Carte-de-visite of the week #13 Belle Bilton

This carte-de-visite was taken in the late 1880s and shows the Countess of Clancarty (1867-1906) – a singer, actress and music-hall entertainer better known under her stage-name of Belle Bilton. It shows her in costume and was taken in the Ebury Street studios of fashionable London photographers W. & D. Downey, opened in 1872 by William Downey (1829-1915) while his brother Daniel managed their studio in Newcastle. The Downeys took many portraits of Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as aristocrats, society beauties and famous actresses. Belle was photographed by Downey several times, and also sat for other society photographers such as Alexander Bassano.

Background and Stage Career

Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton was born in 1867, the daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton of the Royal Engineers. Under the stage name of Belle Bilton she made her name as a music hall entertainer at the Alhambra and the Empire and other venues. Sometimes she appeared with her sister – an advert for a performance at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly in 1886 shows the ‘Sisters Bilton’ on the billing.

Lord Dunlo

Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty, using a stereoscopic camera around 1864, three years before the birth of his son.

At the Corinthian Club towards the end of April or beginning of May 1889, Belle met a young aristocrat – William, Viscount Dunlo, son of Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty and heir to the title. Like Belle, Lord Dunlo was twenty years old, and the couple quickly fell for one another: they were married soon after, at Hampstead Registry Office, on 10 July 1889. The groom’s father was not impressed at his son’s choice of bride, and William had already incurred the Earl’s displeasure due to his lack of enthusiasm for the army career that had been planned for him. As it had already been decided that William would benefit from foreign travel in the company of a sober and morally-minded mentor, his scandalous marriage to a music hall entertainer proved the last straw: the Earl forced his newly-wedded son to sail for Australia immediately under threat of losing his inheritance. A divorce case – which in those days depended upon proving adultery – was at once initiated, with the Earl determined to use every means in his power to blacken Belle’s name and have the union dissolved with his family’s honour intact.

The Trial

Over the next few months evidence was gathered, while Belle – in the absence of her husband – continued to socialise and pursue her stage career. In April 1890 she played the title role in the ‘burlesque extravaganza’ Venus at the Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. The trial opened in July 1890 with Sir James Hannen sitting as judge, Sir Charles Russell prosecuting, and the solicitor general Frank Lockwood QC representing Belle. The adultery trial had been preceded by a separate court case in which Belle was implicated in forgery; although the matter was quite independent of her marriage to Lord Dunlo, it was clearly intended to blacken her character – an objective that was largely thwarted by her being found innocent.

Eastern Evening News (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.2

It became apparent during the adultery trial that Belle was more sinned against than sinning, and the Earl and his associates came out looking worse, having instigated various machinations to make Belle look bad. As recent events have made all too clear, rich and powerful men can be responsible for all sorts of abuse to protect their interests. When Lord Dunlo declared he believed his wife to be innocent of the charges, the case collapsed, and he returned to live with Belle. Cut off from his father’s allowance, the couple were required to live off Belle’s earnings from the theatre – estimated at around £1,500 a year. Some felt that the publicity of the court case might actually help matters:

‘I dare say the photographs of Lady Dunlo (Miss Belle Bilton) are more marketable now than ever. I don’t know if this fascinating young lady has been paid liberal terms by Bassano and the other photographers to whom she has given sittings, but she certainly deserves to remunerated handsomely. She will sell like ripe cherries from now until her divorce trial comes off.’

London and Provincial Entr’acte (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.5.

The couple did not have long to wait. Belle’s father-in-law died less than a year after the trial, aged only 57. In May 1891 her husband became the 5th Earl of Clancarty, and Belle assumed the title of Countess of Clancarty. The couple had five children, including the 6th and 7th Earls of Clancarty.

Belle with her twin sons Richard and Henry, born Devember 1891. Photographed by Bassano ca. 1893-4. Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sadly, Belle died of cancer on 31 December 1906 at Garbaldy Park, Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of only 39. Carte-de-visite portraits of her – both in theatrical costume and as herself – are fairly easy to find and so it is tempting to consider building up a collection of these. Belle’s short life is intriguing for anyone with an interest in late Victorian theatre, and there is something inspiring – and remarkably topical – about the story of how this young woman refused to be crushed by powerful men who sought to silence her.

