Historical biography Uncategorised

Images of Emilie Bigottini


Émilie Bigottini (1784-1858) is an example of a dancer who successfully negotiated a complicated personal life and a glittering professional career. Born into a theatrical family, she studied at the ballet school of the Paris Opéra, joining its corps de ballet in 1801. Three years later she was promoted to soloist, becoming a principal dancer in 1813. Her moving performance in the title-role of Louis Milon’s Nina, ou La Folle par l’Amour (1813) is considered her “greatest triumph”.1 My interest in this dancer was piqued by reading some of her correspondence in the New York Public Library, which documents part of Bigottini’s dispute with the estate of Monsieur Casimir Louis Gousagne Marie Alphonse Ormand Pignatelly. Pignatelly was the father of her daughter Amadine Alphonsine (b. 10 April 1807). In a letter to a social contact (M. de Joli, mayor of Creteil) dated 23 July 1812 we learn that Bigottini is constrained from contesting the succession of  Pignatelly’s estate, designated to fall to his nephew. She notes that three-eighths of the estate has been set aside her their daughter – but verbally Pignatelly had indicated she would receive more than this. Referring to the ‘prejudice’ of Pignatelly’s executor, the dancer declares her intention to secure “an honourable existence” (une existence honorable) for herself and their daughter.2 Whether she secured a larger portion of Pignatelly’s estate or not, we can assume that Bigottini achieved her ultimate aim as her daughter – described as “a wealthy woman” – was subsequently to marry the respectable notary Jean Baptise Daloz in 1827.3 Sadly, Amandine would predecease her mother by some 25 years. Bigottini’s fortune at her death is reported as amounting to 3.5 million francs, which she used to set up a charitable foundation.4

Despite her financial status, Bigottini’s cares as a mother would continue: in a letter dated 14 June 1822 she wrote the Opéra management to serve notice that she could not perform due to the continued indisposition of her daughter.5 Bigottini’s correspondence reveals a side to the lives of many female dancers, particularly those with children born outside the institution of marriage. Futures had to be secured (a notably delicate matter in the case of a daughter), and care arranged. Bigottini had two additional children with General Géraud-Christophe-Michel Duroc and counted amongst her lovers Napoleon’s stepson Eugène de Beauharnais. Her biographer Bouvier prefers to emphasise the financial benefits Bigottini accrued through these relationships, but her correspondence reveals the worry and the work behind the apparent façade of easy comfort. Notably, Bigottini preferred to remain an active professional until the age of 39 rather than to retire early on the fortunes of her lovers.

Bigottini was the subject of several portraits. The image that best captures a vivacious personality in performance is Jacques Vallin’s depiction of her in the role of a bacchante – this can be discovered by scrolling through the online gallery of the Bowes Museum. Further personal portraits of this dancer exist — including a most elegant pencilled image of the dancer in motion drawn by Louis Lafitte (1770-1828). In this blog we will consider instead a selection of images that represent the institutional interests of the Académie Royale de Musique.

Online digital collections such as Gallica ( and the New York Public Library ( evidence the existence of various commercial series of images, promoted by the theatres of Paris and featuring their performance personnel. These series are particularly notable from the 1820s. The four costume prints show below have Godefroy Engelmann (1788-1839) as the lithographer. According to The Dictionary of Art, he was ‘instrumental’ in promoting and developing lithography in Paris from the mid 1810s until his death in 1839, so the Paris Opéra was paying for an accomplished artist.6 First we have Bigottini in the title-role of Clari, a ballet-pantomime by Louis Milon with music by Rodolphe Kreutzer first performed on 19 June 1820. Clari is the daughter of a rich farmer but has been kidnapped by the Duc Melville and brought up as his daughter. The ballet’s sub-title suggests its focus: ‘La promesse de la mariage’. Here we can compare Bigottini with one Mme Courtin. The most personalised aspect of these images is the evident difference to the dancers’ figures; Mme Courtin has a protruding bust while Bigottini does not. Clearly the interest lies in the costumes rather than the personalities of the dancers.

Image left: Bigottini in Clary (1820), lithograph G. Engelmann, copyright Victoria and Albert Museum. Image right: Mme. Courtin in Clary, lithograph G. Engelmann, copy New York Public Library.

We also see Bigottini as Victor in Jean-Pierre Aumer’s ballet, Les pages du duc de Vendôme. This pantomime-ballet, with music by Adalbert Gyrowetz, opened at the Paris Opéra on 18 October 1820. Victor is the son of Marimon, an elderly Colonel. Engelmann’s rendition of Aumer in the title-role makes an interesting juxtaposition with Bigottini in her trousers role. The costumes are broadly similar, although Aumer’s has stronger lines while there is a softness to both Bigottini’s costume and her pose. Aumer’s boots are far more substantial, and he alone bears a sword.

My final selection for this blog shows Bigottini and her younger peer Lise Noblet (1801-1852) as drawn by Pierre Roch Vigneron (1789-1872) for a series ‘Collection du Corsaire’. Gallica describes ‘Le Corsaire’ as a publisher, but the print of Noblet was published by its lithographic printer, C. de Lasteyrie. These portraits appear very generic, conveying a limited sense of the personality or essence of the sitters; the backgrounds suggest a highly smudged outdoor locale that would have taken a minimum of trouble to produce. Presumably they were mass produced for the cheaper end of the art market. Gallica holds further portraits from this series, including artists from the Théâtre-Français and the Théâtre des Nouveautés, engraved by Engelmann, or by one Demanne.7 The artist and lithographer Vigneron was also apparently active as a portraitist for the ‘Collection du Courrier des Spectacles’, which produced thespian images in a similar style and format.  

The commercial reproduction of costume sketches as well as portraits by the third decade of the nineteenth century offers a proliferation of images related to performers in the Parisian theatres – particularly the Opéra. This kind of infrastructure was not in operation in London during the same period. Indeed, from our first post regarding Mlle Subligny we have drawn on this earlier development of performer portraiture in Paris. It is interesting to speculate what the visual legacy regarding Mlle Parisot might have been, had she remained in Paris rather than chancing her luck in London. Bigottini – who never danced in London – was at least spared the London satirists.


