Frances Abington

Frances "Fanny" Abington (1737 – 4 March 1815) was an English actress that was known for her acting as well as her sense of fashion.[1]

Fanny Abington
an elegant lady leaning on a velvet drapery on a mantel
Portrait by Joshua Reynolds
Frances Barton

1737 (1737)[1]
Died(1815-03-04)March 4, 1815[1]
London, England
Other namesNosegay Fan
EmployerHaymarket Theatre, Drury Lane, Covent Garden[1]
Notable work
Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal[1]
Spouse(s)James Abington


She was born Frances Barton or Frances "Fanny" Barton, as the daughter of a private soldier. She began her career as a flower girl and a street singer. It was also rumoured that she recited Shakespeare in taverns at the age of 12, along with being a prostitute for a short period to help her family with economical problems.[2] Later, she became a servant to a French milliner. During that time, she learnt about costume and learnt French. Her early nickname, Nosegay Fan, came from her time as a flower girl.[1] Her first appearance on stage was at Haymarket in 1755[1] as Miranda in Mrs Centlivre's play, Busybody.[3]

In 1755, she was recommended by Samuel Foote and joined the Drury Lane company, although being overshadowed by Hannah Pritchard and Kitty Clive.[1] Her first success was in Ireland as Lady Townley (in The Provoked 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, the royal trumpeter James Abington, she was mentioned in the bills as "Mrs. Abington". She remained at the Drury Lane for 18 years, being the first to play more than 30 important characters, notably Lady Teazle (1777).[1][4]

In April 1772, when James Northcote saw her as 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.[5]

Mrs Abington as Miss Prue by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Her Shakespeare 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. It was soon being referred to as the "Abington Cap" – on stage and at hatters' shops across Ireland and England. Abington soon became known for her avant-garde fashion and even came up with a way of making the female figure appear taller by wearing a tall hat called a ziggurat, complete with long flowing feathers, and following 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).[6] In 1782 she left Drury Lane for Covent Garden.[1] After an absence from the stage from 1790 until 1797, she reappeared, quitting finally in 1799.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hoiberg, Dale H., ed. (2010). "Abington, Fanny". Encyclopædia Britannica. I: A-ak Bayes (15th ed.). Chicago, IL: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. pp. 33. ISBN 978-1-59339-837-8.
  2. ^ Felicity Nussbaum (2011). Rival Queens: Actresses, Performance, and the Eighteenth-Century British Theater. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 228. ISBN 9780812206890.
  3. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, p. 5.
  4. ^ Chisholm 1911.
  5. ^ Letter, 8 April 1772, in William T. Whitley, Artists and Their Friends in England 1700–1799 (1928) vol. II, p.289.
  6. ^ "Mrs Abington" by Sir Joshua Reynolds Yale Center for British Arts

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