Historical biography Uncategorised

The Reputation of Nancy Dawson


Image 1) ‘Nancy Dawson’, her hornpipe. From The New York Public Library,

Nancy Dawson had a seven-year career, dancing on the London stage from 1756 to 1763. She became a celebrity overnight in October 1759, when Covent Garden’s dancer Francis Miles fell ill and she replaced him as the performer of the hornpipe in the Newgate scene of the prisoners in chains in The Beggar’s Opera (1). Her popularity attracted the immediate attention of gutter journalists and print sellers. Dawson’s only speciality on stage was her hornpipe, so it is perhaps surprising to find that this dancer, with a short career and limited range, appeared in the 1888 edition of the Dictionary of National Biography, where she is described as ‘of shrewish temper, heartless and mercenary, and of notoriously immoral life’ (2). Moreover, between 1860 and 1958 she figured over thirty times in Notes and Queries, with various respectable contributors showing a strong interest in the more lurid aspects of her reputation, much of which seems to have been acquired long after her death.

Two very similar anonymous celebrity ‘biographies’ quickly appeared, The Genuine Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Nancy D―n (London: R. Stevens, 1760) and The Authentic Memoirs of Celebrated Miss Nancy D*w*n (London: Tom Dawson, [1762?]) (3). A review of The Genuine Memoirs in the London Magazine; or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer of October 1760 dismissed the publication as ‘ridiculous, yet pernicious’ (p. 560), and indeed, like other catchpenny ‘memoirs’ of the time, it consists of a good deal of scurrilous invention. However, her supposed low-life origins and amours were generally accepted as fact until the editors of the Biographical Dictionary of Actors consulted Dawson’s will. Her father, William Newton, was not a pimp and porter, nor had her drunken mother died in a gutter, for he ran a stay-making business in the Covent Garden area and Nancy left suitable bequests to her father and to his wife, her ‘dear mother’.

Prints of Nancy Dawson were rapidly produced. The Genuine Memoirs included a crudely executed frontispiece showing her dancing among the thieves in The Beggar’s Opera and prints for sale in the shops quickly followed. There were essentially two different images, one showing her about to begin her stage hornpipe (see Image 1, above) and one that is clearly based on Reynolds’s portrait of the courtesan Kitty Fisher (see Images 2-3, below). In both, she is wearing the straw hat that was part of her hornpipe costume. In time, assumptions as to her character came to be drawn from these prints. In February 1866 a correspondent to Notes and Queries described the image showing her about to dance on stage as depicting ‘a young lady of saucy appearance … in the act, apparently, of asking someone to walk in’, while in 2012 Kevin Bourque, in Blind Items: Anonymity, Notoriety, and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Celebrity assumed that the use of the image of Kitty Fisher showed that Nancy Dawson, too, was a notorious courtesan, rather than seeing it as a way of quickly and cheaply producing a print of a stage celebrity (4).

Kitty Fisher (Image 2, above) by Joshua Reynolds.

Nancy Dawson (Image 3, below) by Charles Spooner.

Three years before her first advertised stage appearance Ann [Nancy] Newton married James Dawson, a mariner, who seems to have soon disappeared from her life (5). The scandal associated with her in her lifetime arose from her affair with the popular comic actor Edward Shuter, which was repeatedly referred to in song lyrics and satires. The catchy tune to which she danced her hornpipe was named after her and verses in her honour were fitted to it, beginning ‘Of all the girls in our town … There’s none like Nancy Dawson’. Here ‘Shuter droll’ is represented as standing in the way of other lovers, while another set of verses (‘Come all ye bucks and bloods so grim’ — see Image 4, below) states ‘She’s only for N―d S―r’s arms / The smiling Nancy Dawson’. In 1763 G. A. Stevens, who had quarreled with Shuter, wrote a tedious general satire entitled The Dramatic History of Master Edward, Miss Ann, and Others, in which Nancy does not appear until page 137. The couple are shown quarreling and coming to blows, and this section of Stevens’s satire seems to have been responsible for the description of her character in the Dictionary of National Biography entry as shrewish and mercenary. The relationship between Nancy Dawson [Dawsonia] and Ned Shuter [Shuterius] also features in the anonymous satire The Battle of the Players (London: W. Flexney, 1762).