  1. Babsky, M. 2005. ‘Bigottini, Émilie.’ International Encyclopedia of Dance. www-oxfordreference-com.
  2. ‘Émilie Bigottini.’ Walter Toscanini Collection volume 3. New York Public Library.
  3. Petit-Konczyk, M. 2015. The Creators of the north France coastal forest from 1845 to 1885, p. 9. ResearchGate; see also Bouvier, F. 1909. Une danseuse de l’Opéra : La Bigottini. Paris: N. Charavay, p. 29.
  4. Bouvier, p. 32n2.
  5. ‘Émilie Bigottini.’ Walter Toscanini Collection volume 3. New York Public Library.
  6. ‘Engelmann, Godefroy.’ 1996. The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. London: Macmillan.
  7. Emilia Bigottini (1825), Mlle Quiney of the Académie Royale de Musique (lithographer Engelmann), Nicola-Baptiste Anselm of the Théâtre-Français (lithographer Demanne), and Mme Albert (Louise Albert-Himm) of the Théâtre des Nouveautés.

Next post

The next post will consider portraits of the dancer Marie Sallé (1709-1756).

Historical biography Uncategorised

Mlle Parisot’s portraits


The tale of Mlle Parisot’s London reception holds two further images to consider. The featured image is a portrait drawn by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Depicting her in the guise of Hebe, goddess of Youth, it is a tribute to Parisot’s grace and elegance; although the beauty of her figure is evident, the painter appears to celebrate rather than exploit the dancer. A contemporary report, however, could not refrain from alluding to Parisot’s disreputable entourage:

Devis is engaged upon a Portrait of the beautiful PARISOT. It is to be a whole length, and there is already an active competition between old Q. [Lord Queensbury] and Lord G[rosvenor] who shall be the happy possessor.

True Briton, 10 June 1796

The nudge and wink of the newspaper notice may also point to a scheme to finance the portrait, which as a full-length image would normally be commissioned by a funder with deep pockets. Is it likely that an auction was intended to sell the original image? We can safely assume that Parisot herself did not commission it: her salary at 300 guineas per annum would not stretch to such luxuries and she was also reputedly supporting her mother and sister in France.1) And yet we can understand why she might want to encourage such an enterprise: Gillray’s satirical print of May 1796 – in which she appears as a saucy nymph encouraging the attentions of the married Didelot – would have been very damaging to her personal reputation. A serious portrait and its subsequent engravings could promote her on more flattering terms. For Devis, an artist who has recently returned from India, this project may have been imagined as a means to establish himself in a crowded London market. The connection to engraver and publisher John Raphael Smith (1751-1812) would have been particularly welcome, for the older artist was highly regarded in his trade, with a very successful publishing business. While Smith’s role implies an anticipation that the engravings of this prominent stage performer would sell well, finding a buyer for the original portrait would have been a bit of a gamble: the nearest precedent we have in the London art market of the period is the 1782 full-length portrait of Giovanna Baccelli by Thomas Gainsborough — but Baccelli was at that time living with John Sackville, 3rd Duke of Dorset, who commissioned or paid for at least two further portraits and a sculpture of that dancer during the course of their relationship. Parisot, according to the press of her day, stoutly discouraged the attentions of her elderly admirers so they lacked a lover’s genuine interest in commissioning the portrait. Grosvenor was in fact an avid art collector, but a surviving catalogue of his collection does not list any images of Parisot.2) Queensbury was better known for his interest in women and horses, and the extent of his art collection (if any) is currently unknown.

‘Mademoiselle Parisot’, Charles Turner after J.J. Masquerier, copyright Victoria and Albert Museum.

The racier image above, drawn by John James Masquerier, is a curious affair. According to the National Portrait Gallery, “John Masquerier was an accomplished portraitist who enjoyed a wide practice among the intellectual and artistic communities at the turn of the nineteenth century.” The bare bosom seems a direct reference to Parisot’s stage costumes rather than an inevitable feature of Masquerier’s style. (For comparison see his more respectful portraits of Emma, Lady Hamilton, or the actress/singer Rosoman Mountain, née Wilkinson.) Parisot’s bared teeth further suggests an intended salaciousness; it is difficult to credit that she would have willingly posed in this manner. Indeed, the portrait does not demonstrate the level of finish we find in the studio works by Masquerier, and it is plausible to speculate that he took a sketch of Parisot at the theatre, and when committing it to paint freely assigned a costume and facial expression that would maximise its commercial appeal amongst a certain clientele.

Parisot’s exploitation (this is a more apt word than ‘promotion’) in the visual arts is aptly conveyed by the image below, which conveys details of the bust portion of caricatures and portraits of herself and other female contemporaries as discussed in the blogs on this dancer. The Devis portrait suggests her artistic legacy; the remaining images tell us something of the times in which she lived.

  1. For Parisot’s salary, see the True Briton [1793], 21 Mar. 1796; for her family situation, see “News.” Oracle, 18 Aug. 1796. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection, Gale. Accessed 21 Sept. 2021.

2. Westminster, R. Grosvenor., Young, J. (1820). A catalogue of the pictures at Grosvenor house, London: with etchings from the whole collection. London: Pub. by the proprietor.


Devis, Arthur William (artist) and John Smith (engraver). 1797. “Mdlle. Parisot.” London. Harry Beard Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum. Accessed 21 April 2021. 

Masquerier, John James (artist) and Charles Turner (engraver). 1799. “Mademoiselle Parisot.” [London}: C. Turner. Harry Beard Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed 21 April 2021. 

Next post

Emilie Bigottini will be the subject of the next post (March 2022).

Historical biography Uncategorised

The Caricature of Mlle Parisot by Newton


Two interesting points arise from a closer examination of Richard Newton’s caricature of Parisot. It would be natural to take at face value the engraved titling of this print:

Mademoiselle Parisot

Sketched at the Opera by Rd Newton

London Pub. by W Holland No. 50 Oxford St.
‘Mademoiselle Parisot’ by Richard Newton, © British Museum.

