Fenton, Lavinia, afterwards Duchess of Bolton 1708-1760, actress, was born in 1708. Her reputed father, a lieutenant in the navy named Beswick, on being summoned to duty before the birth of his child, departed with a request that in the event of the unborn proving to be a girl the name of Lavinia should be bestowed upon her. Not long after her birth her mother married one Fenton in the Old Bailey, and soon afterwards set up a coffee-house in the neighbourhood of Charing Cross. The child was then called by the surname of her mother's husband, and being, we are told, of a vivacious, lively spirit, and a promising beauty, she was much petted by the fine gentlemen frequenting the coffee-house. The charm of her voice, and the extraordinary correctness of her ear for music, brought her into notice. She caught at once the tunes which the humming beaux (so the musical gentlemen were called) brought from the theatre and the opera-house, and repeated accurately every song she had once heard her mother sing. A comedian belonging to the old house took great delight in the exhibition of the child's cleverness, and was at some pains to teach her new songs. She was then sent to a boarding-school, but was withdrawn when she was thirteen, and went to reside with her mother, who had meanwhile quitted Charing Cross and returned to the Old Bailey. In 1726 she made her first appearance on the stage as Monimia in Otway's Orphans at the new theatre in the Haymarket. Five weeks later she was allowed to share a benefit with one Mr. Gilbert at the same theatre, on which occasion she played the part of Cherry, the innkeeper's daughter, in Farquhar's Beaux' Stratagem. She was then engaged by a company of comedians who played twice a week during the summer season at the theatre in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Her success was remarkable. She became, writes one of her biographers, the talk of the coffee-houses, the most celebrated toast in town. Her face, her form, her grace, her voice, her archness, her simplicity, were lauded alike on all hands. In a catchpenny Life of her, published in 1728, is quoted at length a billet supposed to have been penned by a stricken ensign; it is delightfully absurd, but clearly apocryphal. Rich, the manager at Lincoln's Inn Fields, next offered Miss Fenton an engagement for the winter season at the rate of fifteen shillings a week. She accepted the proposal, but after the extraordinary success of the Beggar's Opera her salary was doubled.
On 29 Jan. 1728 Miss Fenton first appeared as Polly Peachum in Gay's Beggar's Opera (Genest, Hist. of the Stage, iii. 220). The theatre was crowded night after night. The play had an uninterrupted and then unprecedented run until 9 March: Lavinia Fenton became the rage. Swift having written from Dublin to Gay to bespeak an early copy of Polly's messotinto (Works, ed. Scott, 1824, xvii. 164), Gay sent it on 20 March, observing that Polly, who was before unknown, is now in so high vogue that I am in doubt whether her fame does not surpass that of the Opera itself (ib. xvii. 181). Indeed, the print shops could barely keep pace with the demand for the engravings of her portrait; her likeness decorated the ladies' fans; a band of devoted admirers guarded her every night on her way home from the theatre after her performance; and; as the notes to the Dunciad tell us, her life was written, books of letters and verses to her published, and pamphlets made even of her sayings and jests. Although she could not be considered an accomplished vocalist, she could sing a simple English ballad in the most effective style. When the appeal to Mr. and Mrs. Peachum to spare Macheath,—O! ponder well: be not severe,—rang through the house in tones of the deepest emotion, she fairly carried the whole audience away with her, and secured the success of the opera (ib. xvii. 164, note by Joseph Warton subjoined to a letter of Swift to Gay, dated from Dublin 27 Nov. 1727). Hogarth has painted the scene, introducing the Duke of Bolton in one of the side boxes, on the right-hand side, with his eyes fixed on the kneeling Polly. Polly wears a plainly made dress, very like the simplicity of a modern quaker, just as Macklin saw and described her (Memoirs, 1804, p. 48).
