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  Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (1797–1856), by Samuel Lover, c.1826 [as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor] Lucia Elizabeth Vestris (1797–1856), by Samuel Lover, c.1826 [as Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor]
Vestris [née Bartolozzi; other married name Mathews], Lucia Elizabeth (1797–1856), actress and singer, was born on 2 March 1797, probably at 74 Dean Street, Soho, London. She was the granddaughter of the engraver and the first child of Gaetano Stefano Bartolozzi, a printseller, engraver, and drawing-master, and his wife, Theresa Jansen, the daughter of a dancing-master from Aix-la-Chapelle. Theresa, a pupil of Clementi, taught music herself and was regarded by Haydn, who dedicated five works to her, as one of London's leading pianists. The Bartolozzis' other child, Josephine, was born in 1807. Lucia probably learned Italian and French at home and was taught singing by masters including Domenico Corri, coach at the King's Theatre. On 28 January 1813 she married Armand Vestris (1787–1825), the third generation in a famous family of dancers of Italian origin; his father, Auguste, was for over thirty years premier danseur at the Paris Opéra. Armand was leading dancer at the King's Theatre, London, where in 1814 he became ballet-master.

Lucia Vestris made her début on 20 July 1815, under the stage name Madame Vestris, at her husband's benefit night in the title role in Peter Winter's Il ratto di Proserpina. She was greeted with approbation for her performance and especially for her beauty, and continued to appear that season and the next. For her joint benefit with her husband in the summer of 1816 she sang Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Peace having opened continental Europe to British travellers, and debts having driven Armand Vestris to leave England, his wife made her Paris début at the Théâtre des Italiens in December 1816. She did not return to England until 1819. Records of her life at this period are unreliable: it is said that she appeared at Paris theatres and sang in Naples. It may be safely assumed that she acquired further training and stage experience. There must also have been developments in her private life, since she returned to England in September 1819 without her husband, who died in Naples in 1825.

Madame Vestris was engaged by R. W. Elliston for his first Drury Lane season, and met critical approval for her French style. Contemporary opinion commends her mezzo-soprano voice, but it was not good enough to establish her as a leading singer in a period of great operatic performers. Instead she made a name for herself in the period 1820–30 as a scandalous beauty, a career launched by the succès de scandale of her famous breeches performance, the lead role in the musical burlesque Giovanni in London at Drury Lane in May 1820. The role had been created by Mrs Joe Gould in a very masculine style; Madame Vestris's appearances in breeches, while asserting her freedom, always also emphasized her femininity, showing off her fabulously perfect legs. For ten years she was ogled on stage and whispered about off, entertaining a series of lovers with whom she had profitable arrangements that supplemented her rising stage earnings to finance an extravagant lifestyle. Among these the most notable was the radical MP Thomas Duncombe, soon to take a leading part in the reform movement and sit on the 1832 parliamentary select committee whose remit was to reform the antiquated monopoly laws that prevented the legitimate growth of new theatres in London. Vestris's stage career now embraced other breeches roles (including Macheath, over which she fell out with John Anderson, her sister Josephine's husband-to-be) and light comedy acting. She was a fashionable star: she even acquired a signature tune when she introduced the song ‘Cherry Ripe’ into John Poole's Paul Pry at the Haymarket in 1825.

The major managements were eager for Madame Vestris's support. But London theatre was approaching a crisis point. Before the select committee on the state of the drama was called for, Covent Garden had bankrupted Charles Kemble and Vestris had joined the minor theatre rebellion as a manager as well as a performer. In December 1830 she leased the Olympic Theatre from John Scott, who had previously built the Sans Pareil Theatre for his daughter Jane. Both these new West End venues were granted annual licences by the lord chamberlain from 1807. Vestris held the burletta licence in her own name. It did not permit the ‘classic’ drama: all entertainments included music. The Olympic, a few steps from Drury Lane, held an audience only a third as large, but its potential was great. The old theatres had become unfashionable, and were obliged to mount lengthy and expensive bills to cater for their huge audience range. Vestris remodelled her theatre as a modern, feminine, and enjoyable alternative; well decorated, intimate, and tasteful, like a fashionable drawing-room, it attracted an enthusiastic audience. By avoiding the practice of disguising thin houses with free admissions, Madame Vestris segregated the auditorium reliably, defending sensitive patrons from mixing outside their class. She offered light musical pieces and farces, well mounted, often changed, pretty and undemanding, and made a point of finishing by 11 p.m. These apparently simple changes made her theatre fashionable. It attracted the beau monde, who amused themselves there before moving on to their night pursuits. Aspiring City men and their families could join them, to see and be seen in fashionable company without taxing themselves intellectually, and get home early enough to be in the office next morning. The standard was reliable, the segregated auditorium offered no threats, and, since tipping was forbidden, there were no disconcerting demands for more money. Plain bills of the play, without the desperate hyperbole of the larger theatres, carried an air of quality and self-assurance that flattered the audience.

