The Fortunes of an Eighteenth-century Fiddlemaker’s Daughter: Mary Norman, John Boson and The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks

Sir John Hawkins immortalised the daughters of Barak Norman, one of England’s leading instrument makers of the early 17th century as actresses of the lower class at Goodman’s-Fields. With a tale of a wood carver at the centre of London’s artistic community, Benjamin Hebbert looks a little further into the society she kept. 

In 1776 Sir John Hawkins mentioned Barak Norman in his General History of the Science and Practice of Music, remarking that “Barah Norman was one of the last of the celebrated makers of viola [da gamba] in England. He had two daughters who were actresses of the lower class at the theatre in Goodman’s-fields.” (Hawkins, repr.1875, p.793). In modern times, such a description has been marred by a moralistic Victorian image of what an actress of the lower class might be, perhaps closer to the ideas reflected in the pre-Raphaelite muse, Jane Burden or the legend of Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynn rather than in the complicated realities of the Eighteenth-century theatre. As Hawkins would have understood it, the ‘lower class’ was not a euphemism for prostitution or immorality, nor the socio-economic construct that emerged out of the nineteenth-century writings of Karl Marx. It should probably be seen as a term stratifying the members of the company who were not its stars. Similar to being the chorus, the corps de ballet, or just a regular musician within an orchestra.

Garrick’s Theatre, Goodman’s Fields. A later eighteenth-century watercolour preparatory sketch for an engraving, showing how Goodman’s Theatre had become immortalised as ‘Garrick’s’ amongst London theatre society. (Victoria and Albert Museum).


As for Goodman’s Fields, it had a short but particularly illustrious span in the history of British theatre. It was founded in 1726 by Thomas Odell, the deputy licenser of plays, and passed on to Henry Giffard in 1732, who commissioned a new building from Edward Shepherd, who had also designed the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Under Giffard the theatre continued until 1737 when the Licensing Act was brought in requiring the closure of all theatres that hadn’t obtained letters patent, and requiring consent from the Lord Chamberlain for any new plays. Giffard’s response was to form a travelling company which moved to Lincoln’s Inn Fields (hence the reason why some eighteenth century commentators confuse it as Goodman’s Inn Fields), and by travelling to the various Theatres Royal in the provinces. In 1740 the Goodman’s Fields Theatre reopened, but fate was to take a final twist: Rejected by Covent Garden and Drury Lane, a young wine merchant named David Garrick was employed by Giffard taking minor roles at first, but when he performed the lead in Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1741, he was a sensation. 1742 was a sell-out year with the theatre in Whitechapel becoming a focus of cultured life and a threat to the hegemony of the West End Theatres. The poet Thomas Gray, in a letter to John Chute, wrote

“Did I tell you about Mr. Garrick, that the town are horn-mad after : there are a dozen dukes of the night at Goodman’s-fields sometimes; and yet I am stiff in the opposition:”. In a letter to Horace Mann on May 26 1742, Walpole wrote: “But all the run is now after Garrick, a wine-merchant, who is turned player, at Goodman’s-fields. He plays all parts, and is a very good mimic. His acting I have seen, and may say to you, who will not tell it again here, I see nothing wonderful in it; but it is heresy to say so: the Duke of Argyll says, he is superior to Betterton. …”

David Garrick and his wife, the dancer Eva Marie Veigel painted by their friend, William Hogarth (Royal Collection)

This success created by Garrick spelt disaster for Henry Giffard and in 1742 Charles Fleetwood, manager of the Drury Lane Theatre used his letters patent to petition for the closing down of Goodman’s Fields under the terms of the Licensing Act, simultaneously engaging Garrick for the 1742-43 season. Nevertheless, the short run of Goodman’s Fields Theatre was legend within the artistic communities in London. In 1776, the year that Sir John Hawkins wrote The General History of the Science and Practice of Music, David Garrick was still the most dominant figure of the London theatre. In that year he retired as manager of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. He continued to act right up until his death in 1779. Reference to the Goodman’s Fields Theatre was a specific historical accolade, relating to a short-lived historic theatre company that brought the world’s greatest actor to public attention.

