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Hartley [née White], Elizabethlocked

  • C. Conroy

Elizabeth Hartley (1750/5151–1824)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1771 [Nymph with Young Bacchus]

© Tate, London, 2004

Hartley [née White], Elizabeth (1750/51–1824), actress, was born in Berrow, Somerset, in 1750 or early 1751, the daughter of James and Eleanor White. According to a memoir in the London Magazine (October 1773), she was a chambermaid in a gentleman's house and became the mistress of a Mr Hartley, who persuaded her to take up acting in order to supplement their income. There is no record of a marriage to Hartley, and Mrs Hartley resumed her family name of White on her retirement from the stage in 1780. Little is known of her early stage career until her first appearance in Edinburgh, on 4 December 1771, when she appeared as Monimia in Thomas Otway's The Orphan. In the summer of 1772 she made her début at Bristol in the title role of Nicholas Rowe's Jane Shore. David Garrick had become interested in employing her at Drury Lane, and sent the actor John Moody to watch her perform. On 26 July 1772 Moody wrote to George Garrick:

Mrs. Hartley is a good figure, with a handsome, small face, and very much freckled; her hair red and her neck and shoulders well turned. There is not the least harmony in her voice; but when forced (which she never fails to do on every occasion) is loud and strong, but such an inarticulate gabble that you must be acquainted with her part to understand her … there is a superficial glare about her that may carry her through a few nights; but be assured she cannot last long.

Private Correspondence, 1.476

In fact Moody's appraisal of her work was of little consequence to Mrs Hartley, since she was already engaged at Covent Garden, where she made her début on 5 October 1772, as Jane Shore. The Town and Country Magazine said, 'She is deserving of much praise, her figure elegant, her countenance pleasing and expressive, her voice in general melodious, and her action just' (Town and Country Magazine, 1772, 545). In her first London season she also played Queen Catherine in Henry VIII (6 November 1772), the title role in the original production of William Mason's Elfrida (21 November 1772), Orellana in Arthur Murphy's Alzuma (23 February 1773), and Rosamund in Thomas Hull's Henry II (1 May 1773). William Hawkins wrote that, on her début, 'She was received with respectable marks of applause by a very brilliant audience', and went on to say:

She is the finest figure on the London Stage: therefore it is not to be wondered a lady endued with such requisites for this profession should gain great applause, had she absolutely little or no merit. But this is not Mrs. Hartley's case … I believe [she] has given the public incontestable proofs of her rising genius. The only fault I can discover in this Lady is, her voice is somewhat harsh, and she is sometimes apt to wind it beyond the bounds of harmony.

Hawkins, 52

She remained popular with audiences throughout her career. According to Leslie and Taylor, 'The crowd flocked to see Mrs. Hartley kneel in Elfrida as they flocked to see Mrs. Siddons walk in her sleep as Lady Macbeth' (Leslie and Taylor, 41). She was the subject of a number of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who complimented her on her beauty when she sat for him. She responded with laughter, saying, 'Nay, my face may be well enough for shape; but sure, 'tis as freckled as a toad's belly'. She retired at the end of the 1779–80 season, and died at King Street, Woolwich, on 26 January 1824, in 'easy circumstances', at the age of seventy-three, 'her merits, during her public services, having procured her a handsome inheritance' (New Monthly Magazine, 12, 1824, 425). She was buried at the Union Chapel graveyard, Woolwich, on 6 February. An obituary claims that 'Her extreme beauty and the truth and nature of her acting attracted universal admiration, and caused her to rank the highest (as a female) in her profession previous to the appearance of Mrs. Siddons'.


  • W. Hawkins, Miscellanies in prose and verse, containing candid and impartial observations on the principal performers belonging to the two Theatres-Royal, from January 1773 to May 1775 (1775)
  • W. C. Russell, Representative actors [1888]
  • Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News (12 April 1879)
  • V&A, London, theatre collections [Jan 1824; 2 Feb 1824]
  • The thespian dictionary, or, Dramatic biography of the present age, 2nd edn (1805)
  • T. Marshall, Lives of the most celebrated actors and actresses [1846–7]
  • The private correspondence of David Garrick, ed. J. Boaden, 2 vols. (1831–2)
  • London Magazine, 42 (1773), 471–2
  • London Magazine, 9 (1824), 336
  • C. R. Leslie and T. Taylor, Life and times of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 2 vols. (1865)
  • Town and Country Magazine, 4 (1772)
  • The letters of David Garrick, ed. D. M. Little and G. M. Kahrl, 3 vols. (1963)
  • Memoirs of Mrs Inchbald, ed. J. Boaden, 2 vols. (1833)
  • H. Bromley, A catalogue of engraved British portraits (1793)
  • playbills, V&A, London, theatre collections
  • parish register, Union Street chapel, Woolwich, London [burial]


  • BL, MSS


  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1771, Tate collection [see illus.]
  • R. Houston, mezzotint, pubd 1774 (after H. D. Hamilton), BM, NPG
  • S. W. Reynolds, mezzotint, pubd 1834 (after J. Reynolds), BM
  • R. Cosway, portrait (Venus Victrix)
  • A. Kauffman, oils, Garr. Club
  • J. Roberts, drawings, BM
  • theatrical prints, BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

easy circumstances: New Monthly Magazine, 12 (1824), 425

P. H. Highfill, K. A. Burnim, & E. A. Langhans, , 16 vols. (1973–93)
J. Genest, , 10 vols. (1832); repr. (New York, [1965])