Image 4 ‘Nancy Dawson’, her hornpipe, detail from Image 1.

Nancy worked with Shuter from autumn 1757, when she joined the Covent Garden company (6), and it is likely that they were still lovers when they appeared in Dublin together in summer 1763, a few months before she left the stage. Her will was made in May 1767, a month before her death, and the Biographical Dictionary of Actors (BDA) states that she left Shuter a mourning ring but did not notice that she also left him ‘all my Money in the publick Funds belonging to the Glass Cases in both my parlours’ and asked for him to be one of the pall bearers at her funeral (7). She may, of course, have had other lovers but no names survive. Nancy Dawson seems to have kept her friends, for at her last benefit she danced a double hornpipe with John Walker, the Drury Lane dancer and dancing master who taught her the hornpipe (8). She asked for Walker to be a pall bearer and left mourning rings to him and his dancer wife.

To be continued.


1. For a full account of Nancy Dawson’s life and reputation, see Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson, ‘Nancy Dawson, her hornpipe and her posthumous reputation’, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, 30.1-2 (2015), 55-71.

2.   S.v. ‘Dawson, Nancy’ by A.V. [Alsager Richard Vian], in Dictionary of National Biography, edited by Leslie Stephen, 63 vols. (London: Smith, 1885-1900), vol. 14.

3. The Life of Lavinia Beswick, alias Fenton, alias Polly Peachum (London: A. Moore, 1728) is a similarly unreliable work about Lavinia Fenton, the first Polly in The Beggar’s Opera.

4. Kevin J. Borque, Blind Items: Anonymity, Notoriety, and the Making of Eighteenth-Century Celebrity, Doctor of Philosophy Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin (2012); Nancy Dawson was also paired with Kitty Fisher in Whore Biographies, vol.4, edited by Julie Peakman (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2006).

5.  The marriage took place on 1 January 1753 (National Archives, Kew, Marriage records of the Fleet).

6.  Will of Ann Dawson of Saint George the Martyr , Middlesex, 24 May 1767, PROB 11/929/346, National Archives, Kew.

7. I.C.B. Dear, and Peter Kemp, The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 376.

8. Nancy Dawson’s Cabinet of Choice Songs, being a collection of some of the most superlative, amatory, flash, luxurious, and dainty ditties, ever before printed (London: W. West, [1842?]).  In the British Library catalogue, the author of the collection (C.116.a.45) is given as Nancy Dawson!


  1. Anonymous. ‘Nancy Dawson’, her hornpipe. London: Robert Sayer, [c.1762]. Engraving. From The New York Public Library, Accessed 24 August 2021. Public domain.
  2. Joshua Reynolds. ‘Miss Kitty Fisher.’ London: Robert Sayer, 1763. Mezzotint. London: Robert Sayer, [c. 1760]. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
  3. Charles Spooner. ‘Nancy Dawson.’ London: Robert Sayer, [c.1763]. Mezzotint. From The New York Public Library, Accessed 24 August 2021. Public domain.
  4. Detail from Image 1, above.

Next post

‘The reputation of Nancy Dawson part 2’ will appear on 10 September 2021.

Historical biography Uncategorised

‘I long to be ogling Madam’s feet’: Marie-Thérèse Perdou de Subligny (1666-c.1735)


Marie-Thérèse Perdou de Subligny was born in July 1666 in Paris, daughter of the author and playwright Adrien-Thomas Perdou, sieur de Subligny (1636-1696). The first reference we have to her as a member of the Paris Opéra dance troupe dates from April 1687 when the architect Nicodemus Tessin saw her dance in a performance of Lully’s Persée. He thought she was one of the best female dancers there, and even described her exquisite costume: ‘The underskirt was made of gold moiré, with a blue and silver embroidered border all round. It was the same for the overskirt, which came to the knee. Around the bottom of the under-petticoat of gold moiré, there were fairly widely spaced bands of black braid, resembling velvet and bordered with silver. Near the top, the sleeves were slashed, then tight-fitting, and open lower down’ (1).