The impression in the British Museum adds the year 1796 but if you look closely (and you can!) you will see that the date is added in manuscript – though there is the ghost of an engraved date which certainly ends in a “6”. In the impression held in the Theatre Collection at Harvard the full date survives – “ … April 28 1796” though the “8” has been overwritten in ink to show an “0”. This is all very strange but if we apply George Chaffee’s dictum “Always read the image” I think we can explain away the anomaly in the engraved date.

If we look at the image – what do we see – we see Mlle Parisot dancing with two figures in the stage box but who are they? Well the British Museum impression, again in manuscript has the addition of “D. of Queensbury” and we might expect to see him as he appeared, and appeared readily identified, in a previous print which bears the titling “A Peep at the Parisot! with Q in the Corner!/ I Cruikshank / London Pub May 7 1796 by S.W. Fores No. 50 Piccadilly.” In that print he is also using a Dollond monocular to look up the dancer’s skirt. The second occupant of the box who is also observing the dancer through a glass is also readily identifiable – it is Shute Barrington (1734-1826), Prince Bishop of Durham – he whose intervention in a Lord’s debate on Divorce brought down a cascade of caricatures when he attacked French Opera Dancers

who by their allurement of the most indecent attitudes, and most wanton theatrical exhibitions, corrupted the people.

The Parliamentary Register, vol. 5 (London: J. Debrett, 1798). Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

The problem arises when we find that the noble prelate made his speech on 2nd March 1798, two years after the supposed engraving of the print!

I think that the solution is that Newton’s print was engraved in 1798 and fraudulently dated 1796 to match the Cruickshank caricature – subsequently the erroneous date was erased from the plate and in the case of the British Museum impression someone who knew of the existence of the earlier date simply attempted to restore it. It makes every pictorial sense that this print belongs with those of the well documented 1798 costume controversy.1

The Royal Collection contains a drawing which has been catalogued thus:

Mademoiselle Parisot, a ballet dancer, is watched by 2 old men, Duke of Queensbury and Barrington, Bishop of Durham (?). Copy of the print BM Sat. 8893.

I’m afraid I have not seen this drawing ‘live’ but (again through excellent internet access) I think that this is undoubtedly the original drawing by Newton for the print and not a copy made from it. It would make no sense to shift the figure in making a copy of the print and in any case the drawing is clearly very superior to the subsequent engraving and a most charming (and presumably more accurate) portrait of this dancer.

Detail of the Houghton Library copy of Newton’s ‘Mademoiselle Parisot’.

A Harvard impression gives “Oxford St April 20th [or 28th ] 1796″ which has been removed in the British Museum impression – I suspect that it was published in 1798 with a false date – hence its removal from the plate – why? Goodness knows.


  1. Rauser, Amelia. 2020. The Age of Undress: Arts, Fashion, and the Classical Ideal in the 1790s. Yale University Press, pp. 84-85. Editor’s note: This source betrays the conflation of events relating to Mlle Parisot in 1796 and 1798 as observed above by Cavers.

Next post

‘Portraits of Mlle Parisot’ by Sarah McCleave will appear on 27 February.

Historical biography Uncategorised

An Italian Prodigy Comes to London

Barbara Campanini, ‘La Barbarina’ (1721-1799)


On 15 October 1740, Barbara Campanini (billed as ‘La Barberini’) made her London debut at Covent Garden. The bills show her dancing with George Desnoyer and announce the performance as ‘the first time of her appearing on the English stage’.1 The performance was commanded by the King and attended by George II with his son Prince William and his daughters the Princesses Amelia, Caroline and Louisa. The bills do not tell us what the new Italian prodigy danced.

La Barbarina (as she is usually called) had, in fact, arrived in England some months earlier. She had made notable appearances at Cliveden on 1 and 2 August 1740 before Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife Augusta. According to a report in the London Daily Post for 5 August 1740, the main entertainment was ‘a Dramatic Masque call’d Alfred, written by Mr. Thomson, in which was introduc’d Variety of Dancing, very much to the Satisfaction of their Royal Highnesses and the rest of the Spectators’. The royal couple were said to have been particularly impressed with ‘the Performance of Signora Barberini (lately arriv’d from Paris) whose Grace, Beauty, and surprising Agility, exceeded their Expectations’. Her engagement for these performances must surely have involved George Desnoyer, dancing master to Prince Frederick and his family.2

The Italian ballerina’s engagement by Covent Garden preceded her appearance at Cliveden for it was under discussion as early as December 1739.3 The Daily Gazetteer for 25 July 1740 printed ‘Part of a Letter from Mr. Rich to a Friend’ dated from Paris on 16 July 1740 which showed that an agreement had already been made:

Dear Sir,

I reached Paris on Friday last, and the next Morning went with your Friend Mr. — to pay a Visit to the Signiora Barberini: And not to enter into the Particulars of our Treaty, I shall only tell you at present, that we have agreed and signed Articles, and she sets out with me for England in four or five Days. I am, Sir,

Your Obliged Humble Servant,

John Rich

The Daily Gazetteer’s reporter added that the dancer ‘happens to be an Italian Beauty, who greatly surprised the French Nation with her elegant Performances in the Opera at Paris last Winter’.

Signora Barbarina had made her debut at the Paris Opéra on 14 July 1739 dancing in Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Fêtes d’Hébé. The composer had written an entrée vive, a loure, a minuet and a gavotte to show off her virtuosity.4 Her debut was reported in the Mercure de France for July 1739:

La Dlle Barbarina, a young dancer from Parma, hardly sixteen years old, drew a great crowd, with an Entrée that she danced with many graces, as well as precision and lightness; she performed entre-chat à huit with surprising vivacity, and the style of her dancing is in the same line as Mlle Camargo.

The writer drew attention to her many attractions, adding that these allowed one to believe that ‘she would become a dancer of the first rank, if she wasn’t already’.5 In the August issue, the Mercure de France provided another report of Signora Barbarina’s dancing. This time she had given a pas de deux after Les Fêtes d’Hébé partnered by another Italian dancer (who was not named but was presumably her teacher Antonio Rinaldi, known as Fossano):

These two excellent sujets are generally applauded by an enormous crowd: it must be admitted that one could see nothing so surprising and singular as this pantomime and burlesque dancing.

These reports reveal that the dancing skills La Barbarina brought to London were both technical and expressive.

