Abington, Frances (DNB00)

ABINGTON, FRANCES (1737–1815), actress, was of obscure origin. Her maiden name was Frances or Fanny Barton. Of her mother she knew nothing; her father, having served as a private soldier in the King's Guards, kept a cobbler's stall in Vinegar Yard; her brother was an ostler in Hanway Yard. After she had risen to fame and prosperity, her descent was traced to a certain Christopher Barton, Esq., of Norton, Derbyshire, who at the accession of William III left four sons, a colonel, a ranger of one of the royal parks, a prebendary of Westminster, and the grandfather of Frances Barton. She at first sold flowers and was known as ‘Nosegay Fan.’ Then singing in the streets or reciting at tavern doors, she was sometimes carried within the Bedford and Piazza coffee-houses, to amuse the company with the delivery of select passages from the poets. She became the servant of a French milliner in Cockspur Street, from whom she acquired a taste in dress and a knowledge of French. She was afterwards cookmaid in the kitchen ruled by Robert Baddeley, admired at a later date for his performance upon the stage of foreign footmen, Jews, and ‘broken-English’ parts. Frances Barton underwent many ignoble, painful, and vicious experiences. ‘Low, poor, and vulgar as she had been,’ a contemporary critic writes, ‘she was always anxious to acquire education. . . . She was well acquainted with the French authors, could read and speak French with facility, and could converse in Italian.’ In the summer of 1755 the Haymarket was opened under the management of Theophilus Cibber. On 21 Aug. the comedy of the ‘Busybody’ was presented, the bills announcing ‘the character of Miranda by Miss Barton, being her first essay.’ She appeared subsequently as Miss Jenny in the ‘Provoked Husband,’ as Desdemona, as Sylvia in the ‘Recruiting Officer,’ and in other parts. For more than a year she was absent from London, fulfilling engagements at Bath and Richmond. She reappeared in November 1756, as a member of the Drury Lane company, engaged at the recommendation of Samuel Foote, and personated Lady Pliant in the ‘Double Dealer,’ and various other characters. In 1759 she was first described in the bills as Mrs. Abington: she had become the wife of her music-master, one of the royal trumpeters. The marriage was of an unhappy sort. Soon terms of separation were agreed upon, and the husband and wife lived apart. She paid him annually a stipulated sum, upon condition that he forbore to approach her. At Drury Lane Mrs. Abington advanced but slowly. Mrs. Pritchard and Mrs. Clive enjoyed possession of the best parts in the dramatic repertory, while the younger actresses, Miss Macklin and Miss Pritchard, inherited claims to the consideration of the managers. Mrs. Abington left England for Ireland, and was absent five years. Her success in Dublin was very great, and her Lady Townley drew the most crowded houses of the season. Hitchcock, the historian of the Irish stage, writes: ‘So rapidly did this charming actress rise, and so highly was she esteemed by the public—even so early did she discover a taste in dress and a talent to lead the ton—that several of the ladies' most fashionable ornaments were distinguished by her name, and the “Abington cap” became the prevailing rage of the day.’ She returned to Drury Lane upon the pressing invitation of Garrick, and for some eighteen years continued a member of the company, the most admired representative of the grand coquettes and queens of comedy, greatly successful as Beatrice, Lady Townley, Lady Betty Modish, Millamant, and Charlotte in the ‘Hypocrite.’ She was not confined to impersonations of this class, however. She could descend to country girls, romps, hoydens, and chambermaids. Reynolds's best portrait of her exhibits her as Miss Prue in ‘Love for Love.’ She could appear either as Lucy Lockit or Polly Peachum, as Biddy Tipkin or Mrs. Termagant, as Miss Prue or as Miss Hoyden. Her Shakespearian characters were Portia, Beatrice, Desdemona, Olivia, and Ophelia. Murphy dedicated to her his comedy of the ‘Way to keep him,’ in recognition of her genius, and of those ‘graces of action’ which had endowed his play with brilliancy, and even with an air of novelty, twenty-five years after its first production. She appeared on some occasions as Lydia Languish, and she was the original representative of Lady Teazle in 1777, the actress being then but a few years the junior of the performer of Sir Peter. No one complained, however, that her Lady Teazle lacked youth or grace or charm. Horace Walpole, who had bidden her welcome to Strawberry Hill, with as many friends as she might choose to bring with her, described her acting in Lady Teazle as equal to the first of her profession—as superior to any effort of Garrick's; she seemed to him, indeed, ‘the very person.’ In 1782 she closed her long connection with Drury Lane, and transferred her services to Covent Garden. Between 1790 and 1797 she was absent from the stage, and it was believed that her professional career had closed. She reappeared for a season, however, and was warmly welcomed by the public. Boaden wrote of her return to the stage: ‘Her person had become full, and her elegance somewhat unfashionable; but she still gave to Shakespeare's Beatrice what no other actress in my time has ever conceived; and her old admirers were still willing to fancy her as unimpaired by time as the character itself.’ Taking no formal leave of her public, she enjoyed no farewell benefit, and was seen upon the stage for the last time on 12 April, 1799, when she played Lady Racket in the after-piece of ‘Three Weeks after Marriage,’ the occasion being the benefit of Pope, her fellow-player during many seasons. She is described as possessed of a singularly elegant figure, which, towards the close of her career, acquired proportions too matronly for the youthful characters she still assumed; she was of graceful address, with animated and expressive gestures. Her voice was not by nature musical, but her elocutionary skill was very great, and her articulation was so exact that every syllable she uttered was distinct and harmonious. Her taste in dress was admitted to be supreme by the many ladies of quality whose friendship she enjoyed. Garrick wrote of her, on the back of one of her letters, that she was ‘the worst of bad women.’ Of his merits as an actor she spoke enthusiastically; but she pronounced him as a manager inconsiderate, harsh, and resentful. She maintained with him a long and acrimonious correspondence. He complained of her peevish letters, of her want of zeal for the interests of the theatre, of her incessant querulousness. She alleged that he caused her to be attacked in the newspapers, that his harshness affected her health and spirits, that he spoke ill of her wherever he went. Again and again she asked that her engagement might be cancelled, and that she might be released from the inconvenience and distress of her position at Drury Lane. Upon one occasion it was necessary to take counsel's opinion as to the proper night to be devoted to Mrs. Abington's benefit. Her salary at Drury Lane was 12l. per week, ‘with a benefit and 60l. for clothes.’ She was rarely called upon to play more than three nights a week. Mrs. Abington had conquered for herself a distinguished position in society. The squalor, the misery, and the errors of her early life were forgotten or forgiven in the presence of her signal success upon the stage, her personal beauty, wit, and cleverness. Boswell relates that in 1775, when Mrs. Abington begged Dr. Johnson to attend her benefit, he was ‘perhaps a little vain of the solicitations of this elegant and accomplished actress,’ and that he mentioned the fact because ‘he loved to bring forward his having been in the gay circles of life.’ He sat in the boxes, and at such a distance from the stage that he could neither see nor hear. ‘Why then, did you go?’ asked Boswell. ‘Because, sir, Mrs. Abington is a favourite of the public; and when the public cares a thousandth part for you that it does for her, I will go to your benefit too.’ He supped with Mrs. Abington, met certain persons of fashion, was ‘much pleased with having made one in so elegant a circle,’ and afterwards piqued Mrs. Thrale by saying ‘Mrs. Abington's jelly, my dear lady, was better than yours.’ Mrs. Abington retired upon a comfortable independence, which it was said she much reduced by her losses at cards. John Taylor, of the ‘Sun’ newspaper, in his ‘Records of my Life,’ states that he remembered her ‘keeping a very elegant carriage, and living in a large mansion in Clarges Street.’ He had seen her, on the occasion of her benefit, surprise the audience by playing the low-comedy part of Scrub in the ‘Beaux's Stratagem.’ He once witnessed her performance of Ophelia to the Hamlet of Garrick, when she appeared ‘like a mackerel on a gravel walk.’ He had met her at Mrs. Cosway's, in Stratford Place, when she was treated with much respect by the company; but she chiefly confined her conversation to General Paoli. She lived at one time in Pall Mall. In 1807 she was occupying two rooms in the house No. 19 Eaton Square. Taylor further states that he had seen her, long after her retirement from the stage, attired in a common red cloak, and with the air and demeanour of the wife of an inferior tradesman. She died 4 March 1815.

[Secret History of the Green Rooms, 1790; Genest's History of the Stage, 1832; Boaden's Life of Mrs. Jordan, 1831; Hours with the Players, 1881.]

D. C.