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Vanbrugh, Violet (1867–1942)

Vanbrugh, Violet (1867–1942)

English actress. Name variations: Dame Violet Vanbrugh. Born Violet Augusta Mary Barnes on June 11, 1867, in Exeter, England; died on November 10, 1942; daughter of Reginald H. Barnes (the vicar of Heavitree and prebendary of Exeter Cathedral) and Frances M.E. (Nation) Barnes; sister of Irene Vanbrugh (1872–1949); studied acting with Sarah Thorne; married Arthur Bourchier (an actor and theater manager), in 1894 (divorced 1917); children: Prudence Vanbrugh (b. 1902, an actress).

Dame Violet Vanbrugh was known as "Britain's greatest Shakespearean actress" during her lifetime, and played almost every important female part in the Bard's works. Born in 1867 in Exeter, she was one of six children in an affluent household. Her father Reginald H. Barnes was the vicar of Heavitree and prebendary (honorary canon) of Exeter Cathedral. Her mother Frances M.E. Barnes , the daughter of a barrister, loved the arts and ensured that her children received a musical education. Violet and her siblings became accomplished dancers, and visited the London theaters during the summer. In 1884 Violet decided to go on the stage and chose the name Vanbrugh, which was recommended to her by the noted actress Ellen Terry .

Violet began looking for work in the London theater, and was soon followed by her younger sister, Irene Vanbrugh , who would herself become a notable actress. The sisters spent hours at the Lyceum watching other actors and visiting agents. Violet was hired for a stock season at the Theatre Royal, and was later accepted at Sarah Thorne 's repertory company. She served with this group from 1886 to 1888, during which time she became a star player. She then toured the United States with W.H. Kendal and Dame Madge Kendal from 1889 to 1891, and played Anne Boleyn in Henry Irving's production of Henry VIII in 1892.

In 1894, she married Arthur Bourchier, an actor and stage manager. In 1895, the couple took over the management of the Royalty Theatre in London. Vanbrugh's sister Irene joined their company, and the two appeared together on the London stage for the first time, in the company's debut production The Chili Widow. Vanbrugh and her husband and sister then traveled to America on tour in 1896.

In addition to Shakespeare, Vanbrugh appeared in modern plays, often with her husband's company, although she divorced him in 1917. Some of her most notable roles include Queen Katherine in Henry VIII (1910) and Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1911). She also appeared in a few films, including Pygmalion. Violet Vanbrugh made her last appearance on stage in a 1937 production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. She was created a Dame Commander of the British Empire before she died in November 1942.


Concise Dictionary of National Biography: From Earliest Times to 1985. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Current Biography 1943. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1943.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

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