Tag Archives: Dion Boucicault

An actor’s life for me: Lena Ashwell

The first time I read the name Lena Ashwell was in connection with a production in 1902 of the Japan-set drama The Darling of the Gods. The second time I came across her was on a walk through 1970s Westbourne Grove  where I encountered the former home of her troupe the Century Players. And then of course there was the role of the Lena Ashwell Players in entertaining troops in the Great War. So it became inevitable there would be a blog post about her. I’ve found this before. A person who seemed obscure or forgotten turns out to have a rich and fascinating history. (And why hadn’t I heard of them before?)  I found so many pictures I decided to concentrate on her pre-war career this time

The director Herbert Beerbohm Tree took Lena to dinner with our friend Yoshio Markino to get some advice on turning Japanese for the part of Yosan.

Darling of the Gods with Beerbohm Tree - Copy

She writes in her memoirs: “The movements and manners and make-up were taught to us by the most attractive and gentle of mankind , Yoshio Markino. Having read of the vegetarian diet and generally small demands of the highly evolved, I watched with envy and admiration that he had only a glass of milk for his lunch….Until I read his book on his life I had no idea that he was starving and that the one glass of milk was all he could buy. Pride may sometimes seem foolishness to the practical, but at the same time it is wise.”

She also says that Tree had not wanted her in the part and that it was the author David Belasco who had insisted on her. Experiences like this may have been the deciding factor in her becoming an actor-manager as she did for her  next project. But before all that she was a promising young actress in the late 19th century….

Rosamund in Sowing the wind 1894

As part of George Alexander’s company she appeared in a play called Sowing the wind in which she understudied the lead to begin with but later took over as a leading lady on a tour. In Ireland during winter the stages were very cold. “Sowing the wind is a costume play and my dress was very thin. The first act took place in a garden and the garden seat on which I had to sit was painted iron – it was almost imposible to prevent a squeal as one sat upon the freezing surface.”

Despite such hardships she was starting to get good notices. She worked for Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. at the Lyceum. In King Arthur “I had a short scene with Ellen Terry in the first act and had to be a corpse in the third….I can still see Sir Henry’s voice as he lifted the veil off my face…The winter was very cold and I had a horrible fear that one night I might sneeze; so a young doctor gave me a spray to use which very nearly ruined my life. I suppose at first it was not realised that cocaine was a dangerous drug.”

Elaine in King Arthur

She was back at the Lyceum in 1896 to play the Prince of Wales in Richard III. Although he deplored the idea of an actress in a male role George Bernard Shaw singled her out for praise as “an actress of mark.”

4 roles - Copy (2)

The memoirs are full of anecdotes about the knockabout lives of young actors. Lena thrived in the life and had a growing reputation.

One of her first big sucesses was in Mrs Dane’s Defence,  with Charles Wyndham. Lena played the title role. “None believed Mrs Dane would be a success. I was a dark horse and Mrs D ane was a woman with a murky past.” But: “Wyndham said that the applause when the curtain fell was the most tremendous he had ever known”

Mrs Dane in Mrs Dane's Defence 1900

The King visited the play, and outside the theatre she saw her own face on rows of picture postcards. She was tasting the celebrity life like any modern actor. “I was pursued by detectives. Wherever I went they were there, watching me in restautants, waiting outside my house, following me in cabs…Whilst I was away in Berlin one of my servants had been bribed to report all my movements”

There were other examples of the celebrity life which would be recognizeable today:

Best dressed 1908

As you can see from the pictures Lena was an attractive young woman. But like many young actresses she worried about her looks. She writes that on the way to a dinner party where she would be introduced to John Singer Sargent she repeated the mantra: “I am very beautiful. I AM very beautiful. I stepped out of the four-wheeler, passed up the staircase, the door was flung open, Miss Lena Ashwell was announced – I caught my foot in something and still bravely repeating the formula fell headlong into the room. The rest is silence.”

The run of Mrs Dane came to an end with the death of Queen Victoria.

Lena returned to Her Majesty’s Theatre to appear in an adaptaion of Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection. The character of Katusha is an innocent girl, later tried as an accessory to murder,who becomes a drunk in prison,  redeems herself in the hospital prison ward and ends up as “a saint in Siberia”

Resurrection 1903

Beerbohm Tree was Prince Dimitry.  Lena says “He had never been through the mill and remained in many ways an amateur.” The famous man sounds a bit trying to me. “During the love-scene in the first act he would amuse himself by unfastening all the hooks which did up my peasant’s dress at the back, leaving me to walk up the stage with my bodice unfastened. Even pins could not deter him, and at last I had to be sown into my frock.”

