Rags to riches and back again

EXHIBITIONS 2; She was the most famous actress of her day, and the mistress of the King. Claire Tomalin reports on a new show about the amazing Mrs Jordan
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU make your way determinedly among the monuments in Westminster Abbey, you should be able to find Sarah Siddons, squeezed against the wall in the Chapel of St Andrew. When I last went she was blocked off by a rope and some chairs, but I was kindly allowed past the rope and worked my way through to her. She is larger than life, though rather less beautiful than she appears in paintings - her sculptor, Thomas Campbell, was not able to work from life. She had been dead for 14 years when he made the statue in 1845, at the instigation of the actor Macready, who was determined that his profession should be considered respectable and celebrated accordingly.

I went to see Mrs Siddons in the Abbey when I was thinking about her contemporary, Mrs Jordan, who was an equally admired and famous actress. But there is no memorial statue or tablet for Mrs Jordan in the Abbey. Yet the King of England planned and commissioned one, 14 years after her death. When William IV came to the throne in 1830, one of his first acts was to invite the foremost sculptor in the country, Francis Chantrey, to produce a life-size memorial statue of Mrs Jordan.

I went to examine Chantrey's register at the Royal Academy, and found the commission: "Mrs Jordan's Monument: Recd, an order from His Majesty William IV to create a Monumental Groupe in memory of Mrs Jordan to be erected in Westminster Abbey ..." The line of writing continues, crossed through in ink, but decipherable through the deletion: "... beside the monuments of the Queens." Clearly, the King's intention was to have the statue not just in the Abbey, but in a place of special honour.

In 1834 Chantrey finished the statue, but it was not installed in the Abbey, either beside the monuments of the Queens or anywhere else. Evidently the King was overruled, and it simply remained in the sculptor's studio in Pimlico. It was still there in 1839, two years after William's death and the accession of Queen Victoria.

She took an interest in the matter and discussed it at some length with her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. He had not only seen the statue, he remembered Dora Jordan herself, and told the young Queen several entertaining stories about her: what a splendid actress she had been, how lively and high spirited, with beautiful legs and feet, perfect enunciation and a singing voice that produced "an electrical effect". The Queen's uncle, King George IV, had been very fond of her, he said, and often gone to dinner with her. As to her other uncle, King William IV, and his wish that the statue should be placed in the Abbey, the Queen noted in her diary, "I thought it was rather odd to put it in Henry VII's Chapel; 'I think it's rather odd,' said Lord M, 'as she wasn't even buried there.' Then Lord M said, they didn't know what to write under it, so they called it, 'Sacred to the memory of an affectionate Mother, Dorah Bland.' But I asked Lord M, why shouldn't it be Dorah Jordan? Bland was her maiden name; Lord M said he had no idea who Mr Jordan was, or if she was married to him."

Lord Melbourne knew very well that there had never been a Mr Jordan, but the Queen's curiosity was natural enough - she had after all no fewer than nine first cousins who were the children of Mrs Jordan and the late King William.

The Queen's cousins were known as the FitzClarences. The girls had all lived in Windsor, and married into the aristocracy; the boys had served bravely in the Army and the Navy, and been given positions at court and titles. They were charming, well bred and intelligent. On the other hand, the Queen's mother had established a firm line in relation to the FitzClarences: "I never did, neither will I now associate Victoria in any way with the illegitimate members of the Royal family - with the King they die; did I not keep this line how would it be possible to teach Victoria the difference between Vice and Virtue?"

Victoria learnt the difference very well. Her own nine children were most respectably engendered by her husband, Prince Albert, the FitzClarences were kept firmly in the background, and the statue of their mother remained out of sight throughout her long reign.

When Chantrey died, it was moved to Mapledurham, where the Revd Lord Augustus FitzClarence, the youngest son of King William and Mrs Jordan, served, somewhat improbably, as vicar, well loved by his simple parishioners. Whether he showed them, or what they thought of the Madonna-like figure of his mother in white marble, with a baby in her lap, a small boy at her side, and the mask and pipes of comedy at her bare feet, is not on record. He died in 1854, and the statue remained hidden and unknown well into this century.