Barbara Campanini danced at London’s Covent Garden Theatre from October 1740 to April 1741, before returning to the Paris Opéra for some months. She was back at Covent Garden in October 1741 and stayed until May 1742, although she was absent from the stage from November until mid-January apparently because of illness. La Barbarina returned to London for the 1742-1743 season, dancing in the Italian operas at the King’s Theatre, her last stage appearances in England. For the purposes of this post, I will concentrate on her two seasons at Covent Garden.

Barbara Campanini was not the first Italian performer to come to London, although almost all her predecessors had been first and foremost exponents of the commedia dell’arte and not virtuosic dancers. She marked a change which would take root over subsequent decades.

Initially, the bills were silent as to the dances given by La Barbarina and Desnoyer, but on 3 November 1740 they were advertised in the duet Italian Peasants. This was easily their most popular dance, with at least 20 performances during the 1740-1741 season, and may have come from La Barbarina’s own repertoire. Italian Peasant dances quickly became established on the London stage, perhaps as a result of her performances. Also popular was the Tirolese or Tyrolean Dance ‘between a Hungarian and two Tyroleans’, first given by La Barbarina, Desnoyer and Haughton on 28 November 1740. This had twelve performances in 1740-1741 and another eight in 1741-1742, although it seems to have had no lasting influence in London. Was La Barbarina the Hungarian with the two men as the Tyroleans, or was the piece more complicated than that? The music for Italian Peasants and the Tyrolean Dance was included in the first volume of The Comic Dances by Johann Adolf Hasse and others published in 1741. The music for both of these dances has three sections, each with a different time signature, giving them the form of a short suite.

Over the course of her two seasons at Covent Garden, La Barbarina performed in some fifteen solo, duet or group dances as well as three afterpieces. Her solos included a Louvre, first given on 20 December 1740 and repeated a number of times during the season. It may, possibly, have been the dance she performed in Paris to Rameau’s specially composed loure for her in Les Fêtes d’Hébé. The duet Louvre ‘and Minuet’ that she performed several times with Desnoyer and others, almost always at benefit performances, was probably Pecour’s Aimable Vainqueur which had become a favourite in London’s theatres. There was also her Tambourine, generally given as a duet with Desnoyer, which has attracted notice from several scholars in recent years.

While these dances may have come from, or been closely related to, La Barbarina’s own earlier repertoire, the group dance the Rural Assembly may have owed as much (if not more) to her partner Desnoyer. This ‘new Grand Ballet’ was introduced on 21 January 1742 within a performance of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It was subsequently performed within As You Like It and The Way of the World before settling into the entr’actes alongside a variety of mainpieces. Desnoyer was a ‘Chasseur’ supported by dancing ‘Pastors’ and Shepherdesses, while La Barbarina was a ‘Nymph of the Plain’ accompanied by a ‘Cottage Nymph’ (danced by her sister Signora Domitilla) with ‘Two Nymphs of the Vale and a Sylvan’. This ‘Grand Ballet’ had 26 performances between 21 January and 2 June 1742 but was not revived subsequently, probably because of the loss of its two leading dancers (Desnoyer retired from the stage at the end of the season, while La Barbarina returned to London only to dance at the King’s Theatre). The music, published in the second volume of Hasse’s Comic Tunes, again has three sections but seems too short to support what was apparently quite an ambitious divertissement if not a short pastoral ballet.

Over her two seasons at Covent Garden, La Barbarina appeared in three afterpieces. Pan and Syrinx, given on 16 and 17 December 1740, may well have been a small opera – perhaps that by Theobald and Galliard last given during the 1726-1727 season. Orpheus and Eurydice (first performed on 24 October 1741) was described in the bills as ‘a New Dramatic Entertainment of Dancing combin’d with a New Pantomime in Grotesque Characters’ in which she danced yet another Nymph. The Royal Chace was a popular pantomime, but according to the newspaper advertisements La Barbarina seems mainly to have performed her most successful entr’acte dances alongside it. Although, on 2 February 1741, she was billed as a Garden Nymph within the cast list and on 6 February the advertisements included ‘a new Dance between a Garden Swain and Nymph’ by her and Desnoyer. In all, she danced within or alongside The Royal Chace at 26 performances during 1740-1741.

How did Barbara Campanini dance in these entr’acte choreographies? In particular, what was it about her style and technique that provoked William Hogarth to depict her as well as Desnoyer so cruelly in his satirical sketch ‘The Charmers of the Age’?

‘The Charmers of the Age’, Richard Livesay after William Hogarth, Wikimedia Commons.

There is a question mark over Hogarth’s sketch, for the original does not survive and we have only an etching made nearly twenty years after the artist’s death. The sketch has been dated to 1742, when La Barbarina and Desnoyer were dancing together in London and Hogarth (presumably) saw them on stage. Although they are depicted side by side, they cannot be said to be dancing a duet for Hogarth shows them in quite different positions. Both are apparently jumping, but in such different styles that it is hard to escape the conclusion that Hogarth was simply exaggerating what he most disliked about their respective techniques.

Although he included the figure of Desnoyer in several other works, this was Hogarth’s only image of La Barbarina. She is shown in the air with her legs in a wide second position, which might relate to the modern step known as pas échappé or she could be executing an entrechat beginning and ending in that position – unless Hogarth was deliberately visualising her in a step from the Italian grottesco tradition that he had seen performed by others. The point of the image is actually the opportunity it provides for an obscene pun, with the artist capitalising on La Barbarina’s virtuosity to achieve this. Hogarth set out his views on dancing in his 1753 treatise An Analysis of Beauty. His preference was for ‘serpentine or waving lines’ rather than the rigidly straight limbs in ‘The Charmers of the Age’. He also gave as his opinion that ‘such uncouth contortions of the body as are allowable in a man would disgust in a woman’, suggesting that his sketch was also intended to reveal La Barberina’s dancing as too expansive and forceful – too masculine – for his taste.

During her career, the ballerina was the subject of several portraits. The best-known of these is probably the full-length, life-size portrait by Antoine Pesne, painted around 1745 not long after she had been engaged to dance for Frederick II in Prussia.