Enough to drive you to drink..or smoking.

Katusha in Resurrection

Despite the distractions she also perfected a desperate scream for the scene in which Katusha is sentenced to exile in Siberia, which during rehearsals sent people at the theatre running to see who had been hurt. The play Leah Kleschna was written for her by CMS McLellan as a result of her performance.

She remained with Tree at the same theatre for Darling of the Gods. After that she intended to start her own company with her friend the American actor Robert Taber but during  the run of Darling he died at the age of only 38. This was a devastating blow. Not only were they friends but they could have formed a lasting stage partnership.

Bonnie Dundie by Lawrence Irving  with Robert Taber

This was them in 1900 in a play called Bonnie Dundie.

Lena  eventually went ahead with the play,  Leah Kleschna, a drama about a woman burglar.

Leah Klescha 1905

The production was not entirely successful despite being put on in London and New York.  Also a financial failure though “tremendously interesting” was The Shulamite, set in south Africa and first performed in Chicago

The Shulamite with N McKennel-Elsie Chester- Henry Ainley

Lena came back from America ill and disheartened. This was when she met her future husband Dr Henry Simson. (She was not yet divorced from her first husband)

Lena encouraged Cicely Hamilton to write a comedy, Diana of Dobson’s about a shop girl who inherits a small amount of money which enables her to escape the drudgery of retail life for a short while.

Diana of Dobson's - Copy

Lena was thankful to play in a comedy at last.

I’m drawing to a close with a play at the Globe Theatre for which Charles Frohman engaged most of Lena’s company: Madame X.

Madame X 1909

It was another big drama ” I reduced the audience to tears; strong men broke down and sobbed aloud in the boxes; they laid out stores of handkerchiefs. I had many wonderful letters including one from Ellen Terry full of praise especially of my high, high death.”

Madame X

The play was produced, I was interested to note by Dion Boucicault, who we came across as the owner of Hereford House and Coleherne Court. So this post has begun and ended with a link to another, an early case of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. More connections: Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was the father of film director Carol Read, who lived in Chelsea, and the grandfather of Oliver Reed who appeared in the classic Chelsea film I’ll never forget whatsisname. (Both via Tree’s mistress May Pinnet Reed)

There’s much more to Lena Ashwell’s life which we’ll save for another day.

Postscript

This week’s pictures come from Margaret Leask’s book “Lena Ashwell: actress, patriot, pioneer” ,2012, and from Lena’s own “Myself a player” 1936. Thank to Westminster City Archives for loaning me the first and to Kim for transporting it to Kensington. The second I naturally found in our own Biographies Collection, a bona fide treasure trove of rare biographies and the envy of many a library. I found the subjects of two future blog posts down there this afternoon.

Attentive readers will remember that I promised you a post far from Kensington and Chelsea this week. Like all good actors Lena Ashwell found a way to push herself into the spotlight first. But the traveller in antique land will appear soon.

Postscript to the Postscript

I’ve been asked to point out that Margaret Leask’s book is published by the University of Hertfordshire Press (www.herts.ac.uk/uhpress ) and that pictures number 2 (Sowing the Wind), 5 (Mrs Dane’s defence), 6 (Best dressed actresses), 7 (resurrection), 10 (Leah Kleschna) and 13 (Madame X) are taken from that book.  And also that Michael Joseph published the Ashwell memoirs.I’m  happy to do that.


Forgotten buildings: Coleherne Court and Hereford House

Coleherne Court? Not a forgotten building at all, surely? It’s there today, a fine example of an early twentieth century apartment block. Famous as the London home of Princess Diana when she worked at that nursery and had that photo taken. (Not to mention that she joined the local library just across the road.)

Coleherne Court agents brochure 1906 K66-132

No, not that Coleherne Court. But just a few short years before this advert of 1900 there were two houses on the site, one of which was the original Coleherne Court. The “grounds in the rear” were even more extensive. This OS map of 1894 shows how the houses and gardens were now surrounded by urban development.

OS map 1894 section of X8 featuring Hereford House

The old Coleherne Court had been around when Brompton Lane, later the Old Brompton Road curved through fields, nurseries and market gardens punctuated by cottages and large houses all the way to Brompton Road.

Cruchley 1827 Earls Court-Brompton-Little Chelsea

Crutchley’s map of 1827 shows Coleherne House as it had been known originally at the intersection with the main north-south axis of Earls Court Lane and Walnut Tree Lane (now Redcliffe Gardens). You can even see the large fishpond in the grounds behind it. Starling’s parish map of 1822 shows even more detail.

