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Fanny Kemble costume design

This costume design was for popular early 19th-century British actress Fanny Kemble’s role as Desdemona in Othello.

Watercolor on mica, mid-18th century to early 19th century.

This costume design for Desdemona in Othello is from a set of designs representing the Shakespearean costumes worn by the popular early 19th-century actress Fanny Kemble. Each has a blank oval of transparent mica in lieu of a face, suggesting that an image of Kemble might have been slipped behind a given costume as it was examined.

One of England’s great theatrical dynasties, the Kemble family also included Fanny Kemble’s uncle John Phillip Kemble, her aunt Sarah Siddons, and numerous other actors and performers, many of whom, like her, performed on both the British and the American stage.

Fanny Kemble embarked on her career in 1829 in the role of Juliet at Covent Garden. Audiences took her immediately to their hearts. Three years later, at the age of twenty-two, Kemble left for New York, where she sparked a craze for “Fanny Kemble caps.” Then she married Pierce Butler of Philadelphia. Unhappy from the start, the marriage fractured completely after he inherited a Georgia plantation and a large contingent of slaves—an abhorrent situation for Fanny, who held abolitionist views. The couple divorced in 1849. Kemble took up acting once again, although she never regained her earlier success, and later turned to touring with staged readings of Shakespeare instead.

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