Portrait of Barbarina Campanini by Antoine Pesne. Wikimedia Commons.

La Barbarina is shown dancing in an elaborate dress overlaid with a leopard skin. She holds a tambourine aloft in her left hand and seems to be gesturing to it with her right. Her head is turned slightly to her right although she looks out of the canvas at her audience. Her feet and legs replicate those of La Camargo in Lancret’s famous portrait now in the Wallace Collection in London, although the positions of her arms and upper body differ. Was Pesne making a mute comparison between the two ballerinas, or had Camargo’s pose already been adopted as emblematic of a stage dancer? Apart from the energy and sense of movement in La Barbarina’s figure, Pesne’s portrait only hints at the ‘surprising Agility’ of this Italian prodigy that so disturbed William Hogarth.


1) Information about performances, including quotations, is taken from The London Stage 1660-1800. Part 3: 1729-1747, ed. Arthur H Scouten (Carbondale, 1965), unless otherwise indicated.

2) Moira Goff, ‘Desnoyer, Charmer of the Georgian Age’, Historical Dance, 4.2 (2012), 3-10.

3) For these earlier negotiations, which reveal that La Barberina was to be engaged for two seasons at Covent Garden, see Lowell Lindgren, ‘Musicians and librettists in the correspondence of Gio. Giacomo Zamboni (Oxford, Bodleian Library. MSS Rawlinson Letters 116-138)’, Royal Musical Association Research Chronicle, 1991, No. 24, 1-194 (pp. 175-176).

4) For the additional dances, see under ‘Campanini, Barbara’, in A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, edited by Philip H. Highfill, Kalman A. Burnim and Edward A. Langhans (Carbondale, 1973-1993); also, see under ‘Barbarina, La’ in International Encyclopedia of Dance, edited by Selma Jeanne Cohen (New York, 1998). Study of the musical sources, however places the revisions before Barbarina’s arrival, ‘from 23 June [1739] with rev[ised]. 2nd entrée’; see under ‘Rameau, Jean-Philippe: Works’, by Graham Sadler and Thomas Christensen in Grove Music Online, retrieved 22 December 2021 from

5) Mercure de France, July 1739, p. 1632: ‘la Dlle Barbarina, jeune Danseuse de Parme, qui n’a pas seize ans accomplis, attira un très grand concours, par une Entrée qu’elle dansa avec beaucoup de graces, & plus encore de justesse & de legereté; elle passe l’entre chat à huit avec une vivacité surprenante, & son caractere de danse est dans celui de Mlle Camargo’, ‘qu’elle deviendra une Danseuse du premier ordre, si elle ne l’est déja’. Translations by the author.

6) Mercure de France, August 1739, p. 1850: ‘Ces deux excellens Sujets sont generalement aplaudis par un concours prodigieux: it faut avoüer qu’on n’a peut être encore rien vû, dans ce caractere Pantomime & burlesque, de si surprentant ni de si singulier’.

7) For Italian dancers in London, see Sarah McCleave, ‘Danzatori italiani a Londra nel settecento’, La Danza Italiana 3, ed. José Sasportes (2011), 63-136.

8) Johann Adolf Hasse, The Comic Tunes &c. to the Celebrated Dances. Book I (London, [1741]), pp. 16-21. See also Judith Milhous, ‘Hasse’s “Comic Tunes”: some dancers and dance music on the London stage, 1740-1759’, Dance Research, 2.2 (Summer 1984), 41-55.

9) The ballroom dance Aimable Vainqueur, choreographed by Guillaume-Louis Pecour to music from Campra’s opera Hésione, was first published in Beauchamp-Feuillet notation in 1701. It was regularly republished until 1765 and was often performed at benefit performances in London’s theatres until the 1770s.

10) For a short discussion of the tambourin with references to other accounts of the dance, see Samantha Owens, ‘“Grace, Beauty, and Surprising Agility”: Representations of Barbara Campanini, 1742-1748’, in With a Grace not to be Captured: Representing the Georgian Theatrical Dancer, 1760-1830, ed. Michael Burden and Jennifer Thorp (Turnhout, 2020). Music and Visual Cultures 3, 105-119 (pp. 105-107).

11) Hasse, The Comic Tunes &c. Book II (London, [1741]), pp. 8-9.

12) The attribution to Hogarth is accepted by Ronald Paulson, Hogarth’s Graphic Works (London, 1989), no. 153.

13) For the figure of Desnoyer in ‘The Charmers of the Age’ and other works by Hogarth, see Moira Goff, ‘The Celebrated Monsieur Desnoyer, Part 2: 1734-1742’, Dance Research, 31.1 (2013), 78-93 (pp. 89-90).

14) Raoul Auger Feuillet, Chorégraphie (Paris, 1700), p. 86, ‘Table des Entre-chats et demy Entre-chats’.

15) William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, ed. Ronald Paulson (New Haven, 1997), p. 110.

16) For a survey of the surviving portraits of Barbara Campanini, see Owens, ‘“Grace, Beauty, and Surprising Agility”’, pp. 113-119.


  1. ‘The Charmers of the Age’, caricature of Barbarina Campanini and Desnoyer. Richard Livesay (engraver) after William Hogarth. Published by Richard Livesay [London], 1 March 1782. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.

2) Portrait of Barbarina Campanini by Antoine Pesne (Circa 1745). From the collection at Sans Souci Palace, Potsdam. Photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons, Public domain.

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‘Watching the Nautch Girls of India’, by Aryama Bej, will appear in January 2022.

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Four Weddings and a Funeral at St Paul’s Covent Garden

Mrs Clarissa Wybrow (Miss Blanchet) 1774 – 1826 


‘Mrs. Wybrow, [Charles] Hayter del.  –  [Richard] Cooper sculp’

It is certainly a mark of contemporary celebrity to have had a souvenir image to hand on to future generations, perhaps even more so in dance as it is in large part a visual medium; yet, there are many dancers, even important ones, who were famous in their day but have no identified pictorial remembrance. Mrs Wybrow, the subject of this blog, has a single known image preserved for posterity – though of course somewhere (if it survives) the original miniature by Charles Hayter (from which the engraving was made), may be hiding – and there may of course be further images as yet undiscovered.