On 14 March 1728 Miss Fenton, on the occasion of Quin's benefit, appeared as Alinda in Beaumont and Fletcher's Pilgrim (as altered by Vanbrugh); on the 18th she played Ophelia in Hamlet; and on 6 April as Leanthe in Farquhar's Love and a Bottle, played for Tom Walker's (the original Macheath) benefit. On the 24th she was playing Marcella in Tom D'Urfey's comedy of Don Quixote, and on the 29th she took her benefit, when she appeared as Cherry in the Beaux' Stratagem (Genest, iii. 226, 227). But, having offended a great number of her patrons by joining pit and boxes together, many of her tickets were returned to her by those who objected to pay box prices for a seat in the pit. However, manager Rich, who was known to be a devoted admirer of Pretty Polly, took the receipts of that night to himself, and on the following Saturday (4 May) gave her a second benefit, when the Beggar's Opera was played for the forty-seventh time (ib. iii. 227). On 19 June the opera was played for the sixty-second and the last time that season, and Lavinia Fenton made her last appearance on the boards of a theatre. On 6 July 1728 Gay, writing to Swift from Bath, says: The Duke of Bolton, I hear, has run away with Polly Peachum, having settled 400l. a year upon her during pleasure, and upon disagreement 200l. a year (Swift, Works, xvii. 199). This may have been near the truth, but the exact terms were never known.
Charles Paulet, third duke of Bolton, who was some twenty-three years older than his mistress, had been forced by his father to marry in 1713 Lady Anne Vaughan, only daughter and heiress of John, earl of Carbery, in Ireland. On the death of the old Duke of Bolton in 1722 the pair parted (Walpole, Letters, ed. Cunningham, i. 176 n., viii. 234). Soon after the death of the duchess (20 Sept. 1751) the duke married Lavinia Fenton at Aix in Provence. Both as mistress and wife her conduct was commendably discreet. Dr. Joseph Warton, in the note already cited, says of her: She was very accomplished; was a most agreeable companion; had much wit, and strong sense, and a just taste in polite literature. Her person was agreeable and well made: though she could not be called a beauty. I have had the pleasure of being at table with her, when her conversation was much admired by the first characters of the age, particularly the old Lord Bathurst and Lord Granville. At Capple Bank in Wensleydale, Yorkshire, there is still in existence a summer-house built for her by her lover, in which local tradition asserts she used to spend much time on her visits to the north of England, and which commands one of the most extensive and varied prospects in the dale (Notes and Queries, 5th ser. i. 488). The duke had had three children, all sons, by his mistress previously, but none when she became his wife; so that on his death at Tunbridge Wells in August 1754 the title went to his brother. An account of these three sons is given in Collins's Peerage (Brydges), ii. 368 n. By his will the duke, after requesting to be buried in his family vault at Basing, county of Southampton, bequeathed all his estate, real and personal, to his dear and well-beloved wife, who is the only person mentioned, and constituted her whole and sole executrix (registered in P. C. C. 219, Pinfold). The duchess survived her husband until 24 Jan. 1760, after behaving, according to Walpole, not so well in the character of widow as of wife (Letters, iii. 286-7). Two years before her death, when ill at Tunbridge Wells, she made the acquaintanceship of an Irish surgeon named George Kelley, whom, by will dated 6 Dec. 1759 (P. C. C. 47, Lynch), she appointed her executor and residuary legatee, not, however, as Walpole asserts, to the prejudice of her children. They had been amply provided for by a settlement made in the lifetime of their father. The duchess died at West Combe Park, Greenwich, in January 1760, and was buried in the old church of St. Alphege, Greenwich.
Hogarth painted her portrait, and it is one of his best. It was engraved by G. Watson and others, and, when exhibited in the second Exhibition of National Portraits in 1867, was in the possession of Mr. Brinsley Marlay. She there looks about forty years of age. A fairly successful photograph from this portrait, while it was at South Kensington, was published by the Arundel Society. Jack Ellys [qv.] likewise painted her, and his work was mezzotinted by Faber in 1728. A third portrait, engraved by Tinney, represents her as a shepherdess with a crook.
The Life of Lavinia Beswick, alias Fenton, alias Polly Peachum, 8vo, 1728, a shilling pamphlet of forty-eight pages, containing, amid much that is clearly fictitious, some useful facts
Dutton Cook in Once a Week, viii. 651-6
Memoirs of Charles Macklin, 8vo, 1804, pp. 41-8
Leigh Hunt's Men, Women, and Books, ii. 180-1
Lady M. W. Montagu's Letters (Wharncliffe and Thomas), i. 57, ii. 268
Collins's Peerage (Brydges), ii. 385-6
Burke's Extinct Peerage (1883), p. 420
Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. viii. 442, 5th ser. ii. 13
Evans's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, i. 121
Grove's Dict. of Music, i. 511
Bromley's Cat. of Engraved Portraits, p. 304.
Contributor: G. G. [Gordon Goodwin]