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GUEST POST: Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

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Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905
Ashwell in title role of Leah Kleschna, New Theatre, 1905

Margaret Leask is a freelance researcher and theater historian as well as a former arts administrator in Australia and England. As an oral historian, she has recorded and archived interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, and the Sydney Theater Company.


For Ellen Terry, actress-manager Lena Ashwell (1869-1957) was ‘a passionate voice’. From her first appearance on stage in 1891 to the end of her life, Ashwell was determined to make the theatre accessible and relevant to everyone, prompting G.B. Shaw to describe her as possessing an ‘awakeningly truthful mind as well as an engaging personality.’

An inspiring and strong woman in a rapidly changing world, she was crucial both for the advancement of women in the English theatre and for the formation of the National Theatre. She made her name in H.A. Jones’ Mrs Dane’s Defence in 1900 and presented ‘new drama’, including Cecily Hamilton’s Diana of Dobsons (1908) and J.B. Fagan’s The Earth (1909) at the Kingsway and Savoy Theatres, as well as being active in the Actresses’ Franchise League and a committed founding member of the British Drama League. When war was declared on 4 August 1914, with amazing rapidity, Ashwell, Decima and Eva Moore and Eve Haverfield formed what Ashwell later described as a ‘really wonderful and most comic organization’, the Women’s Emergency Corps.

Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons
Ashwell as Diana of Dobsons

A temporary office was set up in Robert Street, Adelphi; letters were sent to the press and a public meeting convened at the Shaftesbury Theatre on 7 August. The Corps’ first task was to create a register, for use by any authority requiring such services, of all women, with their particular skills, who could help the war effort. The list included cooks, interpreters, crêche and mother carers, stores’ distributors, clothing collectors and distributors, carers of horses and riders, motor drivers and ‘all women trained in any capacity’. Immediately, many hundreds of women offered their services and women’s suffrage took a back seat while Britons adjusted to a changed world.

On 4 September the WEC had 10,000 women registered and government departments, railway companies, and business houses had been informed of competent unemployed women available for work previously done by men. Ashwell also established the Three Arts Club Emergency Relief Fund, recognising female arts workers would be particularly hard hit by the war’s impact on employment. August was traditionally a time when many London theatres were closed for summer and suggestions were made to halve admission prices and actors’ salaries; already many were on the breadline. In co-operation with organisations including the Actors’ Benevolent Fund, Ashwell hoped to help those in urgent need to obtain paid employment; to give training for such employment and maintenance when required; and to obtain and administer grants from existing funds for the relief of such cases.

Lena Ashwell was one of the first to suggest artists be gainfully employed to boost troop morale by providing entertainment. After initial, official, resistance to the idea, she was thrilled that, ‘on one never-to-be-forgotten day, when I had quite lost hope of the drama and music of the country being regarded as anything but useless, Lady Rodney called on behalf of the Women’s Auxiliary Committee of the Y.M.C.A. She had returned from France, and came from Her Highness Princess Helena Victoria, Committee Chairman, to ask if it was possible for a concert party to go to Havre.’

Ashwell had close connections with the royal family (she was married to Dr Henry Simson, the royal gynecologist who delivered the future Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret), and no doubt she told the princess of her despair and desire to help troops and artists. A request from Her Highness was less easy for officials to ignore. Ashwell obtained support from a friend to cover expenses for the first concert party while Helena Victoria and her committee made arrangements with the War Office: ‘owing to the very suffering state of men at Base Camps who had passed through a very difficult period of fighting, and were to be at the Base for rest and further training, this experiment of sending recreation should be made.’

Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party
Lena Ashwell YMCA Concert party

For the duration of the war, Ashwell auditioned artists and prepared thousands of concerts and performances in YMCA camps and hospitals and on ships at the Front and in firing line zones. Between 1915 and 1919 over 600 artists, in parties of up to six singers, instrumentalists and entertainers gave three concerts a day all over France, in Belgium, Malta, Egypt and Palestine. Over £100,000 was raised through donations, concerts in England and colourful events to pay for this project and there were few soldiers who missed experiencing the comfort from home represented by these programmes. When peace was declared, her Lena Ashwell Players set about taking regular theatre performances into local communities throughout London and beyond. Long before educational drama and public subsidy for the arts were realities, she engaged local authorities in the provision of facilities and support for her work.

