Friday, April 23, 2010

Intrepid Ladies: Ann Ford (Mrs. Philip Thicknesse)

Friday, April 23, 2010
Susan reports:

"Intrepid" doesn't begin to describe the character and life of Ann Ford Thicknesse (1737-1834). Genteelly born, her father indulged her with an excellent education (she spoke several languages) and extensive music lessons. She soon displayed a rare talent for music and sang beautifully, as well as playing several instruments.

But while her father encouraged her in concerts for friends, he forbid her to perform on the stage. They quarreled so violently that she moved from home and into the house of a friend, announcing that she would support herself by her music. Her furious father had her arrested and hauled back home. Undeterred, she arranged a series of subscription concerts, and her father hired ruffians to disturb her first theatrical performance. Only the intervention of one of her aristocratic supporters permitted the show to go on.

Her concerts were a sensation, and made her a celebrity. Among other instruments, she played the viola da gamba, scandalously (properly) positioning the viola between her knees. More scandal followed when she had her portrait painted by friend Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788 ), himself an amateur musician. Shown with her instruments, her pose – with her legs crossed at the knee like a man – shocked society almost as much as her independent, intelligent gaze looking to one side that ignored the viewer. Handsome though she was, there was clearly none of the melting, doe-eyed society beauty about Ann.

The Earl of Jersey was smitten, and proposed that Ann become his mistress for a sizable annual sum and the promise to wed her when his ailing wife died. Indignantly she refused, and in defense of the rebuffed earl's attempts to slander her,  Ann published A Letter from Miss F--D, addressed to a Person of Distinction in 1761. In it, she argued that "a young woman may sing in public...or be a public singer, with virtue and innocence." Over 500 copies were sold the first week, and the letter was also published in the Gentleman's Magazine. The earl's rebuttal, A Letter to Miss F--d, was not nearly as popular.

After performing in London and in Bath, she traveled to Suffolk with her good friend Elizabeth Thicknesse, who sadly died soon after in childbirth. Six months later in 1762, Ann married her friend's widower, Captain Philip Thicknesse (last seen in the TNHG writing travel guides.) The match raised eyebrows: not only was Philip twenty years Ann's senior, but he drank, whored, gambled, and took laudanum to infamous excess. He was litigious, quarrelsome, and an open supporter of slavery, and his personality was so irascible that he was known as "Dr. Viper." He wrote ferociously and often slanderously, on subjects as wide-ranging as male-midwifery to fraudulent automatons.

Yet it was a most happy marriage for nearly thirty years. The couple traveled extensively through Europe. Their eccentric entourage included not only a parakeet, but a monkey who was dressed in livery and rode postillion before their carriage; Ann's personal luggage included her viola, two guitars, and a violin. She also began writing and publishing books of her own, including works on playing the guitar and glass harmonica, travel, a novel, and, in 1778, the three-volume Sketches of the Lives & Writings of the Ladies of France.

Undeterred by the French Revolution, Ann and Philip were traveling to Paris in 1792 when Philip suffered a seizure and died in Ann's arms in their carriage. Griefstricken, Ann buried him in Boulogne, but before she could return home, she was arrested as a foreigner and imprisoned for eighteen months. She was finally released by proving that she was no idle, unattached gentlewoman, but could support herself –– as a musician.

Returning to England, Ann continued to write and publish. In 1806, when she was 68, she was described as "the most singular, and if it may be added, the most accomplished woman of her day." How can we argue with that?

Click here for more about Ann and one of her favorite instruments, the glass harmonica.

Above: Mrs. Philip Thicknesse, nee Ann Ford, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1760, Cincinnati Art Museum

14 comments:

Britcellist said...

How fascinating! As an Englishwoman who plays the treble viol, I can relate to her life as a working musician. The span of 250 years shows us that strong women were as prevalent then as those of today, and it is inspiring to us of the 21st century who follow a similar path. Anne's story is very relevant to womens' issues even in these modern days. The article was an excellent read and very well researched. A gem, well done! Thank you.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Britcellist, I'm so glad that you enjoyed Ann's story, particularly since you are a musician, too. I can yearn for the prettier parts of the past as much as anyone, but it only takes a few facts like these to bring me firmly back to earth in the 21st century. Ann was truly extraordinary in her persistence to perform her music; one wonders how many other women with talent but less determination were never heard.

Jane O said...

What a fascinating person she is!

Undine said...

What a pair! Susan, thanks for introducing me to the Thicknesse couple--I'm inspired now to read more about them.

Their story falls into the category of: "It'd make a great novel, except no one would believe it was based on real life."

Rowenna said...

Thanks for sharing this fascinating story! I just recommended Philip's "travel guide" to my husband, thinking he'd enjoy it. I'll have to start reading Ann's writings--what a funny, geeky pair we'll make!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

What a fascinating story! I love to hear about female musicians in history. One doesn't often hear about them.

LizzyAnne said...

I have always loved this painting and wondered what the lady's history was. Thank you for the info - quite inspiring!