A version of William Hogarth’s Scene from the Beggar’s Opera (c.1728). Versions exist with and without the royal coat of arms prominently displayed, reflecting the implications of the Licensing Act. Goodman’s Fields was famous for it’s Beggar’s Opera, performed on it’s closing night in 1742. It seems likely that the varying depictions by Hogarth of a theatre with and without Royal letters patent may have been a pointed reference to the predicament unlicensed theatres and may have been specific to the fate of Goodman’s Fields theatre.

Of Barak Norman’s two daughters very little is known, and even their existence is purely down to Hawkins’ comment and the circumstances of Mary Norman and her sister. Certainly no son took over the shop at the sign of the Bass Viol in St Paul’s Churchyard. There is strong evidence suggesting that from at least 1714 Nathaniel Cross was being trained as his successor. Barak Norman may have been a non-conformist of some sort: there has been speculation that he was of Huguenot descent, but his appearance in multiple Anglican congregations, and his membership of a city livery company (the Weaver’s Company) places heavy doubt on either theory. He was married three times, each time at All Hallows London Wall, the church of the Carpenter’s Company, but his parish affairs trace him to his local parish of St Gregory by St Paul. It is likewise possible that the social interactions with the Carpenter’s Church were valuable for him as an instrument maker, whilst the church of St Gregory which abutted against St Paul’s Cathedral was not physically replaced after the Fire of London, even though it continued to serve as an administrative parish for the purposes of Church and City (perhaps anticipating a later rebuilding after the completion of the new St Paul’s, though the parish was later unified with St Mary Magdalene Old Fish Street). Nonetheless, an unexpected source arises that both corroborates the position of “Mary Norman, Daughter of Barak Norman late of St Pauls Church Yard London, Musical Instrument Maker, deceased” amongst the circle of artists and actors of Georgian London, and provides a valuable source on situation of a career actress in the 1740s.

The source in question is the will of John Boson, made on 29 April 1740 and proved three years later upon his death in 1743, eclipsing the period that Goodman’s Fields was at the height of it’s fame. (Records of the Prerogative  Court of Canterbury: Will of John Boson, Carver of Saint James’s Westminster, Middlesex, 15 April 1743, PROB 11/725). Boson’s own importance was as one of the leading wood and stone carvers of the day – some would argue, the most important – following in the wake of Grinling Gibbons. He had worked with Nicholas Hawksmoor, coming to the attention of Lord Burlington who leased him a workshop and dwelling place in his property on Saville Row and led him to connections with Horace Walpole, Frederick Prince of Wales and especially the architect William Kent for whom he realised the almost overbearingly heavy Palladian designs that arose from Kent’s visits to Rome. His interpretations of Roman architecture, most especially of Nero’s Golden Palace came to define high fashion of the Georgian era.

Table designed in 1727 by William Kent for Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, and carved by John Boson. Intended for the sculpture gallery of Chiswick House (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Boson’s social connections bring him into sharp connection with the circle of actors and artists connected to Goodman’s Fields. In addition, his connections to John Thornhill, Handel, and Hawksmoor place him within the artistic and architectural milieu of St Paul’s Churchyard posing the question as to whether his relationship with Mary Norman could be traced back somehow to Barak Norman’s workshop and social circle. John Thornhill, Sergeant Painter to the King, and the son of James Thornhill who painted the cupola of St Paul’s dome was an executor of his will along with the architect James Horne  and the scenic artist, George Lambert, who worked at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. After George Lambert, Boson was the second of the founding members of the patrotic “The Sublime Society of Beef Steaks” a patriotic artistic dining club that came together under the auspices of John Rich, manager of the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1735. Whether or not Georg Frideric Handel was a member of the club, he was well connected to John Rich, to whom he bequeathed his ‘great organ that stands at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden’, and in 1743 Walpole wrote that Handel would hire “all the singers of Roast Beef from between acts at both theatres” for his opera Samson. (The organ, along with many of Handel’s manuscripts and £1500 worth of wine belonging to the club was destroyed when the Theatre Royal burnt down in 1808). When Captain James Coram established the Foundling Hospital in 1739, the ranks of musicians and artists who contributed towards it’s charitable aims represented a significant overlap with the early Beef Steaks. Hence, Boson can be seen as completely in the centre of London’s vibrant cultural community. The antiquary George Vertue (1684-1756), a contemporary of Boson described him as ‘a man of great ingenuity who undertook great works in his way for the prime people of quality and made his fortune very well in the world’.

