‘She was remarkably great, both as a mimic and actress’
This autumn (2011) the National Portrait Gallery in London will hold an exhibition celebrating the first actresses of the English stage. Perhaps the NPG will display the portrait of the fabulous Mrs Wilson painted in the 1780s by American artist Gilbert Stuart? It has hardly been seen since it was exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1783 and so I have no expectation that I will be able to view it, however I live in hope.
Ever since I began researching the life of Abraham Adcock and looking at other Adcocks working in the London theatres I have been fixated with the actress and singer Mrs Wilson (seen left as Polly Honeycombe). She was known as the most notorious actress of her era, described as petite, very pretty, finely proportioned with fair skin and golden locks, she must have been captivating. These attributes, along with her charisma and feisty disposition made her irresistible to men.
Her numerous affairs were naturally frowned upon and Tate Wilkinson writing after her early death judged that she threw away her ‘excellent talents’ and was ‘past reclaiming’, famously commenting she ‘died a martyr to her own folly’. Wilkinson seemed to believe that her early death was a consequence of her sins.
Anthony Pasquin was more sympathetic, writing that ‘She was mown in the bloom, like a rose in its prime‘. She was thirty-four. Her age is based on speculation from contemporary obituaries, but despite apocryphal accounts of her early life and confusion over her identity, it can be said with some certainty that her death occurred in January 1787 at Oswestry. There was an eyewitness, an old friend called Lieutenant John Agnew Connell of the 38th Marines who had taken the hastily prepared Will from under her pillow and completed the last eight lines as she dictated them, sitting beside her in sadness, witnessing her sudden decline and her fast demise.
Without him she would have been alone. She had left her daughter Maria Campbell with an acquaintance in Liverpool and had bequeathed to her a chest full of letters and a bond; strict instructions were sent, Maria you must burn all the contents of the chest except the money.
Mrs Delany, the creator of the Flora Delanica issued a similar request to her sister Anne, but Anne ignored the instruction and surreptitiously secreted the letters in a safe place. We are of course grateful for that.
It seems evident that Maria obeyed her mother and destroyed the letters, denying us any insight into Sarah Wilson’s world from her viewpoint rather than through the eyes of her detractors. In all likelihood the letters contained details of her affair with Lord Hinchingbrooke or another high profile conquest. Perhaps there was an account of the occasion she punched and knocked down in the green room her lover John Henry Johnstone; an episode for which she was described as ‘well known in the dramatic sphere to be a striking wit’.
She has managed to confound her biographers, though through no fault of her own. It would be simpler if there had been only one ‘Mrs Wilson, actress’ instead of four or five, but Sarah can usually be separated from the others by the approbation bestowed upon her. And in a similar fashion to the basic biography and facts regarding Abraham Adcock, we can be grateful to the researchers and writers of A Biographical Dictionary of Actors (Highfill et al) for ploughing through the playbills and researching her career.
For American scholars interested in early theatre history she is of some significance. She was probably born in Williamsburg, VA or New York City circa. 1752 to Drury Lane actor William Adcock and his wife Mary when they were touring with the famous Hallam Company.
The family returned to England about 1760 and after two years at the Crow-street theatre, Dublin murmurs of Sarah Adcock’s talent spread after she began performing little scenes and satirical pieces:
“FOR THREE NIGHTS ONLY… On MONDAY next, the 25th April, A satryical Lecture on HEARTS, With PROLOGUE, Will be delivered by Miss ADCOCK, Who performed last Season at Bath, and has exhibited it 3 months in Dublin, with universal Approbation”.
By 1773 she was married to Mr Weston a Liverpool tradesman with whom she is known to have had one child, but by 1775 she had deserted him to live with the actor Richard Wilson. Their relationship lasted until about 1786 when Sarah took up with a surgeon, a Lord and Johnstone the actor; the latter ruling ‘her with severity, it is well known he never advanced a shilling towards her support’. In her obituary, The Town and Country magazine wrote that by the autumn of 1786 she was already in sharp decline.
It is possible to list all of her roles and appearances, but more prudent to highlight two of her most famous characterisations by the virtue of her reviews. In 1777 she appeared at Covent Garden in The Country Wife:
‘COVENT GARDEN’ – The COUNTRY WIFE, altered from Wycherly, was represented at this theatre. We mention it only to take notice of a Mrs. Wilson, who came out in the character of the Country Wife; and to affirm, that if her abilities be as general, as they are genuine, she will prove in the low walks of comedy, in the first instance, one of the best actresses that has appeared these twenty years on a London stage’.
The London magazine, or, Gentleman’s monthly intelligencer, Volume 46, 1777
By Isaac Kimber, Edward Kimber
Four years later, she was the sensation of 1781 performing the part of Filch the pickpocket in The Beggar’s Opera:
‘Mrs. Wilson, the arch, comical little creature, nick-named, from the colour of her locks, the Goldfinch, presented in Filch the perfect personification of a handy, expert pickpocket, and the genuine manners of a well-plumed Newgate bird. So complete was the representation, that I remember hearing a lady remark that, if she saw such a fellow near her in the street, she should not require the admonition of a Bow-street officer to ‘take care of her pockets.’—Ladies wore pockets in those days’.
Memoirs of John Bannister
In his book Their majesties’ servants: annals of the English stage, Volume 2 the author Dr. Doran writes ‘Mrs. Wilson, the original Betty Hint, in the “Man of the World,” is not now remembered either for her genius or her errors’. We have to wonder why the name Sarah Maria Wilson is not remembered in the same breath as Sarah Siddons, Elizabeth Inchbald and Dorothy Jordan?
There are a number of possible reasons why she is no longer remembered. Maybe it is because she left no letters or memoirs or because her career was relatively short? In the words of one eighteenth century (male) commentator, perhaps her industry was not equal to her natural ability and ‘negligence brought her into disrepute’? Whatever the reasons, the National Portrait Gallery exhibition is unlikely to feature a portrait of Sarah Maria Wilson, aka Sally the Small, aka the Goldfinch aka the Yellowhammer, but perhaps when we visit and we pass those extolled women: Farren, Robinson, Siddons, Inchbald and Jordan we will remember Sarah and in our own minds add her name to that celebrated list.
MJ Holman @mishjholman