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Sarah Siddons, as Euphrasia in Arthur Murphy’s “The Grecian Daughter”
Coloured wax relief portrait in its original shadow box
English, circa 1782
Attributed to Joachim Smith (c1737-1814)
19 cm x 16 cm (framed) (7½ x 6½ inch)
Sarah Siddons (1755–1831) was the leading actress and theatrical celebrity of the late 18th century, dominating the London stage from her Drury Lane debut in 1782. One of her most feted roles was that of the tragic heroine Euphrasia in “The Grecian Daughter”, a play written in 1772 by Irish playwright Arthur Murphy (1727–1805). Although now an unfamiliar drama “The Grecian Daughter”, with its bold female lead-character, was pioneering: set in classical times, Euphrasia, the title character, is the offspring of Evander, king of Syracuse, who has been unjustly deposed and incarcerated by the tyrant Dionysius. Euphrasia discovers her father starving to death in prison and prevents his death by suckling him from her own breast, an act of selflessness which so moves Evander’s jailors that they aid his escape. At the play’s climax Dionysius is overthrown but discovers Euphrasia and Evander, determining to kill them both. However, Euphrasia stabs him with a dagger and he dies:
“A daughter’s arm, fell monster, strikes the blow!”
Mrs Siddons played the part of Euphrasia during her residency at The Theatre Royal in Bath in 1778 and also took the role, to great acclaim, during her break-through debut Drury Lane season. In the mid-1780’s she revived Euphrasia again and took it on tour with to huge plaudits. Thousands of Georgian theatre goers saw the play and Mrs Siddons’s iconography includes several depictions of her in the role of Euphrasia. Some portrayals date from the time of her Bath performances (the most celebrated perhaps being that by William Hamilton RA (1751–1801) exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780 and now in the Town Hall at Stratford-upon-Avon) but most derive from her emerging fame at Drury Lane. Perhaps because Macbeth is more familiar play to modern audiences, some portrayals of Sarah Siddons as Euphrasia are now confused with her as Lady Macbeth (another famous role in which costumes might include a crown or a dagger). However, the distinctive Hellenistic diadem and armband explicitly indicate the character of Euphrasia.
The theatrical “Attitude” in which Mrs Siddons is posed here suggests the idea, fashionable at the time, of conveying emotion through mimed gestures (another famous practitioner of this art being Emma Hamilton). Though the dagger is omitted in this depiction, the “daughter’s arm” is emphasized and there is, perhaps, also an allusion to her shrugging off her gown to expose her breast to feed her dying father. The pose closely relates to two contemporary engravings, one after a painting by John Keyse Sherwin (1751-1790) and another after a drawing by Sir Thomas Lawrence [Fig 1] (which emphasizes the suckling nipple through the gown).
Though unsigned the work is attributable, on stylistic grounds, to the wax modeller, sculptor and cameo engraver Joachim Smith (1737-1814). Early promise of talent led to Smith being awarded a ten guinea prize in 1758 from the Society of Arts for a wax portrait of Alfred the Great. In 1763 he created a small wax model of the infant Prince of Wales which George III presented to Queen Charlotte as a New Year present (displayed within a case especially designed by celebrated cabinet maker William Vile). For a time Smith was based in fashionable Bath, were Sarah Siddons debut, before setting up a London studio in Berners Street. In 1771 he was elected a fellow of the Society of Artists and started producing images, along with John Flaxman, for Wedgwood and Bentley. He exhibited as a ‘sculptor’ at the Royal Academy in the 1780’s.
There is a portrait plaque (Fig 2) in Wedgwood and Bentley’s ‘Illustrious Moderns' series, modelled by an anonymous artist in around 1784, which is in an almost identical pose (with minor differences to the hair and the sleeve). This was produced as a pair to a Wedgwood plaque of David Garrick - by Wedgwood’s loyal modeller William Hackwood (1753–1839) modified from a medallic profile of Garrick by Lewis Pingo (1743–1830). Though Joachim Smith is generally considered to have stopped working with Wedgwood by the end of the 1770’s (having shown a degree of unreliability and been declared bankrupt in 1779) it is possible that he was still providing some material for the factory.
Highfill, Philip and others “A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers, and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800”, SIU Press, 1991