Mrs Clarissa Wybrow (Miss Blanchet) 1774 – 1826
BY KEITH CAVERS
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.
Moira Goff’s post on Barbarina Campanini will appear on 24th December 2021.