter of either a cobbler or a mercenary/private soldier. She sold flowers in Covent Garden as a child (shades of My Fair Lady!), earning herself the nickname of Nosegay Fan. She later became a street singer and by the 1750s – when she was between 13 and 15 – she was said to have been a child prostitute.
For a brief time she apprenticed herself – or, more likely, was a servant -- to a French milliner, and was said to have created the Abington Hat (or Abington Cap) – which was odd because she was then still surnamed Barton – not Abington. (If anyone has an image of this hat, please send it on! I’ve yet to see one.) The French hat-maker taught Fanny how to dress, the story goes, and gave her a smattering of French as well as Italian; her growing sense of style as well as her ability with languages were to serve her well as time went on. (In both of these skills, she was not unlike Kitty Fisher, whose dress women emulated widely and who was said to have been rather fluent in French.)
In 1755 she made her acting debut at the Haymarket Theatre as Miranda in The Busybody, a play by Mrs. Susanna Centlivre, and was taken into the Drury Lane Theatre by David Garrick, the actor and impresario, in 1756. She became famous for her comedic roles, most notably when she portrayed the audience favorite, Miss Prue, in the play Love For Love.
Fanny made a bad marriage circa 1759 (she would have been in her early 20s) to a musician – variously described as a music master and/or a “king’s trumpeter” – named James Abington, and accompanied him to Dublin, where she got a position with Brown’s Company and perfected her acting skills. She was a great success in Ireland playing Lady Townley in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s The Provok’d Wife. She also embarked on a number of liaisons and had a serious affair with the wealthy Irish MP Francis Needham. The affair led to a separation from her musician husband and she returned with Needham to London in 1765. Alas, the Irishman died suddenly that year when they were visiting Bath, but Fanny found she was well provided for in his will.
Fanny Abington as Thalia, circa 1769. Unlike the pretty and very classical Cosway version shown in an engraving by Bartolozzi(see below), this is a flesh and blood woman
Fanny Abington performed for almost twenty years in such popular plays as The School For Scandal, The Scoundrel, and Much Ado About Nothing. Dr. Samuel Johnson, among many, was an admirer. There’s an anecdote relating to a conversation between Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, where Boswell cannot understand why Dr. Johnson attended a benefit performance for Abington despite being seated so far from the stage that he could neither see nor hear her well. “Why, then, did you go?” asked Boswell. Johnson replied, “Because, Sir, Mrs. Abington is a favourite of the public, and when the public cares a thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit, too.”
A popular 1791 print was this of Fanny in the role of Roxalana, in The Sultan, by Isaac Bickerstaffe. This painting of an alluring slave girl, excitement shining out of her eyes, on her way to a sexual encounter in a harem is thoroughly exotic and highly charged. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1784 and afterward presented by Reynolds to Mrs. Abington as a gift.
Reynolds painted Fanny at least six times; as with Kitty and Nelly, he might have identified with the young woman’s struggle to succeed, to make something of herself despite the lowliest of upbringings. She seemed to have a winning personality, like Reynolds, and like him, too, she was generous and hospitable, entertaining lavishly and often, and mixing in his crowd, the liveliest of the art and literary circle that included Johnson and Walpole among others.
She was, however, a courtesan as well as an actress, a fact not to be forgotten, and Reynolds, in that 1771 painting of Miss Prue, made sure that the point was made. Fanny is posed in a chair sitting in a manner unlike that of the proper society wives Reynolds also painted. The way she sits, her body twisted, her torso thrust forward, is undignified, and her thumb stroking her lip is sexually suggestive, as is the frank and direct way (a tad short of insolent?) she looks at the viewer.
But it’s a beautiful composition, and the shimmering pink silk of her gown and the ecru lace ruffles of her sleeves and around her neck soften her perfectly smooth skin. The warmth of her complexion shines out from the canvas. There are odd elements in the portrait, however. What on earth do those black bands around her wrists signify? Bondage? And the dog! Dogs are symbolic of fidelity in portraits, but how faithful was Fanny to her marriage vows? The dog is ironic, a spoof, but his fluffy white coat (reminiscent of Nelly O’Brien’s lapdog) pleasingly echoes the ruffles in Fanny’s costume. And note the painting’s background, half stormy sky and half clearly the flat black of a stage curtain, wholly theatrical and reinforcing Fanny’s life on the stage.
After a tremendous success as an actress, Fanny Abington retired in 1790 at the age of 53; she returned to the boards seven years later, only to quit for good in 1799, when she was 60 years old. She had immense power to draw audiences, not only for her acting but because of her style. Some theatre-goers came simply to see how she was dressed. The company actually paid her an annual allowance of some £500 towards her wardrobe to encourage these gawkers to attend these plays.
Fanny Abington lived to the ripe old age of 78, dying a wealthy woman. She’d garnered her riches through her lover Needham’s bequest, her financially remunerative stage appearances, and by investing in London real estate and sharing in the monies from the prints made from Reynolds’s portraits. She was said to have kept a young lover or two in these homes she’d bought as investments, a nice twist on the usual stereotype of the kept woman and her male protector.
Was Sir Joshua Reynolds one of her lovers? Maybe. They certainly saw a lot of each other over twenty years, a considerable period of time. (His appointment books – not all of which survive – show an extraordinary number of sittings.) They moved in the same social circles and he seemed to have had a good deal of affection for her, an affection clearly revealed in the warmth of his portraits for those who look carefully. She did not seem to have one exclusive lover during that period, so, yes, it’s possible they had a liaison.
And she did fill that emotional void left by Kitty Fisher and Nelly O’Brien; she filled it well. There is no doubt of that, even if only as a popular model and very close friend.
Thanks Jo for blogging about these three remarkable women. If you are in London, Jo is doing a talk at Samuel Johnson's house on the 20th of May.