45. Mrs Abington

Thalia Abington

W.L., standing, directed and looking to front, facing downwards towards left, hair high, sprigs of flowers worked upon dress, right hand hanging beside her holding mask, left elbow on pedestal of statue to right, trees in background.

615 x 383 I; 616 x 384 Pl.

24.6 x 15.32 I; 24.64 x 15.36 Pl.

Engraved by James Watson after Sir Joshua Reynolds

Published by John Wesson 17 September 1769

Chaloner Smith 1
Goodwin - Watson & Judkins 62
Hamilton p.77
O’Donoghue 13
Theatre: the Age of Garrick 45


1. Finished proof before all letters.

Impressions: CLB; BM.

2. With the engraved inscription at the base of the image:
S.r J. Reynolds pinx. *** J.s Watson fecit / ABINGTON. / Publih’d & Sold by I. Wesson, in Litchfield Str.t Soho.”.

Impressions: CLB.

3. With the publication line clumsily altered:
Publish’d Aug.t 17. 1769 by I. Wesson. Litchfield Str.t Soho.”.

Impressions: CLB; BM.

4. With the publication line altered again:
Publishd as the Act directs, Aug.t 17. 1769 by I. Wesson in Litchfield Street Soho”.

Impressions: CLB.

5. With the date removed:
“Publishd and Sold by I. Wesson, in Litchfield Str.t Soho.”.

Impressions: CLB P11,691 (impression exhibited); BM.

Neither the painting, now at Waddesdon Manor, nor the print was ever exhibited. The painting was altered by Reynolds at a later date.1 Although the plate was published by John Wesson, it was acquired by William Dickinson and subsequently sold after Dickinson's bankruptcy in 1795 for its. It then came into the possession of James Bretherton2 and was auctioned again after his retirement in 1799.3 Walter Shropshire, who considered the sitter to be wearing a ‘masquerade dress', listed a proof impression4 in his catalogue for 1773 priced at 15s.

Frances Barton was born in 1737. Her father had served in the Guards and kept a cobbler's stall near Drury Lane Theatre. She sold flowers at first, becoming known as ‘Nosegay Fan', and then began singing and reciting at taverns and coffee houses. As the servant of a French milliner in Cockspur Street she is said to have acquired both her taste in dresses and a knowledge of French; she was later a cook maid in a kitchen run by Robert Baddeley, cooking for Samuel Foote.

She first appeared at the Haymarket Theatre when it opened in the summer of 1755 and was at Drury Lane in 1756, having been engaged on Foote's recommendation. She was first described as Mrs Abington in 1759, the year in which she married her music master, who was one of the king's trumpeters; the marriage was short-lived and eventually she bribed her husband to keep away from her. Her success at Drury Lane was overshadowed by that of Mrs Pritchard and Mrs Clive who were the leading ladies at this time, and so she went to Dublin where she was extremely popular.

Persuaded by Garrick to return, she remained at Drury Lane for some eighteen years. She transferred to Covent Garden in 1782 and was absent from the stage altogether between 1790-7. She was seen on the stage for the last time in April 1799 and died 4 March 1815.

Mrs Abington was praised for her wit, charm and beauty. Lichtenberg thought that ‘this bewitching charmer' was ‘unique on the English stage'.5 In comedy he felt that:

She is as different from Mrs Yates and Mrs Barry as the comic
from the tragic muse. She is inferior to them, and especially to
the latter, in majesty of demeanour and the expression of
tender emotion; but she surpasses them in a talent for convincing
the innermost heart of the spectators that she does not
feel herself to be acting a part, but presenting reality in all its
bitter truth, each trifling characteristic feature bearing witness
to her own powers of observation. She is superior to them also
in her art ... and ... in showing off her magnificent form ...
She certainly surpasses all other English actresses in wit. One
perceives that the cardboard world of Drury Lane is too
restricted for her ... Little as she is suited to tragedy, she is
less so to low comedy.6
Mrs Abington does not seem to have been aware of such limitations, as one commentator mentioned:
Like many of her profession, she thought herself capable of
characters not within the scope of her powers. I once saw her
play Ophelia to Mr Garrick's Hamlet; and to use the simile of
my old friend Dr Monsey, she appeared like a mackerel on a
gravel walk.7
She held a distinguished position in society and had many admirers, including Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson and General Paoli - even Reynolds was said to be bewitched by her. Both on and off the stage she was a much copied figure of fashion and many women went to the theatre just to see what she would be wearing; the ‘Abington Cap' was all the rage. A reviewer in The London Chronicle noted that:
... the public took upon her over-dressing her characters as a
harmless piece of vanity, and applaud that elegance of taste
which leads her into this error. Mrs Abington, it must be
observed however, is rarely absurd, altho' she may sometimes
o'erleap the bounds of critical propriety. She would never
dress a chamber maid like a woman of fashion, in the dress of
a shepherdess at a masquerade.
She was also stubborn and petulant, ‘the worst of bad women according to Garrick, who was often driven to distraction by her, complaining, ‘I never saw Mrs Abington theatrically happy for a Week together'.8 Exasperated, he beseeched her:
for Heavens' sake let ye poor Manager have some respite
from his many labours, & enjoy a few unmurmuring Weeks in
the Summer; the Month of September will soon be here, &
then it will be as Natural for you to find fault with him, as for
Him to find fault with You...9
To others, he was more outspoken:
- what you mean by the black but fair defect, Except that
most Worthless Creature Ab[ington], I dont't[sic] know - she
is below the thought of an Honest Man or Woman - she is as
Silly, as she is false & treacherous - .10

Print 45

1 Waterhouse suggests that the appointments in October 1772 and early 1773 were for this purpose.

2 James Bretherton engraver and printseller 134 New Bond Street 1771-99.

3 A Catalogue of the Extensive and Valuable Stock of Ancient and Modern Prints… Mr. James Bretherton, Drawing Master and Printseller…, London, Christie, 31 January, 1799 (3rd day, part lot of 164).

4 He also listed it as a 'painting on Glass… in an elegant green and gold frame' at 2 guineas.

5 Lichtenberg, pp. 68-9.

6 Lichtenberg, pp. 33-4.

7 Taylor, John Records of my Life, 1771, II, p. 417.

8 Boaden, J. ed. The Private Correspondence of David Garrick, 1831, II, p. 140.

9 Letters, no. 847, 18 June 1774.

10 Letters, no. 1038, 31 July 1776