Another piece of ephemera from the worldwideweb sent me back to my old files, today, to dig out an unpublished biographical note on a Victorian musician ...
This 1839 letter is from George Stansbury, sometime composer, musical director and singer at London's most lofty theatres, to a Mr or Mrs Draper, to whom he owes money. He has been employed by an English Italian Opera Company, under William Balfe, at the English Opera House and he, Miss Rainforth and the other principals have not been paid. The season was a disaster for all concerned. Adam Leffler got so wined-up he couldn't go on in the title-role of Ricci's Scaramuccia, and George depped for him at short notice. At least, that was the story. Maybe he didn't like not being paid. George stuck it out to the end of the five weeks' season (Diadeste, L'Elisir d'amore) -- but paid for his fidelity to the corps. The press reported that all the principals only got paid for seven performances.
I have a feeling this is his landlord chasing him. Or his wine merchant. I notice he has shifted his address by 1841. And gives his address as 45 Vincent Street not long before this date ...
So here is the story of ...
STANSBURY, George Frederick (b Bristol, x 7 June 1800; d Melina Place, Westminster Rd, Lambeth 3 June 1845)
A man of many musical parts, George Stansbury had a very varied career – on both sides of the footlights -- in the English operatic theatre.
Stansbury was born in Bristol, into a musical family. Father Joseph (b Ireland; d Bristol 14 June 1827) was a musician, as were the three surviving sons and at least two of the three surviving daughters borne to him by his wife Susannah née Prout (d Bristol 18 December 1831).
Eldest son, John Adolphus Stansbury (x Bristol 6 January 1792; d Bristol c September 1837), a violinist and pianist, was for many years the leader of the orchestra at the Theatre Royal, Bristol, and of the Bristol concerts; second son Joseph Augustus Stansbury (x Bristol 19 July 1793; d Southwark, 22 August 1831) favoured the double bass, younger sisters Emma (b Bristol, 17 May 1803; d Camden Town, London 15 April 1862) and Louisa Jane (Mrs Joseph Hall, b Bristol x 24 July 1808) both tried their hand at singing and the stage. George Stansbury quite simply did all those things. He could, so it was said, play any instrument in the orchestras he conducted, and he would, during his career, appear on the principal stages of London and the provinces as an actor and singer in opera – sometimes a tenor, sometimes a baritone or even a bass – with considerable success.
Mr Stansbury was a colourful fellow, a decided ‘bon vivant’ on the London scene in the 1830s and 1840s, and when he lived just a little too hard, and went to his grave at the age of 44, a number of gentlemen of the press devoted more column inches to his memory than was strictly normal. The salient facts of his career were well enough known that they were presented pretty justly, but some details came out a little strangely. One paper, for instance, had him touring Britain under the wing of Mme Catalani in 1819. Catalani didn’t sing in Britain in 1819. And so forth.
Catalani did sing in Britain in 1814, and amongst her engagements were the Bristol Festival and the West of England Festival at Exeter (18 October). On the bill of each of these can be seen the name of ‘Master G Stansbury’. (I notice another Mr Stansbury playing tenor in the band at Exeter. I wonder which one it was.). Master Stansbury shared the soprano music of The Messiah at Bristol (16 June) with the prima donna. He is also on the bill when she appeared that same season in Dublin, and he was described as being ‘of the nobility’s concerts’. Since the nobility didn’t invite the press to their concerts, I have, alas, no confirmatory details on that subject.
Master Stanbury’s voice evidently broke soon after this, for he disappears from the pages of the papers for a number of years. It is 1819 before I spot him out again in Bristol, singing with Mrs Salmon, Miss Tree, Andrew Loder and Edward Rolle in a concert at the local Assembly Rooms. On 1 June the following year, he appears on the same platform again, accompanied by sister Emma, in a Benefit concert of his own. The excuse for the Benefit is that he is ‘about to quit Bristol to conduct the musical Department at the Dublin Theatre’. And, at barely twenty years of age, that is exactly what he did.