Susan Holloway Scott said...

Undine, I believe most of his books are online in one form or another. Not hers, alas. Apparently she did the sketches for one of his travel books - clearly a lady of many talents!

As for her life making a great novel - I kept thinking of that, too, until I got to Philip. I can't imagine presenting him to an editor as the male protagonist - though OTOH, I managed to convince them that James II would be interesting....

Rowenna, never geeky, please! *g*

Elizabeth Kerri, you're right, there aren't many female musicians scattered through history. But then when you realize how constrained they were from performing, you can understand why. There aren't many women artists, either, or scientists, or historians, or...well, won't get up on THAT soapbox!

LizzyAnne, I've always liked this portrait too. She has so much more character in her face than many other lady-portraits. I remember back to studying Gainsborough in school. This painting wasn't considered a "great" portrait because of the curious anatomy of Ann's legs, which don't quite line up with her waist. But who cares? The face says it all!

Michael Robinson said...

Great painting or no, this was the image used for the jacket of John Hayes’s Gainsborough exhibition at the Tate in 1980-81, Hayes was the leading expert of Gainsborough in the C 20th.

The portrait was the first painted in Gainsborough’s studio in Bath, following his move from Ipswich at the suggestion of Philip Thicknesse, exhibiting his virtuosity by turning to the models of Van Dyjk and producing a piece of bravura painting at the furthest remove from the classical dignity of Reynolds at the same date. Highly original in its composition. ( one of the two known preparatory drawings is now in the British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=749978&partid=1 ), as painted Ann Ford’s pose has two referents that would be familiar to viewers at the time. The statue of Handel that formed the centerpiece to Vauxhall Gardens, the first life sized public statue of a living artist ( http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/sculpture/stories/Roubiliac%27s_Handel/index.html )
and the pose of the aristocratic woman assumes as she weighs up the pros and cons of surrendering her virtue in Hogarth’s ‘Piquet: or Virtue in Danger’ (The Lady's Last Stake) (1759) ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:William_Hogarth_005.jpg ) The scene was inspired by Colley Cibber’s theatrical comedy, The Lady’s Last Stake (1708), and depicts a married aristocratic woman who, addicted to gambling, has just lost her fortune to an army officer. The soldier’s terms, according to Cibber’s play, are: the two will play one more game, and if she wins, she will regain her fortune; however, if she loses, she will still have her goods returned but be obliged to take him as her lover. Philip Thicknesse was a friend to both Hogarth and Gainsborough and one wonders if here there might be an allusion to an additional role of Ann Ford in the Thicknesse household.
There is no record that the picture was exhibited publicly, unlike other of Gainsboroughs portraits after 1761, but shown only in the studio. Even so Mrs. Delaney ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Delany )offered a forthright opinion, "a most extraordinary figure, handsome and bold; but I should be very sorry to have any one I loved set forth in such a manner.” (Hayes 1980 #91 p 108)

Julianne said...

I have just found your Blog on Ann Thicknesse
I am a descendant of Ann and Philip and like you are fascinated by their story. Their son a naval captain, Captain Thicknesse who married Sarah Augusta Fraser is the reason I find myself in Australia. I spend hours and hours on the net searching for information on my ancestors, quite a common past time for us with British ancestry.

My great grandmother was Margaret Isabella Thicknesse on my mums side. Her father John and his father Samuel. I calculate that Anne was my great great great great great grandmother.

About 25 years ago mum showed me a magazine article on an exhibition of Gainsboroughs work in London - anyway, she pointed out the image of Ann and said thats your ancestor. To my complete surprise I recalled having seen this exhibition and had recalled that painting by Gainsborough as it was so magnificent and was hung in the entrance of the gallery.
I am now on a mission to go again and see her in Cincinatti something my mother was never able to do.

Her legacy lives on, as, my grandmother, mother, siblings and children, were and are, all very talented musicians, singers and budding artists.

Susan Holloway Scott said...

I'm so glad you found us, Julianne. Your family history adds much to Ann's story -- so often we think of people of the past as "dead ends", and forget descendants who may be carrying on the same exemplary traits. Certainly sounds as if this is the case with all the musicians in your family.

Thank you so much for sharing your history - and I hope you will someday be able to visit Cincinnati to see Ann's portrait.

kristal said...

how very interesting , this is actully my great great great great granmother ( not sure how many greats ) but im also decendets from lady audley she married george thicknesse,im also related to Phillip thicknesse, my last name Thicknesse i live is Australia i went to engaland a little while ago I went to seaton delaval hall.

Will said...

This is remarkable...I am also a distant relative of Lady Anne, though my ancestry comes through my mother's side of the family, the Thicknesses. A really great read, thank you

Kurt Rosenbaum said...

great!!! saw this painting at the San Diego Museum of Art, on a field trip for an Art class. my FAVORITE Gainsborough painting.

using this as an artifact for a World History class now. what an interesting woman.

 
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