 

Moira Shearer (1926-2006)

AW and MS in ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)
Moira Shearer died on this day, eleven years ago. After The Red Shoes she went on to appear in other film roles: as Olympia in The Tales Of Hoffmann (Powell and Pressburger, 1950), Paula Woodward in The Story Of Three Loves (Minnelli/Reinhardt, 1952), multiple parts in The Man Who Loved Redheads (French, 1955), Vivian in Peeping Tom (Powell, 1960) and Roxanne in Black Tights. Most of these roles showcased her dancing talents.
She worked with AW again – on the stage this time – in Walter Hasenclever’s play Man of Distinction, which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh during the 1957 Festival, before moving south for a three weeks of performances in what was the termed ‘the provinces’ (including Leeds, Manchester and Blackpool) before showing at at the Princes Theatre, London. Set in Berlin in the 1920s, Hasenclever’s comedy Ein besserer Herr was written in Paris and Nice in the summer of 1926 and mocks the hypocrisies, materialism and delusions of the Weimar republic. Hugo Mobius is a fraudster who specialises in conning wealthy ladies into marriage, a scheme that founders when he finds himself genuinely falling in love. Prunella Scales played the part of Aline, next to Walbrook’s Hugo Mobius, while Moira Shearer played the part of Lia Compass.

AW and MS in ‘Man of Distinction’ (1957)

Laurence Olivier Letter

 

Readers of this blog may be interested to see this short and somewhat terse letter from Laurence Olivier to theatrical bookseller Barry Duncan. which recently came into my possession.
Olivier was indeed ‘fully occupied’, as he was then playing the lead role in the Old Vic production of King Lear, which he was also directing. The play was being performed at the New Theatre because the Old Vic had been damaged by bombs during the Blitz and did not reopen until 1950. The New Theatre (now renamed the Noel Coward Theatre) was almost next door to Duncan’s bookshop, although the SW1 postcode on the envelope (below) indicates that the letter was posted from elsewhere – although not the home he shared with Vivien Leigh, as Durham Cottage is situated in Chelsea’s Christchurch Street, SW3.
Duncan is best known now as the author of The St. James’s Theatre: its Strange & Complete History 1835–1957 (London: Barrie & Rockliff, 1964) but at this time he ran a bookselling business specialising in theatrical material and old prints.
The actor would be knighted a few months later, in May 1947. ​I have written about Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Anton Walbrook here, but for those wishing to read more I can strongly recommend this website.

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Catty man: Olivier in 1946

Camille Clifford (1885-1971), Gibson Girl – A Trio of Postcards

Postcard #1

I’m always drawn to postcards showing old cameras or photography, and it was the image above that got me collecting postcards of Belgian-born theatre star Camille Clifford. Her acting career was brief – barely four years (1902-6) – and it was her association with the popular ‘Gibson Girl’ image that made her famous.

In the 1890s, sketches of young women by Charles Dana Gibson began appearing in periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, Life and Scribner’s, creating an instantly-recognizable image that was replicated in advertising, postcards, modelling illustrations and other merchandise. The ‘Gibson Girl’ look combined bouffant hair, a curvaceous figure, delicate facial features and fashionable clothes, as well as a streak of independence and confidence that resonated well with the emergence of the ‘New Woman’ and the Suffrage movement. The look was said to have been inspired partly by Evelyn Nesbit (below) and Gibson’s wife Irene Langhorne.


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Evelyn Nesbit, photographed in 1903 by Gertrude Kasebier

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Sketch by Charles Dana Gibson, showing the characteristic ‘bouffant’ hairstyle. As well as being elegant and voluptuous, the ‘Gibson Girls’ suggested intelligence, spirited independence and a degree of emancipation – an idealised (and non-threatening) version of the New Woman
In 1905 Camille won a modelling competition held to find the perfect embodiment of the Gibson Girl, and images of her quickly began to be published in fashion and society magazines. Many of these photographs were taken by Lizzie Caswall Smith (1870-1958.) The pictures below show off her hourglass figure, which boasted an 18″ wasp waist.