Mrs Wybrow made her London debut on 1st July 1787, and in distinguished company: she was billed dancing with James Harvey D’Egville, his younger brother George, and Maria Theresa De Camp the niece of the formidable Madame Simonet, (she who danced Medea for both Vestris and for Noverre). Mrs Wybrow was then a young Miss Blanchet, and if her age (52) is given correctly when she died in 1826,1 she made her debut aged about 12. Since child dancers were generally introduced to the stage at around the age of 5 or 6, Clarissa Blanchet’s debut seems rather late; St Paul’s burial records indicate that she died aged 48, which would place her debut at the more reasonable age of 9 years. Miss Blanchet (sometimes Blanchett) was recorded as the pupil of Peter Daugeville, father of James and George, then Ballet Master at Drury Lane, however she had been formally indentured as an apprentice to Gabriel F Giroux ballet- master of the Theatre Royal Haymarket.2 None of her billing sports the “pupil of ” which commonly advertises a juvenile debut.

Juvenile dancers – often the children of performers – mostly had a direct connection to the theatre in which they performed. The ballet-master would begin their training for the stage and, with his own students, would form both a ready-made juvenile corps de ballet ‘on stage’ (and an informal teaching establishment ‘off’), most of which would be handed on to the new ballet-master when his predecessor moved on. If the juvenile dancer was formally apprenticed, or a private pupil, they would naturally move on with their original master. Private pupils and apprentices would expect to receive training to a professional standard with a percentage (probably a large one) of any salary they might make due to their master whilst under pupillage or indenture. James D’Egville, who brought a bevy of young pupils to any theatre where he was employed, secured by this means a considerable extra income. The other side of this arrangement enabled young dancers to gain stage experience, to say nothing of exposure (both professional, and personal); for any dancer who showed promise there were many opportunities to catch the eye of potential managements, potential husbands or even ‘protectors.’  

In 1788 Clarissa Blanchet danced regularly with the young D’Egvilles and Miss De Camp at Drury Lane, and the following season with James Byrne at Covent Garden. She returned to Drury Lane as a dancer and actress in the winter of 1791, though her role of “Queen of the Amazons” in David Garrick’s ‘dramatic romance’ Cymon may have been more of a mime role.  

Early in her career young Miss Blanchet was taken up by a soldier, one Captain Morris, with whom she lived for some years before her marriage to William Wybrow. For any moderately successful female performer the decision to live with a partner rather than marry them was more often a practical rather than a moral dilemma: the moment any woman married all of her property, including her person, became the absolute property of her husband. On the death of Mr. Wybrow, Clarissa lived with the (notorious) Earl of Craven. She married again on 22nd July 1810 to a Henry Foley of Manchester at St George’s Hanover Square; later (sometime before August 1812 ) she was married again – to an Attorney, called Dobson; and after his demise to a Mr White “whose name she died with.”3 The many gaps in her performance record may indicate a withdrawal from the stage due to marriage; if so, none were of long duration and she was even billed as dancing at the Sans Pareil Theatre on the night before her marriage at St George’s.  

Mrs Wybrow’s subsequent career was as one of the great Columbines of her generation — in the Theatres Royal; on the English Boards (the minor London theatres); and in the many Circuses where pantomimes and ballets were common fare during this period. She is often noticed in newspaper accounts which begin to be more regular and more detailed during her lifetime: 

… [at] the SANS PAREIL THEATRE, in the Stand; and what renders the attraction doubly powerful is the never-to-be-equalled gracefulness of Mrs. Wybrow’s Columbine (Morning Advertiser, Tuesday 28 August 1810).

Outside London Mrs Wybrow’s career is more difficult to follow, and it is possible that she was dancing on the Continent, or closer to home but under a different name. She was certainly dancing in Dublin in 1810 with some of the pupils of her old dancing partner James D’Egville: 

The comic Pantomime of Cattles [Castles?] in the Air succeeded; out is irresistibly laughable, and kept the audience almost in a continued roar. Mrs. Wybrow in Columbine Cowslip, transcends any thing conceived hitherto perhaps in this country of that species of performance. She is the first in her line that has appeared on [the] Dublin stage. Her vivacity, attitudes and agility, excited uncommon admiration and delight (Dublin Evening Post, Tuesday 23 January 1810).

And, later that same year, in Manchester, when she may well have met her second husband: 

Mrs. Wybrow’s Night. Bradbury’s Amphitheatre, Spring Gardens,. MANCHESTER. … In the course of the evening (by particular Desire and for that Night only), Mrs WYBROW will dance her admired Broad Sword Hornpipe, as originally danced by her at the Theatre Royal Covent Garden (Manchester Mercury, Tuesday 29 May 1810).

Off stage she was also recorded as “having run a respectable lodging house in Villiers Street, Strand.”4 Shortly before her death, the former Mrs Wybrow was living on Finchley Common, travelling to her London home in Tavistock Row (by Covent Garden Market) for medical treatment where she died. Her remains were buried on the 6th of July 1826 only a few yards from her home in the yard of St Paul’s Covent Garden – ‘The Actors Church.’   

From an ‘Opera Centric’ point of view Clarissa Wybrow (née Blanchet) could be considered a minor player in 18th and 19th century dance – but her celebrity during her lifetime is clear and the legacy of her Columbine – particularly in partnering James Byrne’s pivotal Harlequin – set a standard for dancing in the wide range of venues in which contemporary audiences could always be sure to find dancing of the first quality. 


1) The Examiner, Sunday 30 July 1826.

2) Indenture payment recorded (Middlesex) on 3rd November 1785.

3) Obituary, Oxford University and City Herald, 29 July 1826.

4) Obituary, Oxford University and City Herald, 29 July 1826.


First print: Published by E. Orme. 30th March 1808; second print: Published by John Bell Southampton Street, Strand. March 1st 1813. 

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Moira Goff’s post on Barbarina Campanini will appear on 24th December 2021.

