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John Downman, 1750–1824, British

John Edwin and Mrs. Mary Wells as Lingo and Cowslip in "The Agreeable Surprise"

Part Of:

Collective Title: The Agreeable Surprise

Watercolor with gouache, black chalk and stumping on medium, slightly textured, cream laid paper
Sheet: 16 5/16 x 12 5/8 inches (41.4 x 32 cm)

Inscribed in brown ink, on paper label attached to back of original frame: "For this Drawing | Georgina the celebrated and beautiful | Duchess of Devonshire | offered one hundred Guineas. | It is the only Picture for which Edwin | ever sat and such was his reluctance | that it was with great difficulty he was persuaded | to give Mr. Downman the Painter, three | sittings in the course of two years. | The resemblance is perfect. | 29th December1810 - J. S.(?)

signed and dated in black chalk, lower right: "J. Downman | 1787"

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection
Copyright Status:
Public Domain
Accession Number:
Drawings & Watercolors
Prints and Drawings
Subject Terms:
actor | actress | bowl | coat | cravat | gesture | gown | hat | man | play | ribbons | ruffles | sea | The Agreeable Surprise, play by John O'Keeffe, 1781 | theater (discipline) | wig | woman
Associated People:
Wells [née Davies; other married name Sumbel], Mary Stephens (1762–1829), actress
Edwin, John, the elder (1749–1790), actor and singer
Lingo (character in The Agreeable Surprise)
Cowslip (character in The Agreeable Surprise)
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Theatre-going was an immensely popular and fashionable leisure activity in eighteenth-century Britain, and from the 1760s this passionate engagement with the dramatic arts was reflected in the enormous output of theatrical portraits, which were widely disseminated through engravings. The multi talented actor-manager and theatre proprietor David Garrick astutely recognized the value of portraits for promoting individual actors and productions, and he played a leading role in the development of the theatrical conversation piece. John Downman's drawing portrays John Edwin and Mary Wells in their roles as Lingo and Cowslip in John O'Keeffe's three-act comedy, The Agreeable Surprise. The play was immensely successful, and between its opening at the Haymarket Theatre, London, in 1781 and 1800 it was performed more than 200 times. The comic actor John Edwin (1749-90) made his first professional appearance in 1775 and was most famous for his role as Lingo. Edwin was as celebrated for his singing as his acting; according to the manager-playwright, George Colman, "While he sung in a style which produced roars of laughter, there was a melody in some of the upper tones of his voice that was beautiful." The inscription on the original frame is somewhat misleading, since at least eighteen engraved portraits of Edwin after various artists are known. Mary Wells, née Davies (c. 1759-before 1826), was born in Birmingham and preformed in regional theaters before making her London acting debut in 1781. Constantly in debt and involved in amorous intrigue, the raffish actress conformed to the popular notion of her profession as dissolute and unrespectable, an image which the many portraits of Garrick - who assiduously cultivated himself as a model of social propriety - strove to contradict.

Sarah Murden, The Life of Actress, Mary Wells, , All Things Georgian, February 22, 2018, https://georgianera.wordpress.com/2018/02/22/the-life-of-actress-mary-wells/

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