The above is just a brief sample of Lena Ashwell’s extraordinary life and commitment to a better world, through participation in the arts, as an actress, manager and advocate. Although she wrote four books about her work (including Modern Troubadours about her wartime experience and an autobiography, Myself a Player), her achievements have been largely unsung. However, with the publication of Margaret Leask’s biography, Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer, by the University of Hertfordshire Press and the Society for Theatre Research in 2012, there is now the opportunity to appreciate Lena Ashwell in the historical and cultural contexts in which she worked and which she helped to transform.

Lena Ashwell: Actress, Patriot, Pioneer by Margaret Leask

The book was short-listed for the 2013 Theatre Book Prize in London. One of the judges, Penelope Keith, called it “a real page turner”! The Times Literary Supplement review, 28 June 2013, concludes: “This biography is certainly a counterpoint to simplistic narratives of English theatre in the twentieth century; when asking how, and why, we have ended up with a multifaceted theatre industry, Lena Ashwell’s career is surely part of the answer.”

Purchase Dr. Leask’s biography of Lena Ashwell from: Indiebound | B & N | Powell’s | Amazon | Amazon UK | Scribd

The Irish couple who scandalised London society

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Geoffrey, Fourth Marquis of Headfort

Rosie, Fourth Marchioness of Headfort

TWO MAJOR paintings by Irish artist Sir William Orpen are to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in May. The portraits of a Co Meath aristocrat and his glamorous music-hall wife – whose marriage scandalised and enthralled Edwardian society – have never before appeared at auction. Portrait of Rosie, Fourth Marchioness of Headfort and Portrait of Geoffrey, Fourth Marquis of Headfort go under the hammer on May 10th.

In monetary terms, the lady wins hands down. Her portrait is estimated at £300,000-£500,000 and his at £60,000-£80,000.

The commissioned portraits were first exhibited at the Royal Academy’s 1915 Summer Exhibition in London, and are being sold by a family descendent.

…Rose Boote (1878-1958) was, according to Sotheby’s, “the daughter of a comedian from Nottingham and a straw hat sewer” although a report in The Irish Times at the time of her death claimed she was “Irish and was educated in the Ursuline Convent, Thurles”.

Using the stage name of Rosie, she achieved great fame as one of the Gaiety Girls – not of Dublin’s South King Street variety – but rather the chorus-line girls who sang in musical comedy spectacles at the Gaiety Theatre on the Strand, London. The girls attracted the attention of aristocratic young men – known as “Stage Door Johnnies” – and, in 1900, Rosie’s performance in a hit musical The Messenger Boy apparently charmed the eminently eligible young Irish aristocrat, the 4th Marquis of Headfort, Geoffrey Thomas Taylour (1878-1943). She quit the theatre and they married on April 11th, 1901.

The wedding created a sensation in Edwardian London. He was a member of one of the most prominent Protestant families in Ireland with estates of some 22,000 acres in Cavan and Meath while Rose, apart from being on the stage, was a Catholic. They lived in Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath and a London townhouse and had three children.

He had succeeded to the title 4th Marquis of Headfort on the death of his father in 1894 and moved in the highest echelons of British society. He was a lieutenant in the 1st Life Guards and later fought in the first World War. He subsequently served as a senator in the Irish Free State – from 1922-1928. Although a marquess, the family preferred the spelling marquis.

Rose lived until 1958 when she died aged 80. She was one of the very few people who had attended three coronations in Westminster Abbey (Edward VII, George V and George VI). The Irish Times reported that after “lying in state” at Headfort House, her grandson Lord Bective and employees of the estate carried her coffin to an island in the grounds of the house where she was buried alongside her husband.

[Source]

Photos from Arab Women Now

The Making Of A Marchioness: Rose Boote, Marchioness Of Headfort – The Esoteric Curiosa

Gaiety Girls’ Reunion 1946 with Lily Elsie, Edna May and Rosie Boote etc

Fascinating Women: Florence Lawrence

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Florence Lawrence

Though Mary Pickford is associated with the early days of American cinema, it was her fellow Canadian Florence Lawrence who is the first movie star. Born on New Year’s Day in 1890, the Hamilton, Ontario native entered show business at the age of four, traveling the vaudeville circuit as “Baby Flo – The Child Wonder Whistler.” Her mother, Charlotte A. Bridgwood, was a vaudeville actress known professionally as Lotta Lawrence and was both leading lady and director of the Lawrence Dramatic Company. After the death of Florence’s father in 1898, her mother moved the family–consisting of Florence and her two elder brothers–to Buffalo, New York, where Florence attended local schools and developed athletic skills, in particular horseback riding and ice-skating.

