Actors, Musicians and Theatre Personalities with Scottish Links ~ Maria Theresa de Camp (Kemble) ~ 1774 - 1838

Maria Theresa Kemble, 1774-1838

Mrs. Charles Kemble as Catherine, in David Garrick's Catharine and Petruchio, 1806.  Engraving by Anthony Cardon (1772-1813) after a painting by Samuel de Wilde (1751 - 1832).   Published by John Cawthorn, London July 19, 1806. Stipple engraving 4 3/4 x 3 in.  Original of this version in the Folger Shakespeare Library.  [This version of the image out of copyright.]

Maria Theresa Kemble, stipple engraving by Richard Morton Paye, after Eliza Anne Paye published 1805.  Original in the National Portrait Gallery, London.  [This version of the image out of copyright.]

The daughter of George De Camp, whose real name may have been De Fleury, Maria was born into a family of musicians and dancers in Vienna in 1774. Brought to England, she appeared when six years old at the Opera House as Cupid in a ballet of Noverre.  After playing at the age of eight in a theatre directed by M. Le Texier Zélie in a translation of Madame de Genlis's La Colombe she was engaged for the Royal Circus, later known as the Surrey Theatre.

On the alleged recommendation of the Prince of Wales she was engaged by Colman for the Haymarket, where she appeared in a ballet entitled Jamie's Return.  She was then secured by King for Drury Lane, where, as Miss De Camp, on 24th October 1786, she played Julie, a small part in Burgoyne's Richard Cœur de Lion.  Her father, who left her in England and returned to Germany, had taught her no English, and the few words she spoke were acquired by imitation. Reading, writing, and arithmetic, according to the Biographia Dramatica, were taught her by Viscountess Perceval, and music, Italian, etc., by a Miss Buchanan.   At Drury Lane or the Haymarket she played Prince Arthur, Lucinda in Venice Preserved, and other juvenile or unimportant parts.

She first caught the public taste 15 August 1792 at the Haymarket, when, in the Beggar's Opera, she performed Macheath to the Polly of Bannister and the Lucy of Johnstone, in one of the fantastic experiments of changing the sex of the exponents then in vogue at that theatre. Later, Biddy in Miss in her Teens, Adelaide in the Count of Narbonne, Gillian in the Quaker, and Lucy in the Recruiting Officer were assigned her.

In singing parts she replaced Nancy Storace (Mozart's original Susannah) and Mrs. Crouch from time to time.. She was the original Judith in the Iron Chest, and Florimel in Kemble's Celadon and Florimel.   She also appeared as Miranda in the ‘Busybody, Page (Cherubin) in Follies of a Day, Le Mariage de Figaro, and Kitty in High Life Below Stairs.

At the Haymarket, 15 July 1797, she was the original Caroline Dormer in the Heir-at-Law and in the same year she played Portia and Desdemona, followed at Drury Lane by Katherine in Katherine and Petruchio, and Hippolito in Kemble's alteration of the Tempest.

For her benefit at Drury Lane on 3 May 1799, she gave her own unprinted play of First Faults.  In the same year William Earle, jun., printed in octavo a poor piece called Natural Faults, and accused Miss De Camp in the preface of having stolen his plot and characters. In a letter to the Morning Post, dated from Tottenham Court Road, 10 June (1799), she positively denied the charge, and asserted that her play was copied by Earle from recitation.  Interestingly, Genest observes that Earle's statement ‘has the appearance of truth’ (Account of the Stage, viii. 419).

Lady Teazle, Miss Hoyden, Lady Plyant in the Double Dealer, Hypolita in She would and she would not, Little Pickle, and Dollalolla in Tom Thumb were a few of the parts she played before her marriage to Charles Kemble which took place 2 July 1806.

Accompanying the Kembles to Covent Garden, she made her first appearance there, 1st October 1806, as Maria in the Citizen, and remained there for the rest of her acting career.  She also took up writing; her comedy, The Day after the Wedding, or a Wife's First Lesson, 1808, was played at Covent Garden for the benefit of her husband, who played Colonel Freelove. She was Lady Elizabeth Freelove, a rôle in which she was at her best.  She also wrote Match-making, or 'Tis a Wise Child that knows its own Father, played for her own benefit on the 24th October and she assisted her husband in the preparation of Deaf and Dumb.

