When the celebrated Sophie Ackermann visited the salon recently, her appearance spurred one or two readers to send me some lovely emails regarding the ladies of the Georgian theatre. Besides the inestimable Mrs Siddons, a name that cropped up frequently was that of Anne Oldfield. Hugely famous in her day, Anne rose from modest beginnings to command the London stage.
Anne was born the daughter of a soldier and, despite an early love of drama, took up work as an apprentice seamstress in London. Her life was to change quite by chance when she visited a tavern owned by a family member and entertained the patrons by reciting some lines from The Scornful Lady. One of the customers in the tavern that night was the celebrated dramatist, George Farquhar, who was caught by the young woman's beauty and her enthusiastic reading, seeing in her a talent to be nurtured. She would go on to be a the lead in many of Farquhar's comedies and he was responsible for her introduction to the theatre, which began with John Rich at Drury Lane, a venue that would eventually become her theatrical home.
|Anne Oldfield by John Simon, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1700-1725|
By the dawn of the Georgian era, Anne was the first lady of the London stage, noted for her skills in both comedy and tragedy alike. She was famed not only for her acting skills but also her extraordinary beauty and deportment and in her time Anne performed in a number of iconic female roles. Despite her popularity in society, the actress was no stranger to scandal and a relationship with Whig statesman and author Arthur Maynwaring gave her a son and upon his death she used Maynwaring's inheritance to educate their child. She had a second child with Lieutenant General Charles Churchill MP and at her death, Anne divided her substantial worldly goods and property between her two children.
|Anne Oldfield by Edward Fisher, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1760-1785|
Anne's death threw her fans and society into mourning. Her funeral was a magnificent affair, with the actress buried wearing a gown of fine Brussels lace, much to the waspish amusement of Alexander Pope. Unusually, Anne was buried within Westminster Abbey, though the heartbroken Churchill was refused permission to erect a monument to her memory within the cloisters and her grave is marked with a simple stone, bearing only her name and the date of her death.