Florence continued to develop her acting talents, but like many hopeful actresses haunting the casting rooms of Broadway, success was elusive. The early years of the American cinema were both lean and abundant–lean of actors who were skeptical of this new medium (which, due to its start in cheap nickelodeons, were seen as entertainment for the poor)–and abundant in pioneers eager to enter uncharted territories and audiences eager for more movies. Florence was likely one of many unemployed young actresses who viewed the motion pictures as a last resort, but when she was cast in Daniel Boone; or, Pioneer days in America, an Edison Manufacturing Company film, it was the beginning of a marvelous career.

She portrayed Daniel Boone’s daughter, and her old riding skills came in handy as she got the part because she knew how to ride a horse. Her mother also found a role in the film, and they were each paid five dollars a day for two weeks of outdoor filming in freezing weather. In 1908, Florence went on to make 38 movies at Vitagraph, most roles given to her because of her equestrian skills. She turned briefly to the more legitimate and respectable stage, but after touring with Seminary Girls, Lawrence resolved that she would “never again lead that gypsy life.”

Her fortunes changed when a fellow Vitagraph actor, Harry Solter, sought a “a young, beautiful equestrian girl” for a D. W. Griffith production at Biograph Studios. When Lawrence learned of this opportunity, she quickly convinced Solter and Griffith she was the right actress for the part, and came to Biograph in 1908, where she earned a whopping $25 a week at a time when the average annual income was less than $500 a year. Her starring role in Griffith’s The Girl and the Outlaw was followed by starring roles in sixty-five films by 1909. She went on to marry Harry Solter, but ironically, this was when audiences began to clamor for her name. Florence, like the cinema’s other leading ladies, was known only by the name of her studio–the Biograph Girl–due to fears that film stars would demand higher salaries. But the cult of celebrity had struck the motion picture industry, and the name “Florence Lawrence” became more prominent than “Biograph Pictures.”

Now known by name, with the much-feared privileges that accompanied stardom, Florence and her husband decided to strike out on their own. They wrote to the Essanay Company to offer their services as leading lady and director, but rather than accept this offer, Essanay reported the offer to Biograph’s head office, and they were promptly fired. Now cast adrift, the Solters joined with Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, where Laemmle created the “star system.” In 1910, Lawrence left IMP, but not before choosing an 18 year old Mary Pickford as her successor at the company. Two years later, via a deal the Solters made with Laemmle, they formed their own studio, Victor Film Company, where they made a number of successful films before selling out to Universal Studios.

Things look promising for Florence’s career, and despite a brief period of retirement, she continued to remain the cinema’s top draw. However, tragedy struck during the making of Pawns of Destiny, when a staged fire got out of control and Florence was burned, suffered a serious fall, and fell into shock for months. She divorced Solter, blaming him for the accident, and to add to her problems, Universal refused to pay her medical expenses. She took time off to recover, but discovered that at 29, her days of stardom had ended. Subsequent comeback attempts were marred by her health and the public having moved on, and all of her screen work after 1924 would be in uncredited bit parts. Her personal life was in shambles, having divorced and remarried twice (the last husband abusing her physically), losing her mother in 1929, and the stock market crash depleting her fortunes. In 1936, sympathetic MGM gave her and other old stars small parts for seventy-five dollars a week, but alone, discouraged, and suffering with chronic pain from myelofibrosis, a rare bone marrow disease, Florence Lawrence decided to end her life.

On the 27th of December, she was found unconscious in bed in her West Hollywood apartment after she had attempted suicide by eating ant paste. She was rushed to a hospital but died a few hours later, and sadly, just nine years after she had paid for an expensive memorial for her mother, Lawrence was interred in an unmarked grave not far from her mother in the Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in Hollywood, California). Nevertheless, Florence Lawrence not only became the first motion picture star, she made an astounding 298 films between 1906 and 1936, and also invented the first turn signal for automobiles.

Further Reading:
Florence Lawrence, the Biograph Girl: America’s First Movie Star by Kelly R. Brown

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