Theatrical portraits – a 19th century celebrityJuly 25, 2012 About my museum job, Blogs, Collections online
Sorting through the boxes of prints in the store, it was not long before one of the actors began to catch my eye. T.P. Cooke appears in dozens of the museum’s prints and in several of those is shown wearing the distinctive flared trousers of a sailor character. It was the repetitive trousers that were so striking, although I confess what an 1820 theatre critic described as “his fine muscular figure and handsome expressive countenance” (The British Stage, quoted in this essay by Nichols) did little to dissuade my curiosity.
With a little web research Cooke’s renown soon became clear. Cooke was described as “the last and best of stage sailors” (Drury Lane : fifty years’ recollections of author, actor, and manager, 1881). Cooke’s stage success was linked with his experience at sea: “Having served as a cabin boy with Nelson’s fleet at Copenhagen” recalled one theatre manager, “it is little wonder that his personification of a British sailor excelled and surpassed all others”.
This assertion is difficult to reconcile with the contemporary consensus that these nautical melodramas bore little resemblance to the realities of life at sea. However it is not hard to imagine his audiences enjoying speculation about the potential autobiographical aspect of Cooke’s performances. His audiences certainly enjoyed his appearance; one reviewer noted that Cooke’s appearance in the role of William in ‘Black-eyed Susan’ “has helped to raise the thermometer at this house considerably” (The Ladies Companion, 1857.)
However popular Cooke was in his flared trousers, they did not mark the start of his renown. Rather than the heroic sailor, Cooke’s first moment of recognition came in 1820, when playing the title character from ‘The Vampire’. Theatre critics praised his emotional performance, and – spoiler alert – commented that T.P. Cooke’s Vampire “dies very prettily” (The Literary Gazette, 12th August 1820.)
Alongside his performances as gallant naval characters Cooke developed a reputation for his portrayals of supernatural villains. Sometimes Cooke was able to combine the two genres. In this performance Cooke played the character Vanderdecken, the captain of The Flying Dutchman, a ghostly pirate ship:
Cooke was the first actor to play the monster in Frankenstein, and his portrayal drew praise from Mary Shelley. The role was wordless and in 1826 T.P. Cooke played the monster in the play’s first run in France, when it was entitled “Le Monstre et le Magicien”. There is a fascinating and detailed discussion of his performances on the Frankensteinia blog (external link). The blog notes that the portrait bears little resemblance to critics’ descriptions of the costume. The facial features carry little likeness of the oft-white-trousered sailor of other theatrical portraits.
Cooke was one of the most famous actors of his generation, and appears on dozens of portraits in the collection. The museum will publish a thousand theatrical portraits on Collections Online, capturing a view of London’s theatrical life between 1815-1850. Cooke’s story is just one of those that appear in these portraits – why not see who takes your fancy?