Stansbury 'director of music to the Theatre Royal' fulfilled the entire season in Dublin, conducting at the theatre and at various concerts, playing piano accompaniments for Mrs Humby or Mrs Glover, and organ accompaniments in church concerts, arranging and composing music (‘Life in Dublin’), singing in glee concerts and even, on one occasion, getting up at a charity benefit to sing ‘Comfort Ye’/’Every Valley’.
After Dublin, he returned to Bristol, and he seems to have remained there until 1828. I spot him from time to time playing, singing or conducting in concert – at a Messiah in 1823 he is chorus conductor to George Smart, in 1824, at a sacred music concert in St James’s Church, he is conductor and brother John is leader, in a concert on Boxing Day 1825, he is tenor soloist in a concert at the theatre, alongside Miss Paton, Miss George, Pearman and Henry Phillips and – could that be he? there is a Mr Stansbury playing flute in the orchestra at the Birmingham Festival of 1826.
In May 1827, Mr Stansbury senior promoted a Benefit at the theatre, at which Emma and George both sang, and the local press reported ‘Miss Stansbury is a talented scion of the old stock ... during her short career on the stage she has displayed powers that hold out no mean promise of future excellence. High as Mr George Stansbury stands with the public we were almost going to say his intended debut on the boards is infra dig, but when we consider the motive it is too amiable to be …’
Now, one of those obits that I mentioned would have it that George acted for three years in the company at Bristol, following a success in Inkle and Yarico at a Benefit. From this report, it is evident that at twenty-six he had not yet turned theatre performer, and his Bristol time is almost done, so… As for Emma, well, we’ll come to her later, but it is safe to say that, if she had promise, she never fulfilled it. The few notices of her singing I have read are fairly dire.
Five months later (5 October), George, Emma and youngest sister Louisa would re-assemble in the same venue for another concert, this time in the name of their widowed mother. Love in a Village was played, and they all played in it.
In November, George sang again in concert at the theatre, this time sharing the bill with Pasta, Sally Forde, Sra Brambilla and Curioni, the following March I see him and Emma at Bath ('Yes 'tis decreed') and then, in June 1828, it was announced that he would again be leaving Bristol, having ‘formed an engagement as leader of the band at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket’.
And thus began the London period of George Stansbury’s life. A period which, apparently, he began without his wife – the former Frances Stratton Roberts, daughter of a clergyman (1791-1869, m Bristol 28 August 1822) -- and their four children. The split in the family would turn out to be definitive, and George ended up consorting with a young dancing girl from Covent Garden, Miss Mary Ann Whittle (b Skinner's Row 27 August 1814), daughter of Samuel Penrose Whittle (1787-1842), a Greenwich shoemaker on whom he fathered three further children.
George Stansbury began his career at the Haymarket in the orchestra pit, but it was not long before he crossed the footlights and made his first appearance on the London stage (11 August 1828), playing Captain Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, alongside Miss Bartolozzi, old friend Mrs Humby and William Farren. The Times wrote: ‘Although a stranger till now to the stage, Mr Stansbury is not so to the theatre, the orchestra of which he has hitherto led. In his performance as a singer, his powers of execution appear considerable, and his style is tasteful, although a guttural sound is observable in the lower tones of his voice which is by no means pleasing to the ear. As an actor, too, his qualifications are by no means inconsiderable. All his motions are perfectly free from restraint and his elocution is extremely correct. Mr Stansbury met with a very favourable reception on the part of a very numerous audience’.
The general tenor of his notices was that he was evidently a fine musician, but that the actual voice was not entirely stageworthy. Up in Hull, the local paper reported: ‘The London papers speak in favourable terms of his qualifications as a musician, but point out certain deficiencies in his voice and manner. He does not appear to have made a decided hit.’ 'Hit' or not, as a performer he was certainly satisfactory.
Stansbury doesn’t seem to have done too much conducting thereafter, as he went on to appear as Hawthorn in Love in a Village alongside Mrs Glover and Mrs Waylett (‘sang and played with great spirit, though with a painfully defective organ, obtained several encores’), as Warbleton in The Foundling of the Forest (‘sang a new mock bravura with so much effect as to render an encore a matter of course’) and as Trumore in The Lord of the Manor (10 September), before taking another turn as Macheath.
