circles of purchasable beauty

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

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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.

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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.

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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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