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Abington, Frances

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She was born Frances Barton in 1737, the daughter of a cobbler in Vinegar Yard, Windmill Street, an address not far from Drury Lane Theatre. Colourful tales abound about her early childhood and youth in poverty to her rise to luxury and high social circles. Though many are false there is much truth in the mythology. Certainly she sold flowers at about the age of fourteen in the Covent Garden Piazza, and she became an assistant to a French milliner in Cockspur Street and a cookmaid in the kitchen of Robert Baddeley, who also became a famous actor. By the summer of 1755 she was a member of Theophilus Cibber’s company – Bayes’s New-rais’d Company of Comedians – at the Haymarket Theatre, where she made her first recorded appearance, announced as a young gentlewoman, in the role of Miranda in “The Busy Body”. Among her other roles there, when she was now billed as Miss Barton, was Kitty Pry in “The Provok’d Husband”, Desdemona, and her first time in boy’s clothes (soon to be one of her specialities), Sylvia in “The Recruiting Officer”. Stints at Bath and Richmond were followed by an engagement with Garrick at Drury Lane Theatre in the autumn of 1756, where she made her first appearance as Lady Pliant in “The Double Dealer”. But she was used sparingly. After her marriage in 1759 to James Abington, a King’s Trumpeter, she and her husband left for Dublin, where she appeared at the Smock Alley Theatre on 11 December 1759 as Mrs Sullen in “The Beaux’ Stratagem”. In 1760 she transferred to the Crow Street Theater. Her professional and social success in Dublin caused the breakup of her marriage. She became the mistress of a wealthy Irish M. P. named Needham and returned with him to England, where he died, at Bath, in 1763. Solicited by Garrick, Mrs Abington went back to Drury Lane Theatre. Though she and Garrick frequently quarreled, mostly over petty matters, she remained at Drury Lane throughout his management and into Sheridan’s until 1782. Dissatisfied with her salary under Sheridan, she finally transferred to Covent Garden Theatre, making her first appearance there on 29 November 1782 as Lady Flutter in “The Discovery”. She continued her career at Covent Garden until 1790, when she suddenly retired. But in 1797, leaving a quiet and settled existence at her house in Hammersmith near the Thames, she re-engaged at Covent Garden, coming back on 6 October to act Beatrice in “Much Ado about Nothing”, a role which had been one of her most successful and flattering. Time had taken somewhat of a toll but had not diminished her charm. James Boaden wrote: ‘Her person had become full, and her elegance somewhat unfashionable; but she still gave to Shakespeare’s Beatrice what no other actress in my time has ever conceived; and her old admirers were still willing to fancy her as unimpaired as the character itself.’ After acting a few more times that season, she wisely retired, making her final appearance on 12 April 1799 as Lady Racket in “Three Weeks after Marriage”. Frances Abington died at her Pall Mall apartment on 4 March 1815 and was buried in St James’s, Piccadilly. In the fullness of her talent, Abington was an excellent comedienne, exhibiting gaiety, ease, elegance and grace. She had a fresh spirit and a sparkling eye. Those attributes served her as well in her social life and made her especially attractive to a number of male suitors. Her clothes often set the fashion for duchesses to dairy maids. In addition to Beatrice, among her best roles were Mrs Oakly in “The Jealous Wife”, Charlotte Rusport in “The West Indian” and Lady Teazle in “The School for Scandal”. She had created the last-named role at the premiere at Drury Lane on 8 May 1777, and Lady Teazle was as much Mrs Abington as Mrs Abington was Lady Teazle (BDA). She was, however, not served well in James Roberts’s canvas of the screen scene (2). General Burgoyne had expressly written for her the part of Lady Bab Lardoon in “The Maid of the Oaks”, in which she was pictured by Hickey. Numerous other portraits of Mrs Abington exist, including her as teh Comic Muse by Reynolds at Waddesden Manor. A portrait of her as Beatrice by James Roberts was annonymously engraved and published in 'Bell's Shakespeare', and another by J.H.Ramberg, engraved by C.Sherwin appeared in the same publication. 'Brief Lives', Burnim & Baskett.
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