Sarah Siddons, the eldest child of Roger Kemble, manager of a small travelling theatre company, was born on 5 July 1755 at the Shoulder of Mutton public-house, Brecon. As a child, she frequently performed as an actress in her father's company alongside her brothers, John Philip (see lot 43), Stephen and Charles, who were also to become well-known actors. In 1773, she married a fellow actor in her father's troupe, William Siddons, and together they travelled the country performing in a variety of shows. The celebrated actor, David Garrick (1717-1779), heard of her promise and persuaded the King to see her in the Fair Penitent. In 1775-76, she was engaged by Garrick at Drury Lane, however, it was not until her performance as Isabella in the Fatal Marriage at that theatre in 1782, that she achieved recognition for her acting ability. Over the next few years she established a reputation as a great tragic heroine, famed for her interpretation of roles such as Lady Macbeth, Euphrasia in the Grecian Daughter, and Belvidera in the Fair Pentitent, and was appointed reader to the Royal Princesses by the Queen. Her portrait was painted by the leading artists of the day including Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence. She retired in 1812, died in 1831, and was buried in St. Mary's Church, Paddington.
In this picture, a reduced version of Hamilton's portrait exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1780, Siddons is playing the part of Euphrasia in Arthur Murphy's (1727-1805) play The Grecian Daughter, the tragedy based on the classical story of Valerius Maximus, about the filial piety of the daughter who breast-fed her father in prison. The pose is taken from her famous scene in Act II of the play when Euphrasia exclaimed,
'And dost thou then, inhuman that thus art,
Advise a wretch like me to know repose.'
William Hamilton, born in London in 1751, the son of one of Robert Adam's assistants, was sent when very young to Rome where he studied under Antonio Zucchi before returning to London and the Royal Acdemy Schools by 1769. He exhibited portraits and subjects at the Royal Academy from 1774 to 1801. Hamilton's most interesting work pertains to theatre, he painted twenty-three large pictures for John Boydell's Shakespeare's Gallery and a large number of theatrical portraits including John Philip Kemble as Richard III (exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1788) and many of Sarah Siddons.