Elizabeth Hartley (actress)

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Elizabeth Hartley
Elizabeth Hartley (actress).jpg
Elizabeth Hartley by Joshua Reynolds
Born Elizabeth White
Berrow, Somerset, England
Died 1 February 1824 (aged 73)
King Street, Woolwich, London, England
Nationality English
Occupation Actress

Elizabeth Hartley (née White) (1750?–1824)[note 1] was one of the most celebrated actors on the London stage in the 1700s.[1] She was also notorious for the role she played in society scandals including "The Vauxhall Affray".[2]


Elizabeth Hartley was the daughter of James and Eleanor White of Berrow, Somerset, England. She later took the name Hartley, but it is not known from whom. Various suggestions have been made including the master to whom she was a chambermaid, and other actors of a similar name.[3] There are also no reliable sources for her early roles until she appeared in Edinburgh, on 4 December 1771, as Monimia in Thomas Otway's The Orphan.[4]

After a season in Edinburgh she moved to Bristol where David Garrick, who had heard of her remarkable beauty, commissioned the actor John Moody to attend a performance and report back to him. On 20 July 1772, Moody wrote:

Mrs. Hartley is a good figure, with a handsome, small face, and very much freckled; her hair red, and her neck and shoulders well turned. There is not the least harmony in her voice, but when forced (which she never fails to do on every occasion) is loud and strong, but such an inarticulate gabble that you must be well acquainted with her part to understand her. She is ignorant and stubborn.... She has a husband, a precious fool, who she heartily despises. She talks lusciously, and has a slovenly good nature about her that renders her prodigiously vulgar.[5]

Since she was by this time already engaged to play at the Covent Garden theatre, this poor review was of no account.[3] Meanwhile, Hartley had been living at the premises of Mrs Kelly, a well-known bawd and it can be assumed was also working for her.[6]

Her first appearance at the Covent Garden theatre was as Jane Shore on 5 October 1772. It was said concerning her debut that "she is deserving of much praise, her figure is quite elegant, her countenance pleasing and expressive, her voice in general melodious, and her action just."[7] However, writing about her performance in her next role as Queen Catherine in Henry VIII the same journal wrote that she had "frequently sunk into a whining monotony which from the length of some of the speeches became very disagreeable".[8]
These mixed reviews which praised her beauty but criticised her acting continued after she played Orellana: "her beautiful figure and sweet face, made every auditor wish that nature had given her a voice less dissonant, and monotonous".[9]

In the summer of 1773 the events that became known as "The Vauxhall Affray" took place. A group of young men including Thomas Lyttelton, the notorious libertine,[10] George Robert FitzGerald and Captain Crofts were involved in a drunken brawl which started in the Vauxhall Gardens where Hartley was walking with Rev Henry Bate (later Lord Dudley). Bate became incensed by the rudeness of the young men in staring at and making remarks about Hartley. Insults were exchanged, threats were made, and a duel was proposed. The affair culminated with a boxing match in a tavern. Owing to the notoriety of the people involved these events stimulated extensive debate and gossip and a pamphlet was published and circulated.[2][11]

In the following summer of 1774 Hartley again made the headlines when she absconded to France with William Smith who played her on-stage lover in Henry II or The Fall of Rosamond. They travelled on to Cork, Ireland where they acted together. They both returned to London for the autumn season.[3]

Her looks were more often praised than her acting, but she was popular with audiences. Her portrait was depicted by many artists including Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, John Downman, John Keyse Sherwin and Angelica Kauffman.

"She was a very beautiful woman, and a good actress in parts that were not beyond her powers; her forte was tenderness, not rage".[12]

"A finer creature than Mrs Hartley I never saw – her make is perfect."[13]

"Mrs Hartley, who in all her golden beauty acted the lovely interest of Miss Neville. The author could not have wished a more perfect face and form ..."[14]

She worked at the Covent Garden theatre in a numerous roles until 1780 (see below), and also appeared at Drury Lane, Liverpool and Stroud.[3] She left the stage at the close of the season of 1779–80 when aged only 30, possibly due to ill health. There is no record of the rest of her life until she died at King Street, Woolwich, on 1 February 1824. She was buried on 6 February under the name of White. Her will left £100 to the Covent Garden Theatrical Fund.[15]


