Friday, September 9, 2022

The singing Robertson family from Scottish Chile


This photograph turned up on ebay last week .... I guess it fits with this article ...

ROBERTSON, Sophie Maria (b Valparaiso, Chile 31 July 1854; d 45 Kempsford Gardens, Kensington 26 December 1930) 

ROBERTSON, Fanny (b Valparaiso 2 February 1857; d Cadenham Grange, Cadnam 17 December 1943)

ROBERTSON, John Graham (b Valparaiso 14 February 1859; d Westonhanger, Ickham, Canterbury, Kent 24 October 1940)


During the Victorian era, there were a number of amateur vocalists who could and did appear alongside the professionals in concert, and even upon stage, without blushing.


The reasons that they were amateurs, for a part or the whole of their careers were, of course, social and financial. It was all right socially for a lady – blueish-blooded, army or church-bred -- to display herself on the public platform for charity, but dubious to do so for money, unless of course daddy had lost all his money and you were OBLIGED to ... or something of the kind.  The society amateur concert thrived in Victorian Britain, and Lady X and the Duchess of D lent their names and the talents to Church Bazaars, Hospitals and Children’s charities, sometimes alongside a selection of mere professionals with social ambitions or pretensions, on a regular basis. And just occasionally an amateur arose from the ranks …


The Misses Robertson, and their brother Jack, all took that step.


The Robertsons came from Chile, where the Scots family [Parish] Robertson had successfully established themselves over two generations as merchants, personalities, administrators – all of which activities are recorded in their books and articles of the time.  William Parish Robertson (b 6 June 1823; d Buenos Aires 21 May 1864) the younger wed (12 October 1851) Fanny Adrienne Harrington, daughter of a naval officer, and she bore five children before her husband’s health broke, and they had to leave Valparaiso. After William’s death, Fanny and the children removed back to England, where in 1867 the widow married a curate, Gerald Hyde Smith BA (d Ickham, Kent 16 October 1927), of Trinity College Cambridge and Lincoln Theological School, in Northamptonshire.


Parenthesis here, to say the Fanny Harrington had a sister, Emily, who married merchant Edmund Luscombe White. They had even more children than Fanny, before Edmund, too, went to an early grave. One of those children was Maude Valerie White, who was to garner renown as a composer and songwriter and who wrote – as one did – her memoirs (Friends and memories), in which a particularly felicitous sketch of her golden cousins is included.

M V White

Fanny had ensured that her daughters, especially, had musical education from a young age, and other reminiscences tell of Sophie, with her extremely high soprano, giving kiddie demonstrations of her precocious talent. That musical part of the family’s life was only increased by their stepfather, a keen musician and a capable bass singer. Soon after their marriage the Rev and Mrs Hyde Smith can be seen giving concerts in Northamptonshire.


In 1870, he moved to become rector of Cardinham in Cornwall, then in 1873 to Waickhambreux in Kent, and the family concerts continued. The first time I see Sophie included, is in a selection from the Creation with the local choral group. By November of that year she is already being referred to as ‘the celebrated soprano’.

I spot Sophie and younger sister Fanny (conveniently, a mezzo) singing at Littlebourne in July, and then in 1873, in a fortnight of one-night stands around Bodmin, Liskeard, St Austell, Truro, Penzance, Plymouth, Redruth and Camborne, with their parents, for the Cardinham Church Restoration Fund. When they appeared at Clare, Sophie was dubbed ‘the Kentish nightingale’ and ‘Miss Robertson who caused such a sensation in Cornwall last year’.

Miss Robertson and her troupe, usually comprising Fanny, the Hyde-Smiths (mother played piano and sang), and local amateurs such as Irish tenor Charles McCheane or baritone Captain (Major) Carlyon Simmons, appeared at Harvest Thanksgivings, College Fetes, Charity dos, and also in ‘The Robertson Grand Amateur Concert’.

The girls performances had been greeted with such eagerness, that they had been put to study with Alberto Randegger, and he would remain their one and only preceptor. But they remained staunchly amateur. 