Research by Nathalie Lecomte and Rebecca Harris-Warrick has corrected several errors in the existing biographies and dictionary articles on Subligny. There is, for instance, uncertainty about exactly what and when she danced in her early years at the Opéra because female dancers were not named in the livrets before 1699. Twentieth-century biographers all tended to follow Émile Campardon’s entry for Subligny in his L’Académie Royale de Musique au XVIIIe Siècle (Paris, 1884, vol. 2, pp. 295-297), and thereby were misled into assuming that, because she is known to have danced in post-1699 revivals of certain operas, she therefore must also have danced in the original staging, yet this is by no means certain and both the choreographies and the performers may well have changed before 1699.

Subligny is first mentioned in the opera livrets as dancing in the 1699 revival of Jean Baptiste Lully’s Proserpine, as one of the ‘Ombres heureuses’ (happy spirits) of the underworld in Act IV. Also in 1699, Henri Bonnart published an engraving of ‘Mademoiselle Subligny Danseuse de l’Opéra, and around the same time Jean Mariette published another, of ‘Mademoiselle Subligny dansant à l’Opéra’ (2).

Subligny’s skills in different dance styles are borne out by the number of solos she danced subsequently in Paris (3). By the time she retired from the stage she was one of the highest paid female dancers at the Opéra and had performed in at least six Lully operas and in revivals of such works as the Ballet des Fragments de Mr de Lully, and André Campra’s L’Europe galante, often as the dance partner of Claude Balon (1671-1744). Her last known performance before retiring was on 26 November 1705, dancing a solo as a Nymph of Diana and a duet with Balon in Le Triomph de l’Amour (4).

The surviving dances for Subligny comprise four theatrical solos and twelve duets with Claude Balon. All were created by the Opéra’s ballet-master of their day, Guillaume-Louis Pécour, and survive because they were published in notation by Raoul-Auger Feuillet (L’Allemande in 1702, inspired by a Balon-Subligny duet, followed by ten more duets and three solos in his Recueil de dances contenant […] des meilleures Entrées de Mr Pecour in 1704), and by yet another duet and one solo published by Michel Gaudrau (in his Nouveau recueil de danse […] de Ballet in 1713). All were set to music from operas and opera-ballets by Lully, Campra, André Cardinal Destouches, and Theobaldo di Gatti (5).

Two of the solos specify that Subligny danced them ‘en Angleterre’, and she is believed to be the first leading female dancer from Paris to perform on the London stage. Robert D. Hume’s proposal that she was in London in December 1701 is now challenged by Lecomte’s findings that Subligny could not have reached London before late-January 1702, for she had been in Paris, dancing in Destouche’s Omphale, between 10 November and 8 January, and in a new version of Gatti’s Scylla from 20 December until 10 January (but not in its Versailles Trianon performance on 27 February) (6). Nor could she have remained in London much beyond March or early April, as more Omphale performances after Easter and rehearsals for Acis & Galatea (due to open in June) required a return to Paris. As will be discussed presently, Subligny was mentioned in the London publication A Comparison between the Two Stages, a critical discourse presented as a dialogue ‘between Ramble and Sullen, two gentlemen, and Chagrin a critick’ which was published on 14 April 1702 but probably compiled in February and March (7).