Kensington Parish map 1822 detail

There seems to have been a house on the spot  as far back as the 1600s. Ownership seems to have changed frequently. Among many others the much derided poet and eminent doctor Sir Richard Blackmore lived there in the early 1700s. (Dr Johnson says of Blackmore that  his “lot has been to be much oftener mentioned by enemies rather than friends”)

As far as I am aware no image of the house from its early days exists. The artist of the Red Portfolio painted this watercolour:

Cold Barn House RF2535

The notes on the back of the picture indicate that “Cold Barn House” was now called Colherne. The writing is hard to decipher but the artist refers to the ownership of “Mr Boulton (who) built the large house”.

It was William Boulton who sold the house to a Philip Gilbert. He in turn built a second house in the grounds in 1815 and moved into it. This was Hereford House, a villa with some extensive conservatories on one side.   After 1838 when Gilbert left the house it was occupied by a number of colourful tenants including Dion Boucicault, the actor/playwright and theatrical manager who also held the lease of Coleherne Court. Boucicault bought Hereford House in 1861, and Coleherne Court in 1862. He spent £2,300 furnishing the latter but following his bankruptcy in 1863 was obliged to sell both houses.

Beatrix Potter who lived nearby in Bolton Gardens refers to Hereford House in her journal for 1883: “Papa bought a horse less than a fortnight since for £150…it has gone lame yesterday..only consolation Reynolds could offer is that Seligmann who lives in the red house at the end of the street bought one for £200 which died in two days and the man he bought it from would not even see the gentleman”   (Leopold Seligmann lived at Hereford House from 1872 until later  in the 1880s)

In 1896 it was turned into a ladies cycling club.

Wheel Club clubhouse from lawn

Cycling was one of those  new pastimes in which respectable ladies could now indulge. (Catherine House, which we explored a few weeks ago was also a short-lived cycling club) The Wheel Club seems to have been a pretty high class establishment.

Hereford House - Wheel Club 1896

You can see the ramp which Cycling World describes as  “a miniature Olympian, composed of wood with trellis-work sides.It forms a circle round the grounds, running over two artistic bridges..” On the day of the first cycle races June 13th  “Miss G Fielding easily outpaced her rivals and took three first prizes..due to her admirable pluck, and the business-like manner in which she tackled her opponents at the corners was far superior to anything yet seen at amateur races.”

Another section of the ramp of it is visible in this picture:

Wheel Club Hereford House rearview

The Wheel Club boasted many facilities for members:

1896 Wheel Club entrance hall

The entrance hall, leading to a terrace “overhung with evergreen and complete with electric fairy lights”.

1896 Wheel Club dining hall

The dining room, a reading room, a writing room, a library (all separate?), a smoking room and up a private staircase “one of the best billiard rooms in London”.

Below, the  ladies boudoir “where ladies maids are constantly in attendance”. There were many more facilities.

1896 Wheel Club ladies boudoir

But the most fun was to be had had in the grounds “where members can be instructed in the useful art of wheeling.” And the club band played every afternoon.

Wheel Club

On June 13th there was a competition for decorated bicycles. Below is Lady Emily Cherry’s winning entry with her daughter Gladys.

1896 decorated bicycle

Eugenie G Hawthorne who wrote the article for Cycling World predicted that the Wheel Club would be one of the most popular clubs of the day. Whether or not this proved to be the case the venue was short-lived. Hereford House was demolished less than four years later along with its near neighbour.

Coleherne Court had been in residential occupation for most  of the life of Hereford House, only empty for a couple of years. The landowner James Gunter bought both in 1864. He leased Coleherne Court to Edmund Tattersall  from 1865. Mr Tattersall was then the head of Tattersall’s the bloodstock and horse auctioneers who had a famous auction yard and offices in Knightsbridge. He died in 1898 after falling ill at a Newmarket race meeting.  It is not recorded whether the noisy neighbours were  a problem for him and his family but if you look back to the 1894 map you can see there was some distance between the two properties even if the boundary between them was not clear.

According to  the Survey of London “the only certain view of Coleherne House is a 19th century photograph of the hall”.

I can offer you slightly more than that.

001 Rear exterior

This picture of the rear is from an album of photographs of the interior and gardens recently donated to the Local Studies collection. More of these pictures will be featured next week.

Both Coleherne Court and Hereford House were demolished not long after Tattersall’s death. The new Coleherne Court still had a substantial garden, but the two old houses had been one of the last remnants of that older Brompton.

Postscript

I could thank them almost any week but this seems a good time to mention the writers of the Kensington volumes of the Survey of London. Their invaluable research makes my work, both blogging and answering enquiries very much easier.

 


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