Among the parts now assigned to her were Ophelia, Mrs. Sullen, Violante, Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing and Mrs. Ford, Juliana in the Honeymoon.  
On 12th December 1815 she made a solitary reappearance as Lady Emily Gerald in her own comedy Smiles and Tears, or the Widow's Stratagem. She then disappeared until 1818–19, when she played Mrs. Sterling, and was the original Madge Wildfire in Terry's musical version of the Heart of Midlothian.  For her own and her husband's benefit she played Lady Julia in Personation, on 9th June 1819, when she retired.

A solitary reappearance was made at Covent Garden on the occasion of the début as Juliet of her daughter Fanny, 5th October 1829, when she played Lady Capulet.   She died at Chertsey, Surrey, on 3 Sept. 1838.

[Text based on material by Mike Kemble assembled from various sources: Genest's Account of the English Stage; Biographia Dramatica; Georgian Era; Clark Russell's Representative Actors; Doran's Annals of the Stage, ed. Lowe; Gentleman's. Mag. new ser. vol. x.; Secret History of the Green Room; Thespian Dictionary.]


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Maria Theresa Kemble, 1774-1838

Maria Theresa Kemble (1777-1838), actress, wife of Charles Kemble, actor, with two of her three children, presumably Fanny (b. 1809, actress, on her mother's shoulder) and John (b. 1807, Anglo-Saxonist, on her lap.)  Attributed to George Henry Harlow (1787-1819), who was a friend of the Kemble family. Presumably painted c. 1812. 57 x 44 in. The portrait was sold at Sotheby's, 28 February 1990, lot 255.   Present location unknown.   [This version of the image out of copyright.]

Before the advent of the great Kembles in the late eighteenth century, actors and particularly actresses were disreputable. The exception was David Garrick who raised - as it was said - his profession to a liberal art and earned himself a tomb in Westminster Abbey.  Sarah Siddons, John Philip Kemble, and Charles Kemble followed his example, and by reason of their intelligence, education, and social graces were received in the best drawing rooms in the land. Much has been written about the Kemble brothers and their sister Sarah, but virtually nothing about their spouses. The wife of Charles deserves more recognition. Mother of two famous daughters - Fanny, a celebrated actress, and Adelaide, an admired singer - Mrs. Charles Kemble was remarkable for her fostering of their talent and for her personal qualities.

The following commentary is based, in part, on a previously unpublished private letter.   It explains, in part, the confusion between de Camp and de Fluery in the paternal lineage.

Mrs. Charles Kemble was born Marie Therese de Camp, and was an actress from her earliest years. Her paternal grandfather was reputedly a French Duke. Years later her daughter, Adelaide Kemble, would write: 'The other day in London I met in society a certain young Vicomte de Fleury who was presented to me - I could hardly help laughing as I thought how excessively distressed he would be if he did but know that the actor's little daughter whom he was honouring with his august approval was neither more nor less a cousin of his'.   Marie Therese's father was a down-on-his-luck French army officer who changed his name from aristocratic de Fleury to commonplace de Camp and who married - or more likely did not bother to marry - the daughter of a Swiss farmer. The eldest of their five children was the enchanting Marie Therese, born in Vienna in 1774 and named after the famous Austrian queen.

The consumptive de Camp took his family to England. There, ethereal little Marie Therese pirouetted like an angel, her talents supporting the impoverished family and made famous the troupe of child dancers with whom she performed. Writing many years later about her mother, her daughter Adelaide would say: 'She was on the stage at the age of five years - she was a beautiful little intelligent foreign child and the favourite plaything of George the 4th when he was Prince of Wales - her childhood was passed in the theatre or houses of our profligate aristocracy - at twelve years old she lost her father and by her talents and exertions alone supported her mother and four other children whose existence and education they owe entirely to her hard and unremitting labours - surely this is admirable?' 

What her daughter found even more admirable was her mother's purity.  Despite the profligacy of her surroundings, Marie Therese was a girl of strict virtue. Commenting on this, her daughter Adelaide wrote: 'Surely it is admirable to have been placed in the two worst extremities of society, and passing through such an ordeal to have remained honourable in deed, and yet more, pure and uncontaminated in thought.'

Marie Therese's heart had been captured by the dashing Charles Kemble.  For a time the courtship was off and on. Then in 1806 at the age of thirty-two she married him.  Again we see the situation through Adelaide's revealing and compassionate eyes. Her mother, she wrote, was of a 'generous and confiding' nature, 'a rare nature',' spoiled a little 'by want of government', and she had loved Charles Kemble 'with the wildest and most passionate love since she was twenty years old'. Charles Kemble was then 'a mild gently amiable person of cultivated tastes and refined habits-with a great deal of natural tenderness, but a man of the world, without one particle of romance or passion'.

Having battled a life full of hazards, Marie Therese must have hoped that at last she had found the security she had long craved, but marriage to a man of such different temperament was doomed from the start to failure.  It would be a failure, however, within the married state, and although for varying periods they lived apart, no definite separation took place.  The strain of her husband's indifference, his constant financial troubles, his fondness for alcohol, her eldest daughter Fanny's noisily failing marriage, and her younger son's incipient insanity put considerable strain on her.   Small wonder if her own mental stability wavered a number of times before her death in 1838.

Yet despite these trials, Marie Therese remained steadfast to her principles. Writing at the time of her mother's death, her daughter Adelaide would say: 'Her perfect truth-the spirit not the letter of truth-always excited my utmost admiration and veneration-and her justness of perception-in all things that did not concern herself-her purity of taste, and her originality of thought and expression were wonderful and made her most attractive'.

[ Text based on A Treasure House by Ann Blainey published in Books at Iowa 53 (November 1990). Copyright of the original material is vested in The University of Iowa Libraries.]


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Maria Theresa Kemble, 1774-1838

Maria Theresa Kemble, 1804 , by Alfred Edward Chalon.  Watercolour and pen and ink, 110 mm x 113 mm.  Purchased in 1922 by the National Portrait Gallery.   [The original image is out of copyright.]

Marie Therese de Camp was invariably described as a 'charming' actress. By the mid-1790s she was playing the lighter of the leading roles at the Haymarket and Drury Lane theatres, and by the end of that decade she had appeared in one of her own plays, First Faults. She would write a number of plays, mostly amusing and slight, but 'charming' like herself. Before her retirement in 1819 she had become a leading actress in the Kembles' company at the Covent Garden Theatre. She emerged from retirement once for sentimental reasons ten years later -- to play Lady Capulet at her elder daughter Fanny's stage debut as Juliet.

The English writer and theatrical critic Leigh Hunt admired her. In his Autobiography he wrote that Miss de Camp 'had a beautiful figure, fine large dark eyes, and elevated features, fuller of spirit than softness, but still capable of expressing great tenderness'. He added that in her finest roles, such as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and Lucy Lockit in The Beggar's Opera, she was 'admirable'.   She in turn revered Leigh Hunt, as revealed in an unpublished letter to him in the Leigh Hunt Collection. She was writing to him in his role as editor of the Examiner, probably in the year 1814, deferentially requesting publicity for her husband's theatrical success in Manchester.  Their income, she explained, 'must now entirely be deriv'd from his reputation, and that however highly he may be spoken of where he appears, a circulation of his success can alone insure its continuance'. Hunt's paper was, she added 'the most read, and best credited'.  She pleaded that 'if therefore you can consistently with your opinions insert any part of the enclos'd articles, or refer to them in any manner, you will materially serve a man who is too modest to solicit on his own behalf, and will confer a lasting obligation upon his wife'.

De Camp's vividness of expression" as well as her keen eye for the rules, regulations, and affectations of the polite society to which success, fortune, and studied respectability admitted the Kembles, is the very stuff of her dramas.  

De Camp's plays are set in polite and respectable society, but they are emboldened by the threat of expulsion from it and a narrative interest in seduction plots, the nature of reputation, and in the complex role of the young gentlewoman at moral risk.   De Camp seems fascinated by the (sexual) tensions contained within the artifice and politesse of society. It was an interest shared by many parts of her audience, as evidenced in contemporary literary fashions, legal proceedings, and wider social concerns. The generic conventions of the light social comedy and the festive frame of theatre's benefit system - both De Camp's full-length plays were written for benefits - counterpoint dark plots of innocence compromised and honour abused.

[Text based, in part, on A Treasure House by Ann Blainey published in Books at Iowa 53 (November 1990).Copyright of the original material is vested in The University of Iowa Libraries.]


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