The Simsbury Room (above) is a very small room located on the 8th floor in the main house, off of Spatterware Hall and near an amazing collection of children's toys (below).
Installed in 1940, the wooden interiors and fireplace tiles came from a house that once stood at 570 Hopmeadow Street in Simsbury, Connecticut (Springman & Lahue 2011, 41). The house was built around 1765 by a Thomas Berber. It was dismantled in 1925 after the death of its last owner. This is the first time I have been able to trace any set of tiles back to their original location!
The tiles in the Simsbury Room are red enamel transfer-printed tin-glaze earthenware tiles from Liverpool. They were manufactured by Sadler and Green from approximately 1777 to 1780. The images on the tiles were taken from prints found in various publications including Bell's Shakespeare and Bell's British Theatre. Both publications featured the most popular plays of the late 1700s alongside prints of iconic actors and actresses.
The actors and actresses pictured were not all contemporaries, even though they are all dressed in clothing typical of the late 18th century. All of the actors and actresses performed in London, especially in the theatre districts of Covent Garden and Haymarket from the 1670s-1770s.
The set in the Simsbury Room does not include the entire set of actors and actress tiles. More examples in both red and black transfer print can be found in museums around the world (below). There are however very few examples of actor/actress tiles installed in fireplaces in historic houses.
The men and women pictured on the tiles represent the most famous actors and actresses of the late 17th to late 18th centuries. While all of their stories are fascinating, I will briefly discuss four of the most famous in their day--whose stories may or may not have stood the test of time.
Elizabeth Barry (1658-1713) was one of the most famous actresses of the Restoration theatre renaissance in London. Theatre had been banned by Cromwell's puritanical Republic (1640-1660), but was restored by the "Merrie Monarch," Charles II in 1660 when he was restored to the throne.
Another change in theatrical conventions, women rather than teenage boys played female roles on-stage. In this tile, Barry plays the character of Sir Henry Wildair, a so-called "pants" or "breeches" role in which a woman played a young male character. This practice is especially common in operas with mezzo-sopranos often portraying teenage boys for comic effect.
Barry was the lover of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester--one of Charles II's closest friends. Their story is the focus of a current production of The Libertine at the Royal Haymarket Theatre in London. Though contemporaries apparently regarded Barry as "the ugliest Woman" in real life, they promulgated she was "the finest Woman in the World upon the Stage." (A Comparison Between the Two Stages, 1702).
Macklin appears on two tiles in the Simsbury fireplace. On the left he is in the character of Sir Gilbert Wrangle from The Refusal by Colley Cibber. On the right he portrays his iconic role as Shylock, which made him a household name. King George II even apparently lost sleep over Macklin's especially dark and evil interpretation of the moneylender.
Samuel Foote (1720-1777) was an acting student of Charles Macklin's. In his 40s he lost a leg in a riding accident. Though he still continued to act, he primarily focused his efforts into being the producer and eventual owner of the Haymarket Theatre. He also wrote biting satire of his contemporaries, earning the moniker "The English Aristophenes," after the Athenian comic playwright.
In the tile above he plays the rather dubiously named "Fondlewife" from William Congreve's The Old Bachelor.
Finally, Mary Ann Yates (née Graham, 1728-1787) was considered the premiere British dramatic actress from shortly after her debut in the 1750s until she retired at 55. According to contemporaries, she was also a first class diva, often showing up late to rehearsals
On the tiles above, she is pictured as Lady Townley from Sir John Vanburgh's The Provok'd Husband and as Jane Shore, one of the many mistresses of Edward IV of England, in Nicholas Rowe's Jane Shore.
Thanks for checking back! Be sure to check Twitter for updates under #WeirdTileoftheDay and #WeirdTileWednesday. Tune in next week for a brief update on some of the treatments I've been working on (preview below). :)
For more information see:
Encyclopedia Britannica for biographical information about the actors listed above.
Springman, Mary Jane and Lahue, Alan, 2011. Images of America: Simsbury. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing.
Winterthur Postgraduate Fellow in Objects Conservation