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Three’s a crowd: Mlle Parisot part 2


James Gillray, ‘Modern Grace, or the operatically finale to Alonzo e Cora’. From the New York Public Library,

In spring 1796 Parisot continued to attract interest, not only for her own comely person, but for her relationships with others. James Gillray’s print as shown above depicts (from left to right) Madame Rose Didelot, Charles-Louis Didelot, and Parisot in the finale to the King’s Theatre’s May 1796 production of Alonso e Cora (chor. Giacomo Onorati).

This print is a caricature on several levels; first, let’s consider the movement style of the dancers. Rose Didelot, described in one source as the ‘last of the old school, la belle ecole de VESTRIS’ (1), is depicted in a relatively upright pose reminiscent of the noble style. Parisot – described as offering ‘less formal graces’ (2) – is seen in a more extended attitude. But it is the dynamic between the dancers that is the actual focus of the caricature. Mme Didelot’s husband is orientated completely towards the younger dancer, with his hand and foot forming a suggestive frame that points to Parisot’s genital region. Parisot’s head is inclined flirtatiously towards Didelot while Mme Didelot looks on in evident disapproval. The exposure of one of Parisot’s breasts was a comment on her scanty costumes, which weren’t necessarily of her choice. The perhaps too acute Gillray adroitly portrays a dynamic.

Despite the very public nature of this pictorial comment, no crisis was reported regarding the Didelots’ marriage, and all three dancers returned to the King’s Theatre in autumn 1796. In May 1797 the King’s Theatre staged a new ballet, Sappho and Phaon, that can in retrospect be considered another document in the story of this ‘love triangle’. Didelot is advertised as the choreographer, and is clearly credited as the creator in the published scenario (3). In this publication, Didelot himself describes the mythical story of Sappho:

The celebrated Sappho left nothing to posterity but a few pieces of poetry … We only learn that she loved Phaon, and that he was ungrateful; left her for one of her pupils; returned to her more through pride than love, and abandoned her once more– that she followed him even to Sicily, and that, unable to gain his heart, she threw herself into the deep from the rock of Leucate (4).

Didelot saw fit to cast his wife as the unloved Sappho, and himself as the ‘ungrateful’ Phaon. He used the Advertisement of the ballet scenario to point out that he decided to make the mythically beautiful Sappho ugly, in order to highlight the moral allegory in his imagined denouement, and to render Sappho ‘more interesting [and] to show the goodness of her heart’ (4). Quite.

In another flash of gifted casting, Parisot featured as the goddess of love Venus; her character was moved to tutor the famously beautiful Phaon in the arts of love in the opening scene. Indeed, the scenario afforded the character of Phaon the opportunity to make love to each of three female leads (the third was one of the Hilligsbergs) during the course of the ballet – hence its title-page designation as a ‘ballet érotique’. And while Sappho is offered the chance of revenge under Venus’s protection in Didelot’s dénouement, we might wish to note that she explicitly rejects the possibility of Phaon’s death, or even the milder punishment that he be rendered ugly. One can appreciate the appeal of a ballet where a philandering lover meets no consequences for Monsieur Didelot. And who can blame a man who would stray from an ugly partner? This piece of art was mirroring life all too closely, for by August both the Courier (8 August) and Observer (13 August) breathlessly reported:

There has been a fracas between some of the dancers at the Haymarket, on account of an illicit pas de deux. The enchantress was none other than the divine Parisot; and of the forsaken one it may be said, in the phrase of Shakespeare:

Against the blown Rose

They do stop their nose,

That kneel’d unto the buds.

Within days, Parisot is reported as returning to the continent (Morning Chronicle 16 August 1797). When the non-renewal of her contract was announced, the True Briton (18 November 1797) declared that the ‘gratification of the public’ was not taken into account, revealing that Parisot, ‘the greatest attraction of last year’, had offered ‘her services’ for the coming season. The choice of language here (gratification, services) is suggestive, although not as overtly so as this grotesque anticipation of Parisot’s marriage that was published during the performance run of Didelot’s ‘ballet érotique’:

Madame PARISOT is going to enter into the holy state of Matrimony before next winter. She will be able to exhibit some new motions and attitudes (5).

The reception of this young dancer in words and images during her first stint in London reveals some troubling trends in then-current attitudes towards young, nubile female dancers. Parisot was fodder for the press and the caricaturists, an objectified body for elderly peers of the realm to covet, and a pliant conquest for an older, married colleague. And it was she who took the rap for their affair, being obliged to leave a position upon which she and her family were financially dependent. #MeToo. #Parisot. To be continued.


  1. ‘London’, St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post 4-6 May 1797. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection. Gale.
  2. True Briton 29 May 1797. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection. Gale.
  3. True Briton 5 May 1797. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection. Gale. See also C.L. Didelot. 1797. Sapho & Phaon: grand ballet erotique, en quatre actes. Composé par M. Didelot. Et donné pour la Iere fois sur le Théâtre du Roi, Hay-Market, le 6 avril 1797. La musique composée par M. Mazzinghi. Les décorations par M. Greenwood. Les habits par M. Sestini. De l’imprimerie de Baylis , 15, Greville Street, Holborn. Se trouve chez A. Dulau and Co. Wardour – Street. Soho. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
  4. Didelot, ‘Advertisement.’
  5. Morning Post (London), 16 May 1797. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection. Gale.


Modern grace, or the operatical finale to the ballet of Alonzo e Caro [sic]; [London], H. Humphrey, 1796 / J[ames] G[illra]y d[elineavit] et f[ecit. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. (1796 – 1840). Irina Baronova collection of dance prints Retrieved from Accessed 23 October 2021.

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The first of a pair of posts on the dancer Hester Santlow, by Moira Goff, will appear on 10th November.

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Body on Show: Mlle Rose Parisot part 1

Sarah McCleave

Mlle Rose Parisot (1777?-after 1837) was a young French dancer whose reception in London is well documented in the contemporary press, and also through satirical prints as well as two portraits. From her King’s Theatre début in February 1796 she attracted attention for her looks and the physicality of her movement, as this Morning Chronicle review (10 Feb. 1796) reveals:

Madamoiselle PARISOT, a new dancer from Paris … is a most beautiful figure, about 18 years of age, and with a face full of expression. A little divertissement has been got up to introduce her to the public, and she displayed powers in the grand character extremely striking. Her attitudes are graceful, her step firm, her balance is positively magical, for her person was almost horizontal while turning as on a pivot on her toe. From the specimen of last night, she is a great acquisition to the Theatre; and if her talent for acting be equal to her dancing and figure, they will be able to give us ballets in good style.