Sophie appeared at the Albert Hall (20 February 1875) in a series of concerts sponsored by the Duke of Edinburgh (‘O luce di quest’anima’, ‘Bird of the Springtime’) and tootled around the southern counties giving her ‘Una voce’, ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Let me dream again’, ‘Parigi o cara’ etc with Fanny providing the contrast with ‘Quando a te lieta’, ‘O memory’ et al. And still labelled ‘Great Amateur Concert’ ‘the great amateur soprano’. Even though the company included the likes of Fred Federici.

June 2 1876, she brought her Church Fund concert to London and performed at the home of the Duke of Westminster, Fanny, McCheane and another skilled amateur, Mary Wakefield, sang and Randegger conducted. Miss White says: ‘The late Lord Dudley was, I believe, the first person to ask my cousin Sophie to sing professionally at his house in Park Lane. I well remember the discussion that took place in our drawing-room at Hyde Park Gate when the subject was mentioned to my mother. 

She hated the idea of such a thing. She had been brought up entirely in France, where to this day the feeling is very strongly against a gentlewoman appearing in public, either as an actress or a singer. My aunt, keen on raising the money for her husband's church (she had worked as hard as any of the others, taking her part in duets and trios, and playing almost all the accompaniments at the various concerts they had given), and very much more modern than my mother, who was her senior by a good many years, was not only in favour of her daughter accepting the engagement that Lord Dudley had offered her, but she also approved of her singing professionally. Needless to say she carried the day, and, backed by Signor Randegger, who felt quite sure they were running no risk of failure, both my cousins began to sing in public’.


Well, I can’t find the Dudley House date, but it was clearly about this time that the Misses Robertson changed status: for Mr McCheane and Major Simmons no longer feature alongside them, it is Sauvage, McGuckin, Federici et al.

I see them at Exeter with Sauvage and Gordon Gooch: Sophie sings ‘Caro nome’, ‘When elves at dawn’ and ‘The Bird that came at spring’. Fanny ‘The Lady of the Lea’. At Birmingham (February 1877), Sophie ‘took the audience by storm’ with her effortless Queen of the Night, and went straight to the Crystal Palace to sing The Creation with Mc Guckin and Federici (‘purity of style … refinement of phrasing .. highly favourable impression’). In June she soloed with Henry Leslie's Choir, alongside Mrs Osgood, in Hercules and at his Benefit.

She took a tour with Randegger, now accompanied by Miss de Fonblanque, Henry Guy and Wadmore, and won raves for her Persiani version of ‘Nel cor non piu mi sento’. Fanny was judged, a little unfairly, as ‘no more than moderate quality’.

The pair sang with Henry Leslie, Sophie gave a concert at Dudley House (3 May 1878), they did concerts with de Fonblanque, Guy and Wadmore, Sophie sang Christ and his Soldiers with Henschel, and both of them took part in the Verdi Requiem, with a semi-pro cast, at St James’s Hall. In August 1878, when Henry Leslie led a group to ‘represent’ Britain at the Paris Trocadero, the girls were of the trip, with de Fonblanque, Mc Guckin and Wadmore. In other words, Miss Robertson’s Concert troupe.

Sophie sang Undine at Liverpool, with Patey, Lloyd and Maybrick, and in 1879 at the Crystal Palace, and at the Albert Hall, where she introduced some d’Orczy Hungarian songs and delivered the Blumenthal ‘Venetian Boat Song’, which would become a standby for the sisters for the next years.

They sang at some of the best concerts: for Julius Benedict, Kuhe’s at the Floral Hall where they were the only English artists on the programme, more with the Leslie team and choir, and a Messiah at Oswestry. In 1880 they got near the stage, when they sang in a concert version of Martha at their old stamping-ground of Truro. Sophie gave her Queen of the Night at the Crystal Palace, they sang their Boat Song everywhere, but they continued, as before, to give their own concerts in their favourite places, from Exeter to Oxford.

In 1881, they were joined occasionally in concert by their brother, Jack, the possessor of a ‘thin but sweet’ tenorino and exceptional dark good looks.