Behind the scenes Vestris copied the practices of the best French boulevard theatres, with fresh—sometimes innovative—scenery, good working conditions and contracts, and adequate rehearsal. She attracted loyal workers, including Planché, Liston, and Benjamin Webster, and regularly appeared herself, elaborately costumed and fêted in Planché's metatheatrical extravaganzas. While developing this formula she managed successfully from 1831 to 1839, during very difficult years in the theatre. Success brought her profit, but she continued to accept money from admirers, especially Duncombe, to meet her expenses. A large expense, for about four years from 1833, was an affair with Lord Edward Thynne (1807–1884), the reprobate son of the marquess of Bath. He and Madame Vestris's brother-in-law Anderson fleeced her by a series of fraudulent bill transactions that resulted in her bankruptcy in April 1837.

In the autumn of 1835 Vestris hired as a writer and actor. Brought up as a gentleman, Mathews was now eager to adopt his father's profession of comedian. He made a success at the Olympic, and of his meeting with Vestris; they developed a sophisticated, ‘realistic’ style of light comedy. On 18 July 1838 they married at Kensington church, having accepted a tour in America, under the management of Stephen Price, to repair their finances. The tour was not a success. There was a mismatch of expectations between audiences and performers, and neither the Olympic society comedies nor the aristocratic manners of the Mathewses were appreciated. They returned home in 1839. The Olympic, no longer the sole leader of fashion, was now heavily in debt. The couple took the bold step of leasing Covent Garden, a theatre large enough to pay the expenses of Vestris's high production values. Mathews was lessee, his wife manager. Despite the disapproval of Macready, Vestris's artistic practices transferred well, and her scrupulous preparation of texts, actors, and scenery was more effective in the revival of ‘the national drama’ than his hectoring bourgeois moralism had been. Released from the limitations of the burletta licence, for three seasons she staged classic high comedy and sought new comic writing, such as Boucicault's London Assurance (1841), and staged notable Shakespearian productions, including an excellent Midsummer Night's Dream (1840), the previously unrevived Love's Labours Lost (1839), and a Merry Wives of Windsor (1840) set in Shakespeare's time. Such a design decision was unique in a period when cumbersomely correct ‘historical’ settings for the plays were increasingly regarded as the only proper choice. But the huge expenses of the old theatre meant that there was little or no profit. Three previous managements had all finished bankrupt; Vestris did better than most, until she successfully brought out Adelaide Kemble in Norma (in 1841), and the singer's father, Charles, one of the proprietors, scented a personal opportunity and refused to renew their lease. Mathews declared bankruptcy in May 1842; it was perhaps some consolation that, despite Kemble's bad faith over his daughter, and his having unscrupulously appropriated all the new scenery built for Vestris, his management failed.

Macready, now leasing Drury Lane, maliciously hired Vestris and Mathews to disable them as competition, and insulted them by casting him in minor roles and billing her as a supporting player. They left and went to the Haymarket, where they did better, with Webster as manager. But Mathews was bankrupt again in December, pressed especially hard by the malignant Anderson. The couple entered into a period of unremitting work, between the Haymarket and provincial touring, to try to meet their debts. Then in 1847 they undertook a lease of the Lyceum. Their company included the writer and comedian Buckstone and Fanny Fitzwilliam. The theatre seated 1800, about 500 more than the Olympic, but Vestris worked to reproduce her previous success, beginning well with the Morton farce Cox and Box. Eleven more Planché extravaganzas followed, with scenery by William Beverley. In 1849, after an unexpected success with his translation A Day of Reckoning, G. H. Lewes was enrolled to bring modern French plays to the Lyceum. In these experimental plays Vestris and Mathews further developed their ‘realistic’ manner of acting, making a cool modern comedy style another of the Vestris innovations. The initial Lyceum team broke up under financial stress in 1853. Vestris took a farewell benefit with Mathews in July 1854, and retired, seriously ill. With good will from the public and assistance from professional friends Mathews continued to run Lyceum seasons until 1855 and to endure a punishing schedule of provincial tours: they were still deep in long-standing debts because Mathews had not renounced all personal liabilities in the 1842 bankruptcy. In July 1855 he was arrested in Preston, on tour, and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle; having finally been made completely bankrupt, he returned to London five days before Vestris died of cancer, on 8 August 1856. She was privately buried at Kensal Green cemetery.

