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Glyn, Isabella [real name Isabella Gearns]locked

  • Joseph Knight
  • , revised by J. Gilliland

Isabella Glyn (1823–1889)

by Henry Wyndham Phillips [as Constance in King John by William Shakespeare]

Garrick Club / the art archive

Glyn, Isabella [real name Isabella Gearns] (1823–1889), actress, was born in Edinburgh on 22 May 1823, the daughter of an architect named Gearns, of strong Presbyterian views and a turn for preaching, and his wife, whose maiden name was Glyn. Her parents opposed her theatrical ambitions, but, having taken part in amateur theatricals in London, she went to Paris with her first husband, Edward Wills, to study acting under Michelet. After being widowed she returned to England in 1846, and, on the advice of a friend, had an audition with Charles Kemble, who gave her lessons.

Isabella Wills made her professional début under the name of Glyn at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, on 8 November 1847, as Constance in King John, a role she followed with Lady Macbeth and Hermione. Her first London appearance took place at the Olympic under Spicer in Lady Macbeth on 26 January 1848. After some months on Pritchard's York circuit, she appeared at Sadler's Wells as Volumnia in Coriolanus opposite Samuel Phelps (27 September 1848); she remained there until 1851, winning recognition in characters such as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Malfi, and the new role of Garcia in F. G. Tomlins's The Noble Error. She toured the provinces in 1851, and that September gave the first of a series of Shakespearian readings. She then moved to Drury Lane, under Bunn's management, where she made her first appearance as Bianca in Dean Milman's Fazio on 26 December. In October 1854 she was the original Miss Stewart in The King's Rival by Tom Taylor and Charles Reade. After performing at the Standard, she reappeared at Sadler's Wells in 1859, and in May 1867 played Cleopatra at the Princess's. It was said of her in this latter role that 'Antony might well lose the world for such a woman'.

From this period Isabella Glyn's appearances on the stage were infrequent, and her time was occupied principally with theatrical tuition, mainly at the School of Dramatic Art, and with Shakespearian readings (Blanchard considered her Othello 'clever but dreary'). She had much success with a series of such readings in Boston in 1870, and again in 1878 and 1879 in London, at the Steinway and St James's halls.

In December 1853 Glyn had married the journalist Eneas Sweetland Dallas (1828–1879) in Edinburgh, and the marriage was resolemnized at St George's, Hanover Square, London, on 12 July 1855; the couple separated shortly afterwards and in 1874 she petitioned for divorce. She was sent to Holloway Prison for contempt of court for refusing to produce documents relevant to the case, but her petition was granted on 10 May 1874. Her later years were beset by financial misfortunes: in 1862 her house in Hanover Square burnt down, and she lost all her property. She was awarded a pension of £200 a year by the Salisbury government, and a subscription for her benefit was raised by her friends shortly before her death, from the cancer from which she had been suffering for some years, on 18 May 1889, at her London home, 13 Mount Street, Grosvenor Square. She was buried on 22 May 1889 at Kensal Green cemetery.

Isabella Glyn had a voluptuous figure, latterly inclined to stoutness, a melodious voice, dark complexion and eyes, and strong and expressive features. She was short of inspiration, however, and her success was most pronounced in characters in which her commanding figure was of advantage.


  • F. Hays, Women of the day: a biographical dictionary of notable contemporaries (1885)
  • The life and reminiscences of E. L. Blanchard, with notes from the diary of Wm. Blanchard, ed. C. W. Scott and C. Howard, 2 vols. (1891)
  • St James's Gazette (20 May 1889)
  • W. M. Phelps and J. F. Robertson, Life of Samuel Phelps (1886)
  • S. D'Amico, ed., Enciclopedia dello spettacolo, 11 vols. (Rome, 1954–68)
  • E. Stirling, Old Drury Lane, 2 vols. (1881)
  • H. G. Adams, ed., A cyclopaedia of female biography (1857)
  • J. A. H., ‘Portrait Gallery (no II) Miss Glyn’, Tallis's Dramatic Magazine (1850), 37–40
  • C. E. Pascoe, ed., The dramatic list, 2nd edn (1880)
  • The Athenaeum (29 Jan 1848)
  • Manchester Courier (23 May 1889)


  • V&A, theatre collections, letters


  • Paine of Islington, seven engravings, repro. in J. A. H., ‘Portrait Gallery (no II) Miss Glyn’
  • H. W. Phillips, portrait, Garr. Club [see illus.]
  • eight prints, Harvard TC
  • portrait (as Duchess of Malfi), repro. in Boase, Mod. Eng. biog.
  • portrait, repro. in Tallis's drawing-room table book of theatrical portraits, memoirs and anecdotes, John Tallis & Co. (1851)
  • portrait, repro. in The players, 3 (1861), 291, 408
  • portrait, repro. in Theatre, 4th ser., 14 (1889), 215

Wealth at Death

£250: probate, 12 Dec 1891, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

F. Boase, , 6 vols. (privately printed, Truro, 1892–1921); repr. (1965)
L. A. Hall, , 4 vols. (1930–34)
W. D. Adams, , 1: (1904); 2: (1956) [vol. 2 microfilm only]