When the season ended at the Haymarket, the new leading man ‘from the Haymarket Theatre’ moved on to the Surrey Theatre, to play Love in a Village and Malcolm in The Slave with Mrs Waylett, and then, with the new year, to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in the triple employ of chorus master, composer and arranger, and performer.
Stansbury made his first appearance at the Garden on 15 January 1829, in a piece entitled The Nymph of the Grotto, or a daughter’s vow, as a pendant to the pantomime, playing alongside Mme Vestris, Mr Wood and Miss Jarman. In the role of Léonce de Montgomerie, as the opposite number to Vestris, with Wood as jeune premier to the principal girl of Mary Cawse, Stansbury pulled the same type of review. ‘Mr Stansbury is a very good musician but a very middling singer… In a second, his voice sounds well, but it is too husky in a solo; he sang a martial air with great spirit in the first act, but was not called upon to repeat it’. Elsewhere it was reported ‘he was very well received’. And he always seemed to be so.
The most successful production of the season was the Ivanhoe opera The Maid of Judah, in which Stansbury played the part of Maurice de Bracey behind Miss Paton, Wood and Phillips. His main contribution was in a quartet with the three stars.
During this time, too, Stansbury supplied Mme Vestris with several songs, of which ‘The Banners of Blue’, its companion, 'Bonnie Scotland, I adore three' and ‘Spring is coming’ both proved popular.
In July, Stansbury and Sally Forde – billed grandly as ‘of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden’ -- played a season at the Royal Coburg Theatre. Much of the repertoire was standard – The Lord of the Manor, Love in a Village, No Song No Supper (Crop), The Flitch of Bacon (Captain Wilson), The Slave of Surinam, The Beggar’s Opera – but there was a new version of the tale of Robin Hood and Little John in which Stansbury played the Earl of Huntingdon, and a new operatic drama entitled Malvina in which he was cast as Cathullin, Lord of Ulster. They popped up to Reading for a concert in which he 'excited much interest' by his rendering of 'Highland Laddie'.
Back at Covent Garden, he appeared as the Sultan, opposite Vestris in The Sublime and the Beautiful, and in The Night Before the Wedding and the Wedding Night in the small part of Justice Right, a singing dancing JP whose function was simply to take part in another quartet. When Cinderella was played, he was Alidoro (‘For soldiers the feast prepare’) although, when Penson fell ill, he was hastened on, on one occasion, to play Pompolino.
In 1831 he appeared as General Duroc in Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1832 as Beppo in Fra Diavolo – a low comedy role that he would repeat on many occasions -- in 1833 as Midas in Midas, in Comus and as Mammbre in The Israelites in Egypt. With his other hat on, he supplied the music for several of the theatre’s plays including Shakespeare’s Early Days, Comrades and Friends, The Royal Fugitive (with Henry Bishop), Neuha’s Cave, The Tartar Witch and the Pedlar Boy, Waverley, The Vision of the Bard (with Alexander Lee) and Puss in Boots, or Harlequin and the Miller's Son. He also composed the score for The Little Red Man, or the Witch of the Water Snakes at Sadler’s Wells.
In between his Covent Garden seasons, he appeared from 1830 at the Royal Vauxhall Gardens where he took part in several new musical pieces: Adelaide or the Royal William (1830), The Magic Fan, The Sedan Chair (1832). He also presided at the organ for Kean's funeral at Richmond.
In 1833, Stansbury ended his time at Covent Garden with the announcement: ‘Stansbury of Covent Garden is engaged as musical director in Dublin in place of William Penson as leader and musical conductor’. So he returned to the theatre where he had begun his career, although in a rather more varied role. The history of the theatre relates ‘He was a most versatile musician, a good vocalist, excellent pianist, fair violinist, and frequently ascended from the orchestra to the stage, fulfilling a part in Opera with great effect. On such occasions he entrusted the baton to the care of Mr Levey, whom, at the termination of his engagement, Mr Calcraft placed in the position of leader.’
On top of his duties on stage (Dandie Dinmont in Guy Mannering 7 December 1833, ‘his first on this stage’) and in the pit, he also composed the music for, and directed the production of the theatre’s pantomime Puss in Boots.