Parisot had previously served as première danseuse in Rouen and had also danced in Paris (2). Press reports in London suggest that she was obliged to become professional through the events of the French Revolution (3), further indicating that she supported her mother and a sister. There’s no sense, however, that she enjoyed any familial protection, or indeed that she had any valuable guidance or support during what would prove to be a turbulent career for this young foreign dancer. The Morning Chronicle review touches on two issues that would dominate her reception: her beautiful figure, and the unusual attitude she introduced to the London stage. Towards the end of her first London season we are told ‘Parisot, the beautiful Parisot, captivates, by her curvets and her attitudes, all the hearts in Fop’s Alley’ (4). Her winning combination of curves and poses stimulated strong responses from a certain kind of theatre spectator.

Richard Newton, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This blog post reproduces two satirical prints of Parisot’s spectators (5). Above we have Newman’s print, which shows Parisot being ogled by the then 72-year-old William Douglas, 4th Duke of Queensberry. It’s likely the cleric pictured is Shute Barrington, Bishop of Durham, who openly censored the immorality of current stage practices. Below we have Isaac Cruickshank’s ‘A Peep at the Parisot – with Q in the Corner’. So once again the faithful Duke of Queensbury – an inveterate gambler popularly known as ‘Old Q’ – is in attendance. As the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (5 May 1796) reported, ‘the Duke of QUEENSBERRY looks not at any other garter than that appertaining to the enchanting leg of PARISOT’. The experienced satirist Cruickshank focuses on those enchanting legs, the outline of which can be appreciated underneath Parisot’s costume. By drawing the opening in her skirt – a detail we don’t have in the Newman – Cruickshank brings a greater immediacy to the scenario. We apprehend the young dancer’s level of exposure without seeing beneath the skirt ourselves.

Isaac Cruikshank, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

While the furore that Parisot’s attitudes caused was a lively enough introduction to the London theatre scene, she had to cope with an even more significant scandal the following season.

To be continued.


1) ‘Arts and Culture.’ Morning Chronicle [1770], 10 Feb. 1796. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection, Gale Primary Resources, accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

2) The Biographical Dictionary of Actors indicates Parisot’s pre-London experience; for a most interesting blog that includes some detail about her press coverage from the age of 14, see Naomi Clifford, ‘Mademoiselle Parisot’s shocking pirouettes put London in a spin’, in Books and Talks (blog), 10 Sept. 2018., accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

3) ‘News.’ Oracle, 18 Aug. 1796. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection, Gale Primary Resources, accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

4) ‘News.’ Sun, 9 June 1796. Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection, Gale Primary Resources, accessed 26 Sept. 2021.

5) For further on these men, and the notion that they are the object of the satire rather than the dancer, see Caitlyn Lehmann, ‘Madame Rose Parisot, “Attitudinarian”‘, in vintage pointe (blog), no date., accessed 26 September 2021.


  1. Richard Newton. 1796. ‘Madamoiselle Parisot.’ London: William Holland. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Accessed 21 April 2021. 
  2. Issac Cruikshank (artist). 1796. ‘A Peep at the Parisot with Q in the Corner.’ London: S.W. Fores. Accessed 21 April 2021.

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“Three’s a Crowd,” a continuation of the account of Mlle. Parisot’s London reception, will appear on 10 October.

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The reputation of Nancy Dawson part 2


It was words that were later set to her hornpipe tune that led to Nancy Dawson’s posthumous reputation.  In the eighteenth-century it became a popular and innocuous ballad tune, used for numerous new sets of words, satirical, political, amorous, Masonic and commercial, as well as for airs in musical pieces for the theatre.  The tune also became popular among sailors, being used in the navy to call the men for their ration of grog (7), and was used for shanties, some of course indecent.  The tune was also used for the bawdy song ‘Nancy Dawson was a whore’ in which Nancy entertains sailors of every age and rank from a midshipman to the commodore.  We have been unable to trace this song in print before its appearance in Nancy Dawson’s Cabinet of Choice Songs [1842?], where it is headed ‘a very celebrated and out-and-out ditty, not to be had in any other collection’ (8).  (No other song in the book has anything to do with Nancy Dawson.)  Several of the correspondents to Notes and Queries in the nineteenth century appear to have been familiar with this song.  For instance, in April 1876, J. Standish Haly remembered it ‘being sung with “rapturous applause” when he was a boy at the Royal Naval College, and he added ‘The Memoirs of Miss N— D— must refer to some one else’.  Between 1866 and 1958, various writers to Notes and Queries believed that the first eight lines of  the indecent song were engraved on her tombstone, before being obliterated or hidden by a later rector. Surprisingly, Nancy Dawson’s supposed tombstone continues to affect her reputation, for the final sentence of her current Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry states: ‘The size and prominence of her tombstone have prompted speculation about liaisons in her later years’.  This statement is taken from the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, for in 1966 one of the editors visited the site of her burial, now St George’s Gardens, and was spun a yarn by the ground keeper that the largest monument in the garden, a six metres high obelisk, was her memorial (9).  The enormous obelisk in fact dates from 1729, two years after she was born (10).  

The obelisk wrongly associated with Nancy Dawson. Photo: Wilson.

It is ironic that Nancy Dawson would not have a modern reputation, good or bad, were it not for writings about her long after her death.  Her undoubted skill as a hornpipe dancer would merit only limited coverage in modern reference books, her entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Actors would be shorter and she would almost certainly not have been allocated an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.


 7) Dear, I. C. B., 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!

9) Burnim, Kalman A. ‘Nancy Dawson’s tombstone’, Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, First series, 5.1 (1966), 59.

10) She was almost certainly born in Axminster, Devon, where Ann, daughter of William Newton, was baptized on 27 January 1727.  See: Chapman, Geoffrey, A History of Axminster to 1910 (Honiton: Marwood, 1998), 135-6. 

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24th September, Mademoiselle Parisot Part 1

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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.

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‘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.


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