It was first shown to the public in 1956, when it appeared in an exhibition of British portraits at the Royal Academy. By then it was owned by the 5th Earl of Munster, a direct descendant of Mrs Jordan and William IV. He kept it in his garden in Surrey, and loaned it for a second time to the neo-classical exhibition in 1972. Then, at his death three years later, he bequeathed it to the present Queen. So although it has never reached the Abbey, it is now installed in the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace. For the current exhibition at Kenwood a full-size plaster copy has been made.

MRS JORDAN'S story - the story of an unmarried working mother - is an extraordinary one. Although her Irish father and Welsh mother were both of good family, she was illegitimate, and endured poverty and hardship when her father abandoned his first family to marry an heiress. At 13, Dora was sent out to work in a Dublin hat shop. A few years later she was on the stage, where she made an immediate impression. At 20 she fled from Ireland, pregnant by her manager, who seduced or possibly raped her, and joined a touring company in Yorkshire. After serving a further three years' tough apprenticeship, she was given her chance to appear at Drury Lane, and established herself at once as a star.

This was in 1785, and for the next 34 years - until Drury Lane burned down - she topped the bill, taking on everything from physical farce and musical comedy to Shakespeare. She played both Rosalind and the Country Girl for 27 years. She gave command performances for the royal family, she toured the British Isles, she was hugely admired by the intellectuals - Byron, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb - and she was adored by the pit and the gallery till the end of her career. When the Times attacked her one morning in 1814, the whole of the Covent Garden audience rose to applaud her when she appeared on stage that evening.

Her private life has been called scandalous; yet the scandal attaches more to others than to her. In the 1780s she lived with a young lawyer called Richard Ford, who proposed and then postponed marriage for several years, and by him she had two more daughters. When Prince William, Duke of Clarence, the third son of George III, began to pursue her, she kept him at bay, accepting his advances only after Ford made it clear he had given up the idea of marriage. Although the satirists and scandal sheets of the day accused her of being a drain on the public purse through the Duke, she always earned enough to maintain herself and in fact made large contributions to the household of her princely lover.

She also proved more wife-like than many wives, living in domestic contentment with the Duke at Bushy, next to Hampton Court, where they raised their family of 10 children, plus her three older daughters and the Duke's earlier illegitimate son. In many respects their life was idyllic. Both adored the children, and when they were separated they wrote daily to one another. The Duke farmed and made endless improvements to his house and grounds, she kept up her career throughout almost ceaseless pregnancies, bowling in and out of London in her carriage, usually with a baby or two at her side.

The end of this happiness came when, in 1811, the Duke, under pressure from the royal family, and with the wandering eye of middle age, decided he should marry some suitable young woman and abruptly informed Mrs Jordan that they were to separate and she must leave Bushy for good. The last years of her life were as hard as the early ones, and she died, miserably, alone in France, where she is buried. Within a year one of her sons also died in India, and the Duke began to repent of his behaviour; but the following year, he married a German princess young enough to be his daughter. It was Queen Adelaide who preserved many of Mrs Jordan's letters which would otherwise have been lost, and gave them to one of her sons for safe keeping.

THE IDEA for an exhibition devoted to Mrs Jordan came to me when I was researching her life. My expectations of picture material were not very high, but I kept a file, and very soon it was bulging. There are, I found, dozens of theatrical prints and action pictures; there are silhouettes; there are pastels and miniatures; there are formal portraits; and there are a large number of brilliantly funny caricatures by the great masters of the genre, notably Gillray. When Ian Dejardin, the curator at Kenwood responsible for the exhibition, took up the idea enthusiastically, he came up with still more material.

There is an assumption that she was painted so much because she was a royal mistress; and although this is partly true, many of the portraits were produced long before she took up with Williams. Painters like Romney, Beechey and Hoppner were interested in her entirely for her own sake; even Reynolds praised her stage performances in the highest terms, although, sadly, his professional life was coming to end when they met and there is no Reynolds portrait.

Still, there is a wealth of material to give a vivid impression of the actress, her world and her children. For me, although the royal connection makes a fascinating and cautionary tale, she is interesting primarily as someone who made her way against great odds, by skill and dedication to a noble profession: who earned her living by hard work, and combined that working life with being a loving and delightful mother. The Duchess of Drury Lane, yes indeed: and a remarkably good woman too.

! 'Mrs Jordan: the Duchess of Drury Lane': Kenwood House, NW3, 0181 348 1286, to 3 Dec. 'Mrs Jordan's Profession', by Claire Tomalin, is out now in paperback (Penguin, pounds 8.99).

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