Postcard #2

 

Despite the British-sounding surname, Camille was born in Belgium in 1885 to Reynold Clifford and Matilda Ottersen. After the death of her parents she was raised by relatives in Scandinavia before moving to America where she lived in Boston. She made her stage debut in 1902 and travelled to England two years later with Col. Henry Savage’s theatre company, performing a minor role in their musical comedy The Prince of Pilsen. When the rest of the cast returned to America, she remained behind, obtaining the part of Sylvia Gibson in Seymour Hicks’ play The Catch of the Season.

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Postcard #3

This postcard shows Camille with her fiance, Captain the Hon. Henry Lyndhurst Bruce, eldest son of the 2nd Baron Aberdare. Their engagement was announced at the end of August 1906 and they were married at Hanover Square Registry Office in London on 11 October 1906. The above photograph, therefore, was probably taken in September 1906. It was a busy time for Camille, who was now playing the Duchess of Dunmow in the musical comedy The Belle of Mayfair at London’s Vaudeville Theatre. Everyone knew that she was cast for her beauty rather than her musical talent, and her voice – even thinner than her waist – was barely adequate for her number ‘I’m a Duchess’, even after receiving singing lessons from Ivor Novello’s mother, Madame Clara Novello Davies. As one theatre critic put it, ‘The voice of Camille Clifford is not strong, but she wears such beautifully cut clothes and moves so elegantly up and down the stage that her turns is sure to be popular.’ [The Times, 12 April 1906, p.6.] And it was: audiences flocked to see her in the show nonetheless, including many wealthy male admirers such as Lord Aberdare’s son. After their engagement, Camille was going to resign from the show, but the producers enticed her to remain by offering her greater publicity and another musical number – a song entitled ‘Why do they Call Me a Gibson Girl?’

 

I walked one day
Along Broadway
When I was in New York.
And friend of mine
Said “My, you’re fine!
You have got the Gibson walk!
You have the pose
And Gibson nose
And quite the Gibson leer.
You’ve surely heard of the man called Gibson.”
(He meant the fellow called Dana Gibson.)
What he meant was not quite clear
Until I landed over here.

But why do they call me a Gibson Girl? (Gibson Girl?) Gibson Girl!
What is the matter with Mister Ibsen? (Mister Ibsen?) Why Dana Gibson?
Wear a black expression and a monumental curl,
And walk with a bend in your back,
Then they call you a Gibson Girl.

Just walk round town,
Look up and down:
The girls affect a style
As they pass by,
With dreamy eye,
Or a bored and languid smile.
They look as if
They had a tiff
With Hicks or Beerbohm Tree;
They do their best, for they’ve seen the pictures.
(They’ve missed the point of the Dana pictures.)
They’re intended, don’t you see,
For all a perfect type to be.

But why do they call me a Gibson Girl? (Gibson Girl?) Gibson Girl!
What is the matter with Mister Ibsen? (Mister Ibsen?) Why Dana Gibson?
Wear a black expression and a monumental curl,
And walk with a bend in your back,
Then they call you a Gibson Girl.

The Hon. Henry Lyndhurst Bruce served as a Captain in the Royal Scots Regiment. They had one child, Margaret, who was born in August 1909 but only lived a few days. Captain Bruce was killed in action at Ypres in December 1914. She married her second husband, Captain (later Brigadier) John Meredyth Jones Evans in 1917 and retired from acting after the war. She took up golf and competed in the game at a high level, but by the late 1920s was better known for running a successful stable of racehorses. Their names became familiar at racing events over the next three decades – Alliteration, Claudine, County Guy, Exemplary, Grass Court, Holyrood, Longstone (winner of the Newbury Cup in June 1955), Misty Cloud, Puissant, Rackstraw and Sidi Gaba, to name a few. She devoted considerable sums of money on building up a strong stable: sometimes she was able to pick up a promising horse for a few hundred guineas, but in 1938 she paid 6,500 guineas for Royal Mail, who had won the previous year’s Grand National. Alas, the horse proved unable to repeat his success at Aintree, although he did go on to win a few cups at Cheltenham in the 1940s. Camille caused a further stir in 1949 by paying 17,000 guineas for two year old Hedgerow. Her husband died in 1957, fourteen years before Camille, who passed away on 28 June 1971.