Madame Vestris was born and bred in the international élite of art and entertainment. It is important in an understanding of her role in the development of the British stage to see her work in this European context, which valued virtuoso talent, ruthlessly perfected training, and the clear-sighted capacity to understand and to please a fashionable audience through perfect taste and unerring elegance. Her alert understanding of the theatre business made her aware of the need to innovate in order to manage the problems that beset the London stage. She found original solutions to a wide range of issues. Her management at the Olympic successfully negotiated the opposition between the antique practices of the theatre under aristocratic patronage and rising middle-class aspiration and its self-definition through propriety. As a performer she exploited and at the same time minimized, excused, and made acceptable her sexual appeal and scandalous reputation. A similar sleight of hand enabled her to exploit her talent as stage manager and artistic director at three theatres, including Covent Garden, turning her femininity into an asset that connoted good taste and an acceptable luxury for the consumer rather than a threat from a woman usurping power. She has appealed in many ways to biographers, from contemporary pornographic scandal sheets to theatre historians of the twentieth century, who have presented her as a theatrical innovator while suggesting that she was reliant on the talents of male assistants. She is now beginning to be recognized, in scholarly work ranging from the gender politics of the theatre to Shakespearian production, as one of the most important practitioners of her generation in her own right.

Jacky Bratton

Sources  

W. W. Appleton, Madame Vestris and the London stage (1974) · C. J. Williams, Madame Vestris: a theatrical biography (1973) · J. R. Planché, Recollections and reflections, rev. edn (1901) · G. J. Williams, Our moonlight revels: ‘A midsummer night's dream’ in the theatre (1997) · K. Fletcher, ‘Planché, Vestris and the transvestite role: sexuality and gender in Victorian popular theatre’, Nineteenth Century Theatre, 15 (1987), 9–33 · The life and correspondence of Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, ed. T. H. Duncombe, 2 vols. (1868) · E. Schafer, MsDirecting Shakespeare: women direct Shakespeare (1998) · G. Vandenhoff, Leaves from an actor's notebook (1860) · Oxberry's Dramatic Biography, 5/70 (1826) · [L. E. Vestris], Memoirs of the public and private life, adventures and wonderful exploits of Madame Vestris [1830] · m. cert. · d. cert. · The Era (17 Aug 1856) · Burke, Peerage

Likenesses  

hand-coloured etching, 1820 (as Don Giovanni), V&A, theatre collections · S. Lover, watercolour drawing, c.1826 (as Mistress Ford in The merry wives of Windsor), NPG [see illus.] · J. H. Lynch, hand-coloured lithograph caricature, music cover, 1826 (with John Liston), V&A, theatre collections · G. Clint, group portrait, engraving, pubd 1828 (in Paul Pry), V&A · T. Lupton, mezzotint, pubd 1828 (after cartoon by G. Clint), NPG · attrib. L. Sharpe, pencil and wash drawing, c.1828, Garr. Club · R. W. Buss, oils, 1833 (after G. Clint), Garr. Club · A. E. Chalon, oils, 1838, repro. in Williams, Madame Vestris · H. Robinson, etching, 1838 (after A. E. Chalon), V&A, theatre collections · A. E. Chalon, miniature, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon · J. W. Childe, watercolour on ivory miniature, Garr. Club · M. Gauci, lithograph music cover (as Bavarian girl), V&A, theatre collections · Mayall, two cartes-de-visite, NPG · H. Singleton, chalk and watercolour drawing (as Zelmira), BM · hand-coloured engraving (as Apollo in Midas), V&A, theatre collections · prints, BM, NPG