circles of purchasable beauty

Sophia Baddeley (1745-1783) was a celebrated actress and courtesan.


In 1764, Sophia eloped with Robert Baddeley, a Drury Lane theater player almost twice her age. The marriage was not a happy one, but Robert Baddeley recognized an opportunity when a rich Jewish friend of his approached him about becoming involved with Sophia. Robert encouraged her to accept, saying that such rich friends were not to be slighted.

Rich but definitely not Friendly

Most scholars record Sophia’s first acting gig as her 1764 role as an understudy for the role of Cordelia in King Lear; when the lead was unable to perform, Sophia Baddeley played the part. However, she’d never actually seen the play, and upon seeing the actor playing Mad Tom she was so afraid she screamed and fell over. The audience was immediately emotionally drawn to her, and thus began Britain’s love affair with Sophia Baddeley.

Not this Mad Tom

As a courtesan, Sophia Baddeley was renowned for her beauty. One of Sophia’s many paramours, the Duke of Ancaster, compared her eyes to that of the basilisk. “Absolutely one of the wonders of the age. No man can gaze on you unwounded…whose eyes kill those whom they fix on.” In 1771 Samuel Foote opened his satirical comedy The Maid of Bath at the Haymarket. The playwright himself acting in the play extemporized, “Not even the beauty of the nine Muses, nor even that of the divine Baddeley herself, who there sits, could exceed that of the Maid of Bath.” Upon remarking on Sophia’s magnificence, he pointed to where she sat in a theater seat, and she stood, bowing. Twenty five minutes and three encores later she finally sat back down.

more amazing eyes here

Most women who were in “circles of purchasable beauty” were all the rage for a short time before their popularity waned. Sophia Baddeley’s rampant desirability and vogue as a top courtesan only lasted from 1771-1774. Her extravagance makes one gasp: she spent the modern equivalent of £200 a day on hothouse flowers, a quarter of a million on diamonds, and thousands a month on hats and linen. A present from Lord Melbourne for the equivalent of £3,000 would last her barely four days. But then with sex with this gentleman Sophia had much to endure. “Lord Melbourne bored Sophia, she often had a headache which mysteriously disappeared as soon as he was gone.”

flowers found here

Sophia’s memoirs were penned by her lifelong friend and companion, Mrs. Eliza Steele. Eliza was noted to wear men’s clothing and declared that she had fallen in love with her. To protect Sophia, she also carried a pair of pistols. Today, there is much speculation over whether there was any erotic or sexual relationship between Steele and Baddeley.

Girls’ Rifle Team found here

Her husband, Robert, is remembered for something other than his love life.

In his will Baddeley bequeathed £650 towards the maintenance of decrepit actors. He also left £100, invested at 3% per annum, to provide for a twelfth night cake to be supplied to the Drury Lane cast in his memory. This sum covered the provision of a good quantity of ‘lamb’s wool’, wine with baked apple dissolving in it to give a woolly texture, but that part of the tradition seems to have gone by the wayside.


Many years ago, the New York Times reported on one such celebration here:

Oscar Wilde, in conventional evening dress, apologises to young Tennyson, a handsome bright faced youth, as he pushes by him to make a place for Jennie Lee. Oscar has grown stout and looks domestic.


The curtain rises on a stage with a small white table in the centre and long white tables on either side. Banks of crystal glasses glitter and the dark green bottles of champagne have a cool inviting look. Mr Fernandez, custodian of the Drury Lane fund, takes up a Damoscletian sword and holds it over the large round white cake with red and green icing.

Endless bottles of champagne flow like water, their consumption greatly disproportionate with the cotelettes de homard, foie gras and other delicacies. The dance begins. It is a gay scene, very gay, and it rapidly grows gayer and gayer. The theatre rings with laughter and music and the popping of more champagne corks. Not until the yellow sun is beginning its daily struggle with the London mist do the guests go forth to slumber more or less disturbed by memories of the Baddeley cake.

image by Dav Thomas

Published in: on December 19, 2010 at 8:08 am  Comments (34)  
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34 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “No man can gaze on you unwounded…whose eyes kill those whom they fix on” ….. I know the feeling …. the TG has sisters …… and cousins. Reminds me of Carmen Jones ……

    Oscar looks quite manly in that piccy …….

    • Manly yet domesticated!

      • I think Caroline Lamb said he was “mad,bad and dangerous to know.”
        Probably what made him so fascinating!

      • I think Caroline Lamb said that about Lord Byron – but it could apply equally well to Oscar

  2. Robert was right about not slighting rich friends. I remember one year when Rupert Murdock demanded a virgin as a blood sacrifice at one of my Christmas parties and…. well, what are you going to do?

    And that’s what really happened to Leona Helmsley.

    Hope you had fun and I can’t wait to see pics…

    • I didn’t take my camera with me, but queenwilly took hers. She might put up a post about the food we cooked if you ask her nicely

  3. Eliza and Sophia must have had a little thing going.
    Oscar in a frock, okey dokey.

    • I think he suits a frock 😉

  4. Unfortunately she died at a young age when the propmaster holding the heavy curtain grew weary after her 20th encore and dropped it on her head.

    • Well, 38 is very young…..

  5. This is just chock full of neat things, NM! I love the links to the eyes and the photography exhibition. I think I’ll probably spend a lot of time over at the DIY site as well!

    I find it interesting that at one time a woman could be feted and applauded to 20 encores for simply spending time (and other things) with men. Nowadays, sex is seen so much as a common commodity given away on a whim and expected to be given away because it has little value to so many people, that encores for being an accomplished beauty and courtesan would probably never happen.

    • I’m glad you like the links Nicole, I love the moon in the mist image

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Croke. Stephen Croke said: circles of purchasable beauty « gimcrack hospital (PG) […]

  7. Another classic! I’m beginning to get the hang of these!

  8. I’ve always considered doughnuts to be “circles of purchasable beauty”. I’m sure Homer would agree with me.

    • I know plenty of people who would agree with you Kyk

  9. Bukowski has a great poem about how a man should be wary of a woman if all she’s ever been in life is beautiful. Beauty is quite a dangerous commodity!

    • I’d rather be thought of as funny and interesting than beautiful

  10. These days we rely on Hollywood action movies for the maintenance of decrepit actors.

  11. I’m wondering how much of a compliment “basilisk” is. Steele and Baddeley sounds like a rustic olde worlde hardware store.

  12. Pistol-packing lesbians… that sounds like a great movie idea.

    • If you write the script, daisyfae and I want roles

  13. no talent or skill required for the beautiful. show up, perform badly, and the crowd goes wild… some things haven’t changed!

  14. Glad to see you back from your hols.

  15. I was starting to get worried about you in the absence of posts. Anyone named Sophia is off to a good start in life–it’s such a beautiful name. One of my faves.

  16. I like the Tom Cruise picture.

  17. Merry Christmas to you babe

    • Thanks Sabrina, so sorry about your dog.

  18. Maybe it isn’t the nasty modern tabloids that turn celebs into ex-celebs. Even in the late 18th century Sophia’s desirability waned after only three years….

    Today’s celebs certainly take after Sophia when it comes to wild and breathtaking extravagance.

  19. You know, people say that about my beauty as well. At least I say that about my beauty.

  20. so you’ve got killer eyes?

  21. thanks for post !!!

  22. […] circles of purchasable beauty « gimcrack hospital (PG) […]

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