For a dancer who spent such a short time in London, Subligny made a remarkable impact. The charms of ‘gallick heels’ were blamed for wrecking the revival of Farquhar’s play The Inconstant at Drury Lane in February 1702 because audiences preferred to go and see the ‘French lady’ dance at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (8). Subligny was described, in A Comparison between the Two Stages, as ‘a new wonder’ whose footwork became a near-obsession for ‘gentleman’ Ramble (p. 67 – it is he who ‘long[s] to be ogling Madam’s feet’); the critic Chagrin, however, thought her a ‘surprising monster’ (p. 67). The only two solos that we know she danced in London were the Gigue pour une femme (to music from Gatti’s Scylla), which may or may not have been adapted from the Paris version (1701), and a Passacaille pour une femme to music from Lully’s Armide, which perhaps was destined to be modified for inclusion in the new Paris version of that opera in 1703. Otherwise, we shall probably never know exactly what she danced in London, as no copy of Walsh’s Second Book of the Gentleman’s Companion …for the flute…To which are added several new French Dances perform’d by Mlle de Subligny (advertised in the Post Boy 25-28 April 1702) is known to have survived. His naming of a female dancer of renown in one of his own music publications was perhaps an early sign of his commercial acumen in trying to be the first to present new talent or newsworthy musical events to the public. 

The comment in the Biographical Dictionary of Actors that Subligny arrived in London with a letter of introduction to the philosopher John Locke does not imply that they actually met (9). Given that her father was a writer, and that Locke had spent some time in Paris in the 1670s, it would not have been unusual for Subligny to carry such a letter, but by 1702 the now very elderly Locke had long retired to High Laver in Essex, and it seems unlikely that Subligny would have had time to make a journey out of London to visit him.

Subligny lived on for another thirty years after her own retirement, dying in c.1735.  It is a pity that more is not known of her career, which was halfway over by the time she started to be widely documented as a dancer. In Paris, younger female dancers such as Mademoiselle Guiot were already making a name for themselves, their own careers no doubt helped by Subligny setting a high standard by her performance skills. In London, however, responses to her varied: Thomas Betterton, the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre manager, deplored the expensive fee that she was able to command, but the public flocked to see her perform (10), and the beauty and ingenuity of her surviving dances still continue today to bear witness to her skills.


  1. Caroline Wood and Graham Sadler, French Baroque Opera: A Reader (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000),126. 
  2. Editor’s note: These are early examples of portraits depicting a performer rather than a member of the social élite: Bonnart had previously drawn King James II; Mariette’s earlier work included a portrait of  a more typical subject in Louise de Kéroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth.
  3. See Rebecca Harris-Warrick, Dance and Drama in French Baroque Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 384.
  4. Nathalie Lecomte, Entre cours et jardins d’illusion: le ballet en Europe 1515-1715 (Paris: Centre National de la Danse, 2014), 342-3. Also personal communications.
  5. See catalogue descriptions in Meredith Little and Carol Marsh, La Danse Noble, an Inventory of Dances and Sources (New York: Broude Bros, 1992); Francine Lancelot, La Belle dance, catalogue raisonné (Paris: Van Dieren, 1996).
  6. Robert D. Hume, “A Revival of The Way of the World in December 1701 or January 1702”, Theatre Notebook 26 (1971), 30-36; for Lecomte, see n4 above.
  7. Anonymous, A Comparison between the two Stages, with an Examen of The generous Conqueror; and some critical Remarks on The funeral, or Grief alamode, The false friend, Tamerlane and others. In dialogue (London : [s.n.], 1702). Hume (as in n. 6, p. 30) notes the date of publication as 14 April 1702, without citing a source. The London Post of 8 May 1702 described it as ‘lately Publish’d’.
  8. George Farquhar, The Inconstant (London, 1702), preface.
  9. Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and other stage Personnel in London 1660-1800, vol. 14 (1991), 329.
  10. Betterton would later blame ‘the Depravity of the Taste of the Audience’ for obliging him ‘on Account of Self-defence’ to keep on bringing in foreign and expensive stars who included Subligny, followed by Balon and L’Abbé: see Charles Gildon, The Life of Mr Thomas Betterton (London, 1710), 142-3, 155. John Downes had made a similar observation two years earlier: John Downes, Roscius Anglicanus (London, 1708), 96-97.


Next post

‘The reputation of the dancer Nancy Dawson’ part 1 of 2, by Olive Baldwin and Thelma Wilson. To be published 24 August 2021.