Kitty Clive (1711-1785): Britain’s First Celebrity Singer

Who was Kitty Clive?
London Stage Star ⭐ Activist ⭐ Handel’s Favourite

For anyone curious about performance history and star production in eighteenth-century England, Clive’s story is not to be missed. A close look at her career reveals to us gorgeous song otherwise lost, and perspectives previously unknown. After 20 years of research, the findings of Berta Joncus about stage star Kitty Clive, a favourite of Handel and Henry Fielding, are now available.

Singer-actress Kitty Clive (1711-1785) drastically altered London playhouse entertainment.  She was the first player to base enduring stardom on song. Audiences swooned at her sublime arias while lapping up her innuendo-laden common ballads. After becoming first singer at Drury Lane, she then established herself as first actress. In Clive, charm, wit, courage, musicianship and fierce intelligence came together in electrifying performances. She inspired artists – including Handel, Henry Fielding and David Garrick – to write for her. Stage genres were fused to accommodate her powers. Abused by managers, she enlisted her audiences to fight back, and prevailed. Loved by many, loathed by some, she was indomitable – or so it seemed, until tripped up by her opponents.

Catherine Clive “Kitty” painted by William Verelst, 1740.

I’ve been living with Clive for over twenty years. As a Masters student in Germany, I came across mention of her musical afterpiece, The Rehearsal: or, Bays in Petticoats. “What woman in 1750″, I thought, “would be allowed to write and print a work that she stars in?”.  In the eighteenth century, laws ensured that women rarely put themselves forward. Once married, a wife and her wealth became wholly the property of her husband. Formal schooling, university entry, state or church office, professional appointment – all were closed to women. For a woman to publish her writings was thought scandalous. She had two public professions open to her, prostitution and stage work, and until the eighteenth-century audiences tended to assume the two were interchangeable.

Against this background Clive’s achievements are staggering. Only after I had written my 2004 doctoral thesis on her, and then published significantly on other topics, could I see the scale of it. She attracted gifted vehicle-writers. From 1728 Henry Carey, having been her singing master, tailored a series of sung parts for her, in styles ranging from Purcellian masque to Italianate cantata and smart song. Clive needed Carey’s help, because Drury Lane manager Colley Cibber was, with the help of London’s printsellers, trying to market her as the new Lavinia Fenton. The recently retired star of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, Fenton was infamous for her supposed sexual exploits. But it was Clive, not Carey, who was responsible for her big breakthrough: in The Devil to Pay (1731) she used song to project her minor part of Nell as a spirited heroine, in defiance of the dialogue. The Devil to Pay was quickly revised to foreground Clive, portraits tumbled off the press, Henry Fielding began writing for her, and, despite managerial bungling and character attacks during the 1733–34 actors’ rebellion, by 1735 she led legitimate comedy as well as musical theatre at Drury Lane. By this year also she joined Britain’s gentry through her apparently sham marriage with George Clive – by which means she kept her earnings and he, a gay man, kept his reputation.

Theophilus Cibber, Comedian, in the Character of a Fine Gentleman. Credit: Folger Shakespeare Library (ART File C567.7 no.1)

Clive defied managers to protect her rights, battling Theophilus Cibber in 1736 – he wanted Clive’s parts for his wife Susannah – and then Charles Fleetwood and John Rich during the 1743–45 seasons. In 1736 she got audiences to back her, increasing her popularity. Opposition politics aided her, as she became the muse of pro-Opposition stage works. The zenith of her musical career was from 1738 to 1743: she led Shakespeare revivals with song, Handel’s Samson and his first London Messiah, and, as the Goddess of Mirth, the era’s most popular masque, Comus. But because the Licensing Act of 1737 had closed all London playhouses outside Fleetwood’s and Rich’s, her clash with these two managers brought her up short. She had to make hard choices. So began the process by which, partly by her own hand, she was written off in histories as a joke – until now.

Who was Kitty Clive?  Reports from colleagues, critics and Clive herself varied widely. Interleaving these contradictory accounts – in music, pictures, and writing – with playhouse history, this study shows the power she wielded and the wit by which she got the last laugh.


This blog post was written by Berta Joncus, Senior Lecturer in Music at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her new book, Kitty Clive, or The Fair Songster, will be published by Boydell Press in May 2019. Want to learn more about Kitty Clive? Read more here or follow the hashtag #WhowasKittyClive on Twitter @boydellmusic

Kitty Clive, or The Fair Songster
Berta Joncus
Hardback / 9781783273461 / £41.25 or $74.25

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