In 1884, however, Miss Robertson’s Farewell was announced. Sophie was getting married. She married another South American Englishperson, Stanley John Stubbs (b Lima, 2 Feb 1861; d 19 Dec 1928), merchant and stockbroker, and son of Charles Edward Stubbs of Lima.


The marriage may have signalled Miss Robertson’s farewell to the professional platform, but Mrs Stanley Stubbs certainly did not stop singing. Alongside her activities as a charity organiser, a championship golf player, and the mother of two, she continued to appear at mostly amateur and charity concerts until well into the 20th century.


Fanny, whose tidy career as a vocalist had been lived almost entirely in the shadow of her stratospheric sister, married in 1887 (20 October) Captain Thomas Richard Francis Brabazon Hallowes of the Carabiniers (b Cilcain 18 May 1853; d Cadenham Grange, 25 December 1932), a scion of a blue-tinted blood family and a career army man, after which she faded from the vocal scene.


Brother Jack, however, had a public career of a longer duration. Like his sisters, a pupil of Randegger, he appeared sporadically in minor concerts from 1882, and featured as Balthasar in Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyceum.  He subsequently went to America with Irving’s troupe. In 1887 he was hired to play Ralph Rackstraw in the Savoy Theatre revival of HMS Pinafore. His ‘agreeable tenorino’ passed muster, he looked the sexy aristocratic sailor splendidly, but his acting – and his exaggerated stage-fright -- was better ignored. He followed up in the tenor roles of The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado to similar reactions:

‘[He] sang well as Frederic and, if this young artist does not as yet show any particular dramatic aptitude, he may take comfort in the thought that his immediate predecessor Mr Durward Lely was at first a very awkward actor ..’, ‘sang with neatness and an agreeable voice although as an actor he still has much to learn’. He apparently never did.


He sang in concert, and appeared in the very short-lived musical Mignonette (for which he was the co-producer and co-director) and as Alfredo in the Lyric Theatre production of Gilbert and Cellier’s The Mountebanks in 1892. His final London appearance on the mainstream musical stage seems to have been with Violet Cameron in the six weeks’ struggle-for-life of the musical La Rosière (1893).

In 1893 he went touring with Barrington Foote’s concert and opera company (Gregorio in 1-act The Improvisatore), played at the Court Theatre in a retitled version of the piece, A Venetian Singer, and in 1894 made a first appearance in the Boosey Ballad Concerts at the Queen’s Hall, at which he became a regular participant for ten years. His preferred song was Newton’s ‘Ailsa Mine’ but he also slipped The Vicar’s Song from The Sorcerer into proceedings. He sang in Bruch’s Lay of the Bell with Esther Palliser at Prince’s Hall and toured in an Adelina Patti/Albani concert party, performed sometimes as second tenor to Lloyd, at the Queen’s Hall proms and at the Crystal Palace, and 20 June 1896 he returned to base, at the Lyceum Theatre, to play and sing Sir Harry Bumper in The School for Scandal with Forbes Robertson (no relation, in spite of what some have written).

He went on another concert tour with Patti later in 1896, and travelled widely round Britain in concert, and as late as 1900 he was to be heard singing cousin Maude’s songs at the Alhambra and Liverpool’s New Brighton Tower

‘The man who always succeeds must assuredly first learn the limit of his powers. The supreme truth is invariably borne in on me with overwhelming conviction whenever I listen to Mr Jack Robertson. As a light ballad singer he has few equals on the concert platform today, and he possesses the inestimable gift of perfect enunciation ... the only serious fault that mars his efforts, is a tendency to exaggerate the sentiment of the words…’

In January 1900, at a War Fund ‘Golfers Concert’ Sophie, Fanny, Jack and youngest brother, the Reverend Norman, appeared together.

I see Jack at the Boosey Ballad concerts in January 1904 singing his then standby, Horrocks’s ‘The Bird and the Rose’, his own ‘Kitty was a Charming Girl’ and Stephen Adams’s ‘Maid of Malabar’, in what seems to have been the twilight of his career.

However I spot him and cousin Maude at a Patriotic Meeting in 1914, at a Grosvenor House concert for a Hospital Charity in 1916, and on the radio until 1933.

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