Frances Abington

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Fanny Abington
an elegant lady leaning on a velvet drapery on a mantel
Portrait by Joshua Reynolds
Born Frances Barton
1737 (1737)[1]
London, England
Died March 4, 1815(1815-03-04)[1]
London, England
Nationality British
Other names Nosegay Fan
Occupation Actress
Employer Haymarket Theatre, Drury Lane, Covent Garden[1]
Notable work Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal[1]
Spouse(s) James Abington

Frances "Fanny" Abington (1737 – 4 March 1815)[1] was a British actress, known not only for her acting, but her sense of fashion.[1]


She was born Frances Barton or Frances "Fanny" Barton, the daughter of a private soldier, and began her career as a flower girl and a street singer. She was also rumored that she would recite Shakespeare in Taverns at the age of 12 and for a short period of time was a prostitute to help her family in the hard times. Later she became a servant to a French milliner. She learned about costume and acquired a knowledge of French which afterwards stood her in good stead. Her early nickname, Nosegay Fan, came from her time as a flower girl.[1] Her first appearance on the stage was at Haymarket in 1755[1] as Miranda in Mrs Centlivre's play, Busybody.[2]

In 1755, on the recommendation of Samuel Foote, she became a member of the Drury Lane company, where she was overshadowed by Hannah Pritchard and Kitty Clive.[1] Her first success was in Ireland as Lady Townley (in The Provok'd Husband by Vanbrugh and Cibber), and it was only after five years, on the pressing invitation of David Garrick, that she returned to Drury Lane. In 1759, after an unhappy marriage to her music teacher James Abington, a royal trumpeter, she is mentioned in the bills as "Mrs Abington" and so she just kept his last name.She remained at the Drury Lane for eighteen years, being the first to play more than thirty important characters, notably Lady Teazle (1777).[1] [3]

In April 1772, when James Northcote saw her Miss Notable in Cibber's The Lady's Last Stake, he remarked to his brother

I never saw a part done so excellent in all my life, for in her acting she has all the simplicity of nature and not the least tincture of the theatrical.[4]

Mrs Abington as Miss Prue by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Her Shakespearean heroines – Beatrice, Portia, Desdemona and Ophelia – were no less successful than her comic characters – Miss Hoyden, Biddy Tipkin, Lucy Lockit and Miss Prue.Mrs. Abington’s Kitty in "High Life Below Stairs" put her in the foremost rank of comic actresses, making the mob cap she wore in the role the reigning fashion“. This cap was soon referred to as the “Abington Cap” and frequently seen on stage as well as in hat shops across Ireland and England. Adoring fans donned copies of this cap and it became an essential part of the well-appointed woman’s wardrobe. The actress soon became known for her avant-garde fashion and she even came up with a way of making the female figure appear taller. She began to wear this tall-hat called a ziggurat complete with long flowing feathers and began to follow the French custom of putting red powder on her hair (Richards).

It was as the last character in Congreve's Love for Love that Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the best-known of his half-dozen or more portraits of her (illustration, left).[5] In 1782 she left Drury Lane for Covent Garden.[1] After an absence from the stage from 1790 until 1797, she reappeared, quitting it finally in 1799.[1] Her ambition, personal wit and cleverness won her a distinguished position in society, in spite of her humble origin.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abington, Fanny". Encyclopedia Britannica. I: A-ak Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8. 
  2. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 5
  3. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  4. ^ Letter, 8 April 1772, in William T. Whitley, Artists and Their Friends in England 1700–1799 (1928) vol. II, p.289.
  5. ^ "Mrs Abington" by Sir Joshua Reynolds Yale Center for British Arts

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