Church records reveal that Boson married Martha Rayer in 1719 at St Anne Soho, and had five children, three christened at St Martin-in-the-Fields between 1722 and 1725 and two at St George Bloomsbury in 1732 and 1733 (St George’s was completed by Hawksmoor in 1730 and the altar is characteristic of Boson’s style), but there is no mention of Martha or the children in his will, suggesting that they had all died before 1740. Poignant evidence to this effect may exist in the generous provision for the children of his two brothers, Michael and Francis, guaranteeing ‘the necessary sums to be expended in the proper maintenance, education and placing out in the world’ up until their twenty-first birthdays and the absence of naming any child beneficiaries within the will may have related to the uncertainty of who would survive just as much as to not knowing how many children would benefit from the will by the time of Boson’s decease. For young actresses in the eighteenth-century, part of the titillation of the theatre was their beauty and the idea of availability. The blurry lines between how their personal identity lent to their stage appeal is difficult to navigate without understanding the bigger picture of actresses on the London stage: Kitty Clive, an immediate contemporary had married in 1735 but separated without divorcing shortly afterwards. By never admitting to taking lovers she maintained her marriage vows and public reputation, though Horace Walpole gifted her a villa on his Strawberry Hill estate, to which she retired in 1769.

Phillipe Mercier’s depiction of a scene from “The Careless Husband” a play by Colley Cibber. Kitty Clive in the foreground. (York Museum’s Trust)

Perhaps anticipating marriage when Mary Norman’s stage career came to an end, the remarkable will laid out by Boson gives a valuable insight into life of a London actress. It is explicit that by April 1740 Boson and Norman were as committed to one and other, and in lieu of marriage, Boson had determined to provide his lover and any heirs born to her with the same security that they would enjoy had they been married. In a world where public reputation was balanced with the ever present danger of death, the compromise seems to have been a sensible one.

I do give and bequeath unto Mary Norman Daughter of Barak Norman late of St Pauls Church Yard London Musical Instrument Maker deceased all such my goods and chattels as shall be in and about my dwelling house and the appartments thereunto belonging at St Ann’s Hill near Chertsey in the county of Surry at the time of my decease and I do further give and bequeath unto the said Mary Norman the sum of Five hundred pounds to be paid her within twelve months next after my decease by my said trustees above named and my will is that fifteen pounds be yearly paid to or for each and every child of the said Mary Norman yet unborn and that shall be born before the expiration of nine months next after my decease for and during and until such child or children shall attain the age of fourteen years and then the said annuity or yearly payment shall cease and in lieu thereof my will is that my said trustees shall and do pay or allow to or for each child the sum of fifty pounds to place him or her out apprentice or otherwise according to the discretion of my said trustees or the majority of them…

Stories of impoverishment and desperation abound amongst violin makers and other artists and craftsmen of the past, and the romance of the genius in the pauper’s grave is ever present amongst reminiscences of the violin trade. By the time of Barak Norman’s death, somewhere in 1724-25, he was probably the most celebrated of all instrument makers in London. There are too few histories of the women who grew up amongst the instrument making community in London, and to understand that Mary Norman ended up shoulder to shoulder with the most illustrious artistic figures of Georgian London says a great deal for the whole community that surrounded British violin making at the time. It is unlikely that more will come of her story, I have not seen a playbill that mentions any of the Norman daughters by name, nor a portrait, but the possibilities are endless.


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