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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pearls before frogs

Escoffier once prepared a special dish, “Nymphs’ Thighs”, for Nellie Melba, Lily Langtry, the Prince of Wales and Duc d’Orleans. The recipe called for frogs’ legs poached in a court-bouillon with white wine and placed on a layer of champagne jelly with chervil and tarragon leaves between the legs to resemble grass.

image by Milanko

The Prince travelled to Paris, where a far more daring dish was served. When the lid of an enormous tray was raised, there lay before him the celebrated courtesan Cora Pearl, naked save for sprigs of parsley and a rope of pearls.

Coral Pearl

Cora fancied herself as a singer and dancer and often supplemented the income from her wealthy clients with theatrical performances.

“Cora’s artistic rebirth on the Paris stage was a breath of spring for a country anxious about the possibility of war. Determined at last to be seen as an artist, and not merely as a hard working woman, Cora spared no expense, and emerged on the stage in a very provocative costume that left little to the imagination. She had learned from the Italian Masters that there was nothing shameful about the human form, as long as it was exposed for noble purposes. Accentuating the outfit was a pair of boots that caused a gasp of astonishment in the crowded theater. Knee high, they were buttoned with diamonds the size of easter eggs, and the soles were encrusted with more precious stones from toe to heel. One nobleman, a Count, was seized by the desire to own them, and offered 50,000 francs for the chance – twice that if Cora would wear them when she relinquished possession. Though nothing is known of the outcome of this transaction, the evidence will show that Cora was always malleable when it came to men, and quite probably acquiesced to his request, if only so as not to hurt his feelings.


Cora was the trendsetter of 1860s France. Whatever she did, the nation followed. One day, in a lighted-hearted moment of whimsy, she dyed her hair to match the upholstery of her carriage, and the women of France followed suit. She had learned of a cunning make-up house in London, and began to have silver and crushed pearl face powders sent from across the Channel. She even shocked Parisian sensibilities by browning herself in the summer months, something unheard of at the time.

match your rocking horse’s hair to your own

When the Franco-Prussian War begun Cora proved her mettle, and a heroism unparalleled in the history of high society was revealed for the world to see. She turned her largest house into a hospital for officers, ripping apart her curtains and table linens to make bandages for wounded officers.

Torn Curtain by Robert Pyle

After the war ended, Cora attempted to pick up the pieces of her life. One man, Alexander Duval, harassed her constantly. He threw so much money at her that she didn’t know what to do. She tried to make him understand that she could never love him but he pulled out a gun and shot himself on her doorstep.

So overcome was she that she quite forgot to summon help, naturally thinking that others, too, had heard the shot and would do so. At her first social engagement after the shooting, she was stunned to realize that gossips were saying that she had left Mr. Duval to die on her steps, out of a cold-hearted indifference to his plight.

She was forced to sell her possessions and move to a shabby rooming house, where she died in 1886.

Instead of a sad, lonely farewell from a society that had used her and cast her aside, Cora’s funeral was a fairy-tale event organised by a mysterious benefactor, who paid anonymously for the largest, most lavish burial that France had ever seen

image (2010) here

Published in: on October 26, 2010 at 7:29 am  Comments (36)  
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