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​Portrait of Rosina Filippi

Rosina Filippi: theatre for all

The exhibition Life on the London Stage at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) 10 July to 6 December 2017 has provided a rare opportunity to showcase actors who have faded from the public consciousness alongside some of the more well-known. As one browses the programmes and playbills of yesteryear, one finds that the cast lists comprise names largely unfamiliar to us today; however, when a photograph of a performer and a personal story is found it can breathe life once again into these characters. Charlotte Hopkins looks at one such forgotten character, the comedic actress, authoress and teacher, Rosina Filippi (1866-1930).

The image shown here is part of a series of theatrical portraits by Alfred Ellis available on Collage: The London Picture Archive. Ellis specialised in theatrical photography arranging for actual scenes from plays to be photographed at his studio.

Rosina Filippi was originally from Bergamo, Italy (although Venice is also later recorded on 1911 census) and her mother, Paolina Vaneri was an opera singer of French origin. It is not clear where Rosina was raised, but it is thought that she escaped from France with her grandmother, Georgina Colmarche at the time of the Paris Commune in 1871 and was living with her at 4 Howley Place, Paddington by 1881. She was known by various names: Rosina Benvenuta Dowson and also sometimes Rosina Dowson Filippi (her marriage to Henry Martin Dowson took place in Kensington in 1891). At the time of the 1911 census she resided at 4 Portman Mansions, Baker Street.

Rosina Filippi is interesting for several reasons: she was the first person to adapt Jane Austen novels for the stage; she attempted to establish a People’s Theatre; and she was also an advocate of women’s rights.

Some of her performances included the Bernard Shaw plays Major Barbara, at the Royal Court Theatre in 1905 and Admirable Bashville, at His Majesty's Theatre in 1909. In Major Barbara, described as a discussion in three acts, Filippi played the rather splendidly named Lady Britomart Undershaft, the estranged wife of an armaments tycoon.

Filippi gave acting and speaking classes training actors who subsequently went on to have well-established careers, such as Felix Aylmer. Her technique is evident in a book she published: Hints to Speakers and Players (1911). The importance of rolling the letter ‘R’ is emphasised, for example, when saying the word ‘library’ one should pronounce ‘llibbrrarry’. She also gave instruction on breathing in the right places and how to move on stage.

Jane Austen dramatised

In 1895, Rosina Filippi produced, ‘Duologues and Scenes from the Novels of Jane Austen Arranged and Adapted for Drawing-Room Performance’. Her intention was to highlight the comedy found in Austen’s novels. The nature of the duologues within the novels readily lent themselves to the creation of scenes for amateur performance. Filippi was keen that historically accurate costumes were to be worn in these productions and therefore gave specific instructions in the text. One such example, Sense and Sensibility, for the attire of Mrs John Dashwood she notes:

“Mrs D. Black dress with a Spanish vest trimmed with narrow black velvet; pointed ends in front, finished with black tassels. Skirt trimmed with black ermine opera tippet.”

The Bennets (“A Play without a Plot adopted from Jane Austen’s Novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’”) was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in March 1901, in which Filippi played Mrs Bennet. Accompanying her in the cast were members of F. R. Benson’s Shakespearean players.

A People’s Theatre

In 1913, Filippi put forward the idea of an affordable theatre for all: tickets would not cost more than the price of attending the