Violet Vanbrugh

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Violet Vanbrugh in 1909

Violet Vanbrugh (11 June 1867 – 10 November 1942), born Violet Augusta Mary Barnes, was an English actress who had a career spanning more than 50 years. Despite her many successes, her career was overshadowed by that of her more famous sister Irene Vanbrugh.

Vanbrugh studied acting and made her professional debut in an 1886 burlesque. The same year, she made her West End theatre debut and then travelled to Margate to play leading roles in four of Shakespeare's plays. In 1889 she joined the Kendals at the Royal Court Theatre and on tour in the US Two years later, back in London, she joined Henry Irving and Ellen Terry in their famous Shakespeare company at the Lyceum Theatre. In 1893, she appeared opposite her husband Arthur Bourchier at Daly's Theatre and soon became his leading lady at the Royalty Theatre and then at the Garrick Theatre, where Bourchier was lessee for the first six years of the 20th century.

Vanbrugh returned to Shakespearean roles in 1906 at Stratford upon Avon, where she played Lady Macbeth to her husband's Macbeth, and they soon starred together in Herbert Beerbohm Tree's London production of Henry VIII. They continued to play in Shakespeare and other pieces, and two films, through World War I, but their marriage ended in 1918. She continued acting steadily on stage and had some success in film in the 1930s, especially in Pygmalion in 1938. In her 50th season on stage, she starred in The Merry Wives of Windsor with her sister in London, and during The Blitz, they entertained at matinees. Her last film appearance was in 1940 in Young Man's Fancy. She died in London in 1942 at the age of 75.


Violet Augusta Mary Barnes was born in Exeter, England, the eldest of six children of the Rev Reginald Henry Barnes (1831–1889), Prebendary of Exeter Cathedral and Vicar of Heavitree, and his wife, Frances Mary Emily, née Nation.[1] She was the elder sister of the actress Irene Vanbrugh and the theatrical educator Kenneth Barnes. She grew up in Exeter and was then educated in France and Germany.

Early career[edit]

When Violet decided to enter the acting profession, the actress Ellen Terry, a family friend, suggested that she should adopt the stage name Vanbrugh.[1] Violet's early success encouraged Irene to follow her into the profession, and she too took the stage surname Vanbrugh. Both sisters enrolled at Sarah Thorne's school of acting, based at Margate, which gave them a thorough practical grounding. Irene recalled "We played every kind of play there; comedy, farce, and drama of the deepest dye; while at Christmas there came the pantomime, so that the Juliet of a week ago might be the Prince Paragon of the Yule-tide extravaganza."[2] The sisters played together in As You Like It at the Theatre Royal, Margate, with Violet in the lead role, Rosalind, and Irene in the smaller part of Phoebe.[1][3] John Gielgud, a grand nephew of Ellen Terry, described the two:

The Vanbrugh sisters were remarkably alike in appearance. Tall and imposing, beautifully spoken, they moved with grace...They were elegantly but never ostentatiously dressed, entering and leaving the stage with unerring authority...Violet never struck me as a natural comedienne, as Irene was.[4]

Ellen Terry helped Violet Vanbrugh land her first professional acting role in an 1886 burlesque, by F.C. Burnand, Faust and Loose, at Toole's Theatre. The same year, she made her West End theatre debut as Ellen in The Little Pilgrims. She then toured and also returned to Toole's, playing several roles until 1887 including Lady Anne in The Butler. Returning to Margate later that year, she appeared in Shakespeare's Hamlet as Ophelia, in A Midsummer Night's Dream as Helena, in As You Like It as Rosalind and in The Merchant of Venice as Portia.

In London in 1888, she played Gertrude in the Deputy Registrar. In 1889, she joined the Kendals at the Royal Court Theatre as Lady Gillingham in The Weaker Sex, and at the end of the year travelled with them to the US, where she played Lady Ingram in the comedy A Scrap of Paper and in dramas such as The Iron Master, Impulse and A White Lie and comedies such The Weaker Sex. Back in England in 1891, she joined Henry Irving and Ellen Terry at the Lyceum Theatre as Anne Boleyn in his successful revival of King Henry VIII. She also understudied Terry in several roles.

Bourchier and later years[edit]

In 1893, she appeared together with Arthur Bourchier in Augustin Daly's production of Love in Tandem at Daly's Theatre, and the two married the following year.[5] In 1895, Bourchier became lessee of the Royalty Theatre, and Vanbrugh became his leading lady in many productions, including The Chilli Widow, Mr and Mrs, Monsieur de Paris and The Queens Proctor. Bourchier, Vanbrugh and her sister Irene toured America beginning in 1897. Returning to England, Vanbrugh played the title role in Teresa, which Bourchier produced at the Metropole. After managing several productions with Charles Wyndham, Bourchier became lessee of the Garrick Theatre.