In 1834, Stansbury went on the road as a stock company star, initially in the company of Mr and Mrs Edmunds (Mary Cawse), and was seen in Manchester and Liverpool as Dandie Dinmont, Hawthorn, Pietro in Masaniello, Mr Browne-Derrington in Englishmen in India et al, in the company of Miss Shirreff, Frazer, Collins, Sinclair and other top-billers, before in 1835 returning to London to take up a post as conductor and composer/arranger at John Braham’s new St James’s Theatre. He played his Dandie Dinmont and Beppo, orchestrated Mrs a’Beckett’s score for Agnes Sorel, wrote the music for her operetta Wanted a Brigand, and adapted and arranged the burletta, Cosimo, from the French, whilst keeping up his relationship with the Vauxhall Gardens, where he both performed and played, whilst supplying the theatre with a regular string of new musical pieces amongst which a new ‘Victorian Ode’ attracted much attention.
In 1838, he moved on for a period to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where he appeared as Rodolphe in William Tell, Beppo in Fra Diavolo, and composed the score for The King of the Mist, and the following year to the Surrey Theatre. He also, as we see from the letter above, put in an emergency appearance at the English Opera House, taking over the title-role in Balfe’s production of Scaramuccia, on opening night, from an incapacitated (ie drunk) Adam Leffler.
His versatility got one more twist when he went out on tour with Miss Romer and Templeton, starring in opera in the provinces. Since Templeton evidently took the tenor roles, Mr Stansbury – billed equally with the other two stars – took the baritone and bass parts, singing Hela in The Mountain Sylph, Rodolfo in La Sonnambula, Figaro and Dulcamara in The Love Spell (‘very happy and effective ... a capital specimen of comic singing and acting’). He also took similar engagements with Mr and Mrs Wood, and with Adeline Cooper.
In 1841, he returned to the Surrey Theatre (he and Mary Ann can be seen living and breeding in Stangate Street) and he remained there as conductor and occasional performer (Beppo, Rodolfo &c) for four seasons, whilst also conducting concerts and banquets and apparently also teaching. The press confided that he had been chosen by Braham to be the vocal coach for his son, the soon-to-be successful basso, Hamilton Braham.
|Surrey pantomime of 1843|
He resigned from the Surrey Theatre after a disagreement with the management, and was preparing to take up an engagement at the Princess’s Theatre when he was taken ill, and died, soon after, at the age of 44. It turned out that his excesses in private life had indeed eaten away his ‘fortune’, and his two families – Frances and her children in Bristol, and Mary Ann and her surviving daughter in London – were left with nothing. In fact, the Stansbury family of Bristol had a sad end all round. Both John and Joseph had died in the 1830s, and the sisters, too, were to have an unhappy lot.
In 1842, a strange advertisement appeared in the northen press, concerning a concert to be given at the City Hall, Candleriggs, Glasgow by ‘Mrs Fortescue principal vocalist from the Theatres Royal London and Dublin and Miss Stansbury of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, sisters of the celebrated George Stansbury musical director and composer to the Theatres Royal, Dublin, Covent Garden and Drury Lane’.
Mrs Fortescue was Emma. She had been married in 1831 to Henry Thomas of Bedminster, but she had apparently lost him and was now the wife of a singing Mr Fortescue ‘son of the composer’ 'a buffo singer of great capability' with whom I notice her (‘Miss Stansbury’) performing to bad notices at the Hull Philharmonic Society in 1837. Miss Stansbury was possibly Louisa whom we have already noted singing in concerts in early days. But I suppose it could be Clara. In any case, I have no idea what Mrs F reckoned to have done at Drury Lane. And I find no sign of them singing much elsewhere (Bagnigge Wells 1845) although I suspect Emma is the Miss Stansbury warbling (alongside Mr Fortescue) at the Royal Standard Tavern in the City Road in 1839, and Mr F could be the one singing in the Ethiopian Harmonists at Leamington in 1846. Where I do definitely find her is in the census lists of 1861, Emma and Clara living together in Camden Town, and employed as shirt-makers. Emma died soon after, but Clara is still there in the 1871 census, 68 years old, listed as a pauper and living off the parish.