Having written about tableaux vivant in A Brief History of Nakedness, I was fascinated by a story and some photographs that member Fi Ware sent to me.
Tableaux vivant are theatrically posed, motionless scenes of models or performers, quite often in scenes from mythology or reproductions of well known paintings or events and were once extremely popular forms of entertainment. The 19th Century saw the heyday of the nude tableaux vivant, and readers might be familiar with the idea from the film ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ about the Windmill Theatre in London.
Fi discovered an extraordinary gravestone of a lady who was re-interred in her local cemetery following the collapse of a retaining wall at the church where she was originally buried:
The inscription reads:
‘Sacred to the memory of Eliza Crow Her professional name Madam Warton who
died Jan 27th 1854 aged 27 years. This tablet raised to her memory by a
dear and sincere friend Arthur Nelson’
Here Fi tells Madam Warton’s story:
‘When I took over our cemetery tour some years ago it was always assumed that
the stone was erected by a grateful customer! However my research has revealed that Eliza Crowe starred in and produced tableaux vivant at Saville House in Leicester Square, Soho, London. In 1845 these included subjects such as ‘A Night with Titian’ and ‘Venus Arising from the Sea’ all noted for their ‘fleshly embodiment’
It is thought that Landseer may have used sketches of Madam Warton as a
basis for his painting of Lady Godiva. Certainly she did play the part at
the Coventry Fair – there was speculation that this time Godiva would
actually be naked, but in the end she wore fleshings much to the crowd’s
The establishment at Soho must have been quite famous in its time and it,
and Eliza, were mentioned in one of William Thackery Makepiece’s novels -
some of the characters looked at the ‘illuminated picture of Madame Wharton
as Ariadne until bedtime’
I have found a reference to the club which describes poor Eliza’s fate -
‘For a very long time the name was changed to the “Walhalla,” when the
classical and chaste poses plastique performances of Madame Wharton, and her
celebrated troupes of living models, male and female, attracted very large
and first class audiences. Poor Wharton, she met with a sad end, and paid
the debt of nature at a very early age. Let her faults pass away with the
bottle to which she became so devotedly attached, ere snatched from the
scenes of her many triumphs’ Paul Pry 1857
I still haven’t found out how she came to be buried in Macclesfield. The
show continued without her, and I think there very well may have been
another Madam Wharton given that there is a reference to a ‘Madame Wharton
and troupe’ in a handbill for the Theatre Royal, Marylebone in 1857.
There may well have been some sexual element given that it was almost expected of actresses and artist’s models at the time. Certainly some of the ladies of the troupe were used as models for erotic photographs.’
It is sad to think that poor Eliza met with such an untimely end. As Fi suggests, the life of a female tableaux vivant artist was undoubtedly a complicated one, the assumption that women in theatre were of low virtue was deeply rooted and many must have found themselves in the most compromising of situations in order to continue to make a living. For all the surface glamour and contrivance of respectability that those frozen poses presented, what moved beneath was often far seedier, and spoke of the hypocrisy at the heart of Victorian morality and attitudes towards sex and gender.
Many stories must have been lost but it is good to know that something of Madam Warton’s tale remains. Look at the extraordinary detail on her headstone.