Edinburgh 1771–1772[edit]

Bristol 1772[edit]

London 1772–1780[edit]


(An incomplete list of portraits which can be viewed on the web)

  • Richard Houston, after Hugh Douglas Hamilton, (1771) Mrs Hartly[16]
  • Joshua Reynolds, (1771) Mrs Hartley as a Nymph with a Young Bacchus[1]
  • Maria Anna Angelica Catherina Kauffman, (1774) Hermione[17]
  • Joshua Reynolds,(1772?) Elizabeth Hartley (1751–1824) as Rowe's Jane Shore [18]
  • after Edward Fisher, (1776) Elizabeth Hartley[16]
  • Mrs Hartley as Andromache in "The Distrest Mother", (1777)[19]
  • Walker, after Daniel Dodd, (1777) Mrs. HARTLEY in the Character of MARCIA[17]
  • James Caldwall, by S. Smith, after George Carter, (1783) Immortality of Garrick[16]
  • Samuel William Reynolds, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, (1834) Mrs Hartley[16]


  1. ^ Baptismal records between 1745 and 1753 are absent from the parish records


  1. ^ a b "Joshua Reynolds:The creation of celebrity: Room guide: Room 7". Tate. Archived from the original on 13 June 2013. Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "The Vauxhall affray: or, the Macaronies defeated : being a compilation of all the letters, squibs, &c. on both sides of that dispute. With an introductory dedication to the Hon. Tho. Lyttleton, Esq;.". University of Oxford Text Archive. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Edward A. Langhans (1982). Habgood to Houbert: Volume 7 of A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660–1800. SIU Press. pp. 156–164. ISBN 9780809309184. 
  4. ^ C. Conroy (2004). "Hartley , Elizabeth (1750/51–1824)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  5. ^ Garrick Correspondence i. 470 in Elizabeth Hartley DNB
  6. ^ Sir Joshua Reynolds in Dan Cruickshank (2010). The Secret History of Georgian London: How the Wages of Sin Shaped the Capital. Random House. ISBN 9781407089515. 
  7. ^ "article". Town and Country Magazine: 545. 1772.  in Elizabeth Hartley DNB
  8. ^ Town and Country Magazine 1772 in Edward A. Langhans, Habgood to Houbert 1982
  9. ^ Covent Garden Journal February 1773 in Edward A. Langhans, Habgood to Houbert 1982
  10. ^ John Cannon (2008). Lyttelton, Thomas, second Baron Lyttelton (1744–1779)Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. 
  11. ^ "The London magazine". The London magazine, or, Gentleman's monthly intelligencer: 461. September 1773. 
  12. ^ John Genest (1832). Some account of the English stage, from the restoration in 1660 to 1830. 6. Carrington. p. 155. 
  13. ^ David Garrick (1832). James Boaden, ed. The private correspondence of David Garrick: with the most celebrated persons of his time; now first pub. from the originals, and illustrated with notes. And a new biographical memoir of Garrick, Volume 2. H. Colburn and R. Bentley. p. 335. 
  14. ^ James Boaden (1827). Memoirs of Mrs Siddons Interspersed with Anecdotes of Authors and Actors, 1: By James Boaden In Two Volumes. Henry Calburn. p. 104. 
  15. ^ Elizabeth Hartley DNB
  16. ^ a b c d "Elizabeth Hartley (nee White) (1750 or 1751–1824), Actress". National Portrait Gallery. Retrieved 31 March 2014.  (Creative Commons Licence Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0) not suitable for uploading to Wikipedia)
  17. ^ a b "Garrick Club Art Collection". Garrick Club. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  18. ^ Felicity Nussbaum. "Elizabeth Hartley (1751–1824) as Rowe's Jane Shore (circa 1772?) by Joshua Reynolds". Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater. Archived from the original on 2 April 2014. Retrieved 2 April 2014. 
  19. ^ "Elizabeth Hartley (nee White) as Andromache in "The Distrest Mother"". University Library University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Archived from the original on 1 April 2014. Retrieved 21 September 2016. 

Further reading[edit]