Augustin Noverre at Drury Lane

2-10 Theatre Street - click to enlarge

Figure 2.1. Personal account book of William Windham of Felbrigg Hall, 1756-57. This page is for 18-31 May 1756, and shows payments to John-Georges Noverre and Augustin Noverre.
Reproduced with permission from original at Norfolk Record Office (document reference number WKC 6/453, 464X4).

Augustin was so successful as a fugitive that, to this day, nobody knows where he hid in Norwich. His victim recovered and Augustin returned to London in or before Spring 1756 when both Noverre brothers were engaged through the agency of Garrick to give dancing lessons to William Windham’s children and step-children. William Windham II (d1761) had been a friend and patron of Garrick since 1746, and Garrick stood patron to the Noverres. Windham’s personal account books (figure 2.1) show four payments for dancing lessons. Bear in mind that payments may have been made some considerable time after the lessons.

On 24 May 1756 ‘to Mrs Garrick for Noverre teaching and stockings £15 - 8s’; and on 31 May 1756 ‘to Garrick for Noverre cadet ‘£4 - 4s’. I suspect that Jean-Georges taught Windham’s step-sons, Bob and Billy Lukin, and Augustin taught Dolly Lukin and Bess Windham. Augustin’s known pupils were ‘young ladies’ and men of his own profession. Jean-Georges apparently had to be (expensively) compensated for damaged hose. The tuition took place earlier, when Jean-Georges was still in London and when Bob and Billy were home from Eton. Other payments in the accounts – three times ‘at ye play’ – show that the Windhams were, as usual at this season, at their London house in Golden Square and not at their country seat, Felbrigg in Norfolk. the Garricks may have been acting as bankers because of the Noverres’ alien status or because they were the agent.

On 15 July 1756 Windham paid ‘to Noverre £2 – 12s – 6d’. Jean-Georges was now in Paris and the payment was made directly to Augustin. The smaller payment suggests that those in May included the ‘entrance’ fee required of beginners. Other payments show that the Windhams were in London.

On 23 May 1757 Windham paid ‘Noverre £4 – 7s’. Again the Windhams were in London and had also hired a ‘Musick master £3 – 9s – 6d’. Jean-Georges had cut short his Drury Lane season and left England in early March, so the Noverre in question was Augustin.

There are fewer entries in the 1758 accounts and the Windhams were at Felbrigg and not in London for the Winter/Spring season. There are no payments for dancing lessons.

Whilst building a private practice Augustin was also dancing occasionally at Drury Lane by or before 1757.

Lynham quotes an undated letter from Garrick to Mme Noverre in France; Garrick is anxious because he has not heard from Jean-Georges whom he knows to have written to Augustin. He fears he has offended Jean-Georges and declares that he certainly does not undervalue him. It appears to be a reply to Mme Noverre’s sharp reproof of 7 March 1757. Garrick praises Augustin:

‘… your Brother and Mr de Laitre are highly approv’d of and their Names are on our Bills at large every time they dance.’

de Laitre was ‘a very good pantomime dancer’, recruited in Paris by Jean-Georges for Garrick’s company in 1755. He does not feature on any extant playbill and he may have moved on after 1757.

Augustin’s career at Drury Lane has to be pieced together from scanty evidence. He made occasional appearances – which would not have paid his rent – until the early or mid 1770s. His obituary in Bell’s Weekly Messenger, 1 September 1805, stated:

‘He quitted the stage nearly at the same time as [Garrick] for the private exercise of his profession as a Master.’

Garrick retired in 1776, by which time Augustin was well established as a Master, teaching private pupils and fellow professionals. John Browne of Norwich advertised in the Norwich Gazette, 2 March 1775: ‘He has received instruction at Noverre’s in London.’ John Browne taught ‘use of the small-sword’, which we must hope he did not learn from the accident-prone Augustin.

At this time Augustin lived – and presumably practised – in Surrey Street, off the Strand, the address which appears in his petition for Naturalisation in 1771. When he first went there is not known. He was still there in 1773 and moved to Great Marlborough Street by 1784. Further details of his removals and addresses will appear as we progress.

I am puzzled as to how Augustin became ‘professed’, which implies apprenticeship of about seven years to another Master to learn ball dances. Did it take place on the Continent before 1755, or in London after 1757? No such apprenticeship appears in the National Archives index for 1710–1760. He may have studied with a master informally or he may have relied on his Noverre background to establish himself in a private sphere. I suspect he took the latter course; we shall find him fudging the issue very neatly at a later date.

Of his Drury Lane appearances there is evidence of only one in the Theatre Museum archive, but the theatre archive at Harvard may contain more. On 20 March 1761, for the benefit night of Mrs Pritchard: The Mistake, principals: Garrick, Mr King, Mr Palmer, Mrs Yates, ‘End of the play (by particular desire of several persons of Quality) a Minuet by Mr Noverre and Mrs Palmer.’

Several persons of Quality play their usual role as a ‘puff’. Any of the Quality bespeaking a performance expected their name to appear on the bills. The minuet was performed by order of the management.

Augustin appeared with the company stars. Mrs Pritchard, large and mature, is known to us from Zoffany’s 1748 painting of the Macbeths in which Garrick looks absurdly young and slight. Mrs Pritchard had an enthusiastic following but was apt to drown the stage in excessive emotion. Mrs Yates was a petulant diva. Tom King was a company stalwart. ‘Gentleman’ Palmer was the husband of Noverre’s partner, the former Hannah Pritchard.

In 1755 Hannah Pritchard, aged 16, was sent to Paris by Garrick to study actors and dancers. She boarded with the Noverres from whom she no doubt received dance instruction, and returned to London with the ballet company. She made her debut as Juliet in 1756, played Beatrice to Garrick’s Benedick, and danced a Minuet at a Command performance. She married John Palmer in 1761.

Augustin is more evident in Garrick’s letters but not to his credit. In 1774 Garrick asked Augustin to persuade Jean-Georges to return to Drury Lane. Jean-Georges was very busy collecting patronage in Europe. His ballet Endymion had been performed for Frederick the Great in Neustadt in 1770. A large sum of money failed to coax him to London. Gerrick vented his exasperation to Richard Cox: ‘the distance between us, and the Brother’s inexperience of treaty making may have occasioned some blunder.’ Garrick sent an agent to negotiate with Jean-Georges, now in Milan. A season in 1776 was agreed upon but did not take place. Milan Opera house burned down. Jean-Georges went to Vienna, and in 1776 to Paris with a letter of recommendation from Empress Maria Theresa to her daughter – and his ex-pupil – Marie Antoinette. Instead of going to Drury Lane (which was quite outclassed) Jean-Georges became, on Marie Antoinette’s order, Maître de Ballet at the Opéra, ousting those who thought the post theirs and held for life. Moreover the new Maître was only half French, and a protestant. The dancers were outraged by his demands that they act – only to have the audience laugh at them. Ballets d’action were received with derision. Later Jean-Georges was manoeuvred into a ‘resignation’.

Augustin made a final blunder in Garrick’s affairs in 1777. Garrick asked Augustin, in Paris on a visit, to buy certain books. Augustin muddled his commission and Garrick wrote to another Paris-based friend ‘to correct ye blunders which Noverre jun. has made’. In spite of his exasperation Garrick hired Augustin to teach his nieces to dance at about this time.

Augustin’s fellow dancers at Drury Lane fall into two categories. First, dancing actors, of whom Garrick was a leading example, praised by diarist Sylas Neville: ‘How well, and with what Agility Garrick dances.’ All actors were expected to sing and dance.

Secondly, those hired to dance. The men were often also dancing masters, as in Augustin’s case – they would not have made a living otherwise. Mr Aldridge, on the bills c.1765 was probably Robert Aldridge, dancer/dancing master in Dublin c.1758, who later retired to Edinburgh and opened a dancing school. There were a number of Italian dancers: Signor and Signora Giorgi and Signor Taffoni. Garrick recommended ‘Mr Giorgi’ as dancing master for a Hackney boarding school on 6 March 1770. Signors Guidetti and Tioli appeared in the 1760s.

On 21 February 1769 the Giorgis appeared in ‘A new Comic Dance’ with Sieur Dagueville, a member of the D’Egville family of dancers/ballet masters moonlighting from the King’s Theatre. Management deplored moonlighting; performers were forced to do it to make a living.

Women dancers led a precarious existence and little is known of some of them. Miss/Mlle Margaret Hidou/Hidoux from Paris appeared in 1770. Miss Tetley was Elizabeth Tetley who danced at Drury Lane from 1762 to 1771 when she became the second wife of Garrick’s brother George, whose mistress she had been for many years. Mrs King, née Mary Baker, joined the company as a dancer with ambitions to act, always on hand to stand in for Mesdames Abingdon and Yates when they were sulking, and always to be relied upon for an embarrassingly bad performance.

At Garrick’s farewell performance on 10 June 1776 Signor Giorgi, Mr Slingsby (another moonlighter) and Mrs Sutton performed a ‘Grand Garland Dance’. It is clear that dance at Drury Lane was incidental and not serious, a world away from Jean-Georges’ ballets d’action.

I suspect that Augustin may have been involved in teaching the in-house children’s troupe nurtured by Garrick for some time. Jean-Georges observed them with a jaundiced eye and wrote untactfully to Garrick on 7 May 1755:

‘I saw … twelve children whom M. Levier was making dance. I would ask you not to neglect them. I will need them and make good use of them. I would like you to give them a Master … your French supernumerary would be competent to teach them the steps necessary to my ballets.’

Usually billed as ‘the CHILDREN’ the in-house troupe danced with the Noverre company, but it was the in-house troupe alone who appeared on 15, 16, 29 and 31 December, the latter by royal Command, in ‘The Pantomime Dance by the CHILDREN’. Given the season, they probably danced a harlequinade.

The Lilliputian Sailors of 1755 inspired Garrick’s satire Lilliput, performed 17 times in 1756 by the CHILDREN and a tall adult, Astley Bransby, as Gulliver. The house was titillated and the critics were disgusted. The Theatrical Examiner deplored it: ‘trifling, indecent, immoral, debauching the minds of infants’, all the charges which would be levelled at Bugsy Malone in the 20th century.

The CHILDREN made fewer appearances as a troupe after such a sour reception, but the nursery continued to exist as a training ground and source of Cupid, Mamillius and Lady Macduff’s children. They would have been taught to dance and, aside from M. Levier, who better to teach them than Augustin.

There may be a Noverre link with a projected dancing school at the King’s Theatre, advertised on 2 March 1781: ‘an Academy for Dancers for the Stage under M. Leger, Professed Dancing Master, Member of the Royal Academy in Paris.’ In 1781/82 the ballet master at the King’s was Jean-Georges, an old associate of M. Leger. It would be strange if Jean-Georges did not influence plans for the academy, but he left at the end of that season, the King’s went into administration, and, although it continued to function as a theatre, the academy seems not to have got beyond a plan.

Augustin, meanwhile, had left the theatre and was a reputable dancing master. He had his portrait painted during his Drury Lane years and it now hangs with family portraits in the Noverre Room at the Assembly House in Norwich. The painter is unidentifiable and it is in a rather naive style. Augustin wears a smart black suit, a tricorn pulled down to his eyebrows, and an air of mischief.

Continue…: Augustin’s London practice and publications ->
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