In the late nineteenth century, London theatres staged productions designed to entertain the working and middle classes. Operettas, comedies, melodramas and Shakespearean drama offered theatregoers "an escape from the dreary monotony and daily discomfort of lives spent mostly in the business of survival."1 Despite its appeal to the lower classes, theatrical entertainment was also popular among the elite. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert frequently attended the London theatre and had a particular interest in Shakespearean productions.
Naturally, theatrical productions required talented performers. With some exceptions, men filled most of the roles required to stage plays, including writing scripts, managing theatrical troupes, directing and producing. Popular actresses, however, frequently surpassed their onstage roles, becoming internationally known celebrities. This celebrity was only tangentially related to acting skill. Instead, it depended on the attributes that still define twenty-first century celebrity: adherence to particular standards of beauty, glamorous self-presentation and savvy self-promotion. Involvement in a low-level personal scandal with romantic overtones was helpful too.
In the days before film, television or internet, inexpensive postcards printed with pictures of popular celebrities served as both promotional material and keepsake. Occasionally tied to a specific production, most celebrity postcards simply featured a printed image of a well-known figure. This c. 1900 picture postcard features British actress Lily Hanbury. In this postcard, Hanbury models the S-bend silhouette, a style popular between 1900 and 1910. The pencilled text, dated 25-4-03, seems to refer to whether a collector already has this particular postcard, an indication that celebrity postcards were considered desirable collectibles.
An 1897 article in The Cosmopolitan described how promotional postcards benefited both celebrities and photographers.2 As photographic and printing technologies become both more sophisticated and more affordable, images of actors and actresses became useful in promoting stage productions. Potential patrons remembered a play better if a promotional poster or handbill included an image of the cast or a star player in costume. Recognizing that actresses were popular celebrities, photographers began paying for the right to photograph popular actresses in-studio. The resulting postcards, which portrayed actresses in costume or in fashionable dress, were sold for profit. By the late 1890s, actresses and actors usually posed for free, realizing that the circulation of inexpensive picture postcards was good for both personal and professional publicity.
Born in 1874, Lily Hanbury made her theatrical debut in 1888. According to Hanbury's own account, she met writer W.S. Gilbert (later of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) when she went to see her cousin Julia Neilson perform in an 1888 production of Gilbert's Pygmalion and Galatea. Gilbert awarded her a small part in the play, which she performed only during matinees. After this first experience on the stage, Hanbury's family forced her return to school. In late 1890, she returned to the stage, and began a career as a successful stage actress. She performed in numerous London productions, even touring to New York with the Beerbohm Tree company in the mid 1890s. Mentions of Hanbury in North American press are relatively rare, probably because most of her performances were in London. In 1902, however, word of Hanbury's successful portrayal of Penelope in a new production of Ulysses reached the New York Times. Hanbury married Herbert Guedalla in 1905 and retired from the stage.3 In 1908, Hanbury died due to complications from a stillborn pregnancy.
Though we don't know who designed the gown and fur lined wrap worn by Hanbury in this postcard, actresses often had mutually beneficial relationships with couturiers. Godey's Magazine made note of this in November 1895: "the stage sets the fashion in the matter of costuming, and when an ambitious dressmaker is eager to launch a new mode, he endeavors to persuade a popular actress to wear it in public."4 This quote also suggests the importance of actresses as style icons; their visibility and celebrity allowed them to promote either the latest fashions or their own idiosyncratic sense of style.
1 Booth, Michael R. "The Metropolis on Stage." The Victorian City. Eds. H. J. Dyos, Michael Wolff. Great Britain: Routledge, 1999: 213.
2 Frohman, Daniel. "Actress Aided by Camera." The Cosmopolitan; a Monthly Illustrated Magazine. Feb. 1897: 413.
3 Actresses commonly retired from the stage after marriage.
4 "Fashion, Fact, And Fancy." Godey's Magazine. Nov 1895: 549.