Harold Acton described his childhood impression of Vanbrugh in Memoirs of an Aesthete: "Immensely tall, sedate, angular, sharp nosed, and dressed as another herbaceous border, she ate her supper haughtily, like a deaconess. I could not imagine...the hero embracing her: unless he were equally tall he would have to climb on a chair."[6][page needed] In 1902, Vanbrugh and Bourchier had a child, Prudence Bourchier, who also became an actress, taking the stage name Vanbrugh.

Arthur Bourchier

Over the six years of Bourchier's management at the Garrick, Vanbrugh starred in many of his productions, including The Bishop's Move, My Lady Virtue, Whitewashing Julia, The Arm of the Law and W. S. Gilbert's The Fairy's Dilemma (1904). Their production of The Walls of Jericho by Alfred Sutro in 1904, ran for a very successful 423 performances. In 1905, Violet reprised her role of Portia in Bourchier's production of The Merchant of Venice and again in a command performance for King Edward at Windsor Castle. In 1906, at Stratford upon Avon, she played Lady Macbeth to her husband's Macbeth. Vanbrugh and Bourchier toured in 1908 in John Glayde's Honour and appeared together as King Henry and Queen Katherine in Sir Herbert Tree's successful production of Henry VIII, which was followed by Tree's silent film of the play.[7]

In 1913, she appeared in Mrs. Pomeroy's Reputation by Horace Annesley Vachell and Thomas Cobb at The Queen's Theatre. They then produced their own movie in Germany of scenes from Macbeth. They continued to play in Shakespeare and other pieces through World War I, but their marriage was becoming difficult. They toured together in 1916 but then separated and finally divorced in 1918.[8] A contemporary later observed, "He treated her very much as Henry VIII treated Anne Boleyn – except he didn't quite cut off her head."[9] Bourchier remarried a much younger actress, Violet Marion Kyrle Bellew, but Vanbrugh never remarried.

Vanbrugh continued acting steadily until 1939, playing with much success in Thunder in the Air as Mrs Vexted in 1928. She also appeared in three further films during the 1930s, including Pygmalion (1938), together with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller. In her 50th season on stage, she starred in The Merry Wives of Windsor at The Ring Blackfriars (playing Mistress Ford to her sister's Mistress Page),[10] and the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park. Her last film appearance was in 1940 in Young Man's Fancy. During the Battle of Britain, the Vanbrugh sisters carried out what a biographer calls "a characteristic piece of war work" by giving, with Donald Wolfit, lunchtime performances of extracts from The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Strand Theatre.[1]

Vanbrugh died in London in 1942 at the age of 75.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Littlewood, S.R. "Vanbrugh, Dame Irene (1872–1949)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2011, accessed 7 January 2011 (subscription required)
  2. ^ Bacchus, Reginald, "Miss Irene Vanbrugh: Her Art and Herself," The Ludgate, October 1899, p. 501
  3. ^ "Dame Irene Vanbrugh", The Times, 1 December 1949, p. 7
  4. ^ Gielgud, p. 115
  5. ^ "Marriage of Mr. Arthur Bouchier and Miss Violet Vanbrugh (Barnes), Western Times, 11 December 1894, p. 7
  6. ^ Acton, Harold. Memoirs of an Aesthete, London, Methuen, 1948
  7. ^ Hamilton Ball, Robert. "The Shakespeare Film as Record: Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree", Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 3, No. 3, July 1952, pp. 227–36
  8. ^ "Miss Violet Vanbrugh Obtains a Decree Nisi", Western Times, 21 December 1917, p. 5
  9. ^ Trewin, J. C. and Robert Speaight: Shakespeare Quarterly, Volume 28, No. 2 (Spring, 1977), p. 135
  10. ^ "Blackfriars Ring – 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'", The Times, 15 March 1937, p. 12
  11. ^ "Miss Violet Vanbrugh", Western Morning News, 21 November 1942, p. 3


  • Gielgud, John (1979). An Actor and His Time. London: Sidgwick and Jackson. ISBN 0-283-98573-9.
  • Vanbrugh biography at the Stage Beauty website
  • Profile "Violet Vanbrugh Edwardian Actress" at the About Postcards site

External links[edit]