Edmund Kean (1787-1833), the Tragedian

We had thought about writing about his acting career, but we’re sure there are enough websites that provide all of that, so we decided to take a look at the man behind the theatre – if that’s at all possible. There has always been much speculation about his parents and so, as is our want, went on a hunting trip to see if we could unearth anything new.

Edmund Kean. Garrick Club
Edmund Kean. Garrick Club

His life appears to be a mixture of fact and fiction, some of which he possibly made up himself and the rest which has been ‘tweaked’ then repeated over the centuries with so much of it untrue, so let’s try to set at least some of the record straight if we can.

There is no disputing he was regarded as one of the best Shakespearean actors of his days. He was short in stature – true. His body being well-proportioned but a mere 5 feet 6 and three-quarter inches in height.

Edmund Kean as Alanienouidet, Chief and Prince of the Huron Tribe of Indians. Garrick Club
Edmund Kean as Alanienouidet, Chief and Prince of the Huron Tribe of Indians. Garrick Club

Born 4th November 1787, apparently, although there’s nothing to confirm that apart from books written some thirty years after his death, but let’s assume that is correct. His mother –  now, the book about his life has this to say:

George Saville Carey was cursed in a worthless inhuman daughter. Ann Carey had, at the age of fifteen, ran away from home to join a company of strolling players; and when itinerant business was at a standstill, she figured in the streets of London as a hawker. It was in the latter capacity that her not unprepossessing face attracted the attention of Aaron Kean, an architect, who took her under his protection, but subsequently abandoned her. Shortly afterwards she became the mother of Edmund Kean.

We have managed to find her baptism, in 1763 at St Bride, Fleet Street which nicely confirms her as George Saville Carey’s daughter.

A copy of Hoppner's painting of Mrs Kean. Original not found
A copy of Hoppner’s painting of Mrs Kean, a whole-length figure, standing, facing the spectator, in a cornfield… in white dress and blue satin shoes. Original not found

Mary Ann was one of several children that George Saville Carey (son of the poet Henry Carey*) and his wife Mary Ann née Phipp had, including two with the interesting names of Martha Udosia and Tempest Hazard.

Edmund Kean as Coriolanus. Garrick Club
Edmund Kean as Coriolanus. Garrick Club

Moving on to Edmund, there is no sign of a baptism for him, but it would appear that he was a child protégé and appeared on the stage when a mere 4 years old, with his mother, Mrs Carey, who we know was an actress and regularly appeared in the bill programmes for the London theatres. In his formative years, Edmund was simply known as Master Carey.

Who could his father have been? Well, we have seen references to it being an Edmund Kean, an architect’s clerk; an Aaron Kean, architect; Aaron Kean, a tailor; and Moses Kean, a ventriloquist who apparently took a keen interest in young Edmund’s career. Yet again, no categorical answer to that question.

We came across this newspaper article below advertising the first stage performance for a Mr Edmund Kean, who couldn’t be ‘our’ Edmund as he would only just have been born. Given the theatrical connections, this could either be his father or Edmund simply adopted the name in later life. There were three brothers, Aaron, Edmund and Moses who were all tailors by trade who lived at No. 9 St Martin’s Lane.

There were also rumours that Edmund’s mother was a Charlotte Tidswell (1766-1841), an actress, but that seems exceptionally unlikely, it’s possible that she may have been a relative, but more likely a family friend who was involved in Edmund’s theatrical education.

Edmund Kean as Richard III. Garrick Club
Edmund Kean as Richard III. Garrick Club

On 17th July 1808, Edmund married Mary Chambers at Stroud, Gloucestershire and a couple of years later they produced a son, Charles John, who, after attending Eton, went on to become an actor, although, not in the same league as his famous father.

After Edmund had a very public affair with Charlotte Cox, the wife of a London Alderman. He was then sued by Mr Cox for crim. con and damages of £800 were awarded against him.

Charles John Kean by Stump, Samuel John
Charles John Kean by Stump, Samuel John. National Portrait Gallery, London

Needless to say, this had an impact on his career and his loyal wife, Mary remained loyal no longer and in 1825, she left him and moved in to Keydell House, Catherington Hampshire, which her son bought from a Captain RD Pritchard, who lived there from about 1826 until 1842 and who, coincidentally we have written about before. Mary Kean died in 1849 and was buried in the parish church.

Edmund moved to Richmond where he spent his remaining years. By all accounts he outlived his fortune and died penniless, whether that’s true or not, like the rest of his life, we may never know.

His death came 15th May 1833 and given his theatrical status, a request was sent to the Dean of Westminster Abbey to have him buried there – this was declined, and he was buried instead at Richmond parish church following a post-mortem carried out a couple of days after his death. The newspapers sparing their readers none of the gory details of the postmortem, which is how we know his exact height.

It would appear though that in May 1833 there was a flu epidemic and presumably they were expecting that to be the cause of death, but having read the details of the autopsy, that seems unclear as to what the cause was. Interestingly his mother was living with him at that time as she too was unwell. Apparently, she took one last view of her son in his coffin and retired to her room where in just a few days, she too died. A request, by Charles, was made for her to be buried with her son, but there wasn’t space.

Edmund Kean by Northcote, James.  National Portrait Gallery, London

It seems that we will never know the full truth about Mary Anne Carey’s relationship with the tragedian, Edmund Kean, but at least we’ve been able to add a little more factual information to the myth.

Edmund Kean as Othello. National Portrait Gallery
Edmund Kean as Othello. National Portrait Gallery

Sources

Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser 20 May 1833 

Worcester Journal 30 May 1833

John Hoppner, R.A. by McKay, William Darling, 1844-1924; Roberts, W. (William), 1862-1940

Hawkins F.W.  The Life of Edmund Kean in two Volumes 1886

Highfill, Kalman, Burnim, Langhans. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers …

* George Saville Carey was born 3rd December 1738 at Clerkenwell, the son of the poet Henry Carey and his wife Sarah Harrison. Despite reports to the contrary, he was not born posthumously. Henry Carey was reputedly the illegitimate son of George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, but so far we have not been able to confirm this one.  

One thought on “Edmund Kean (1787-1833), the Tragedian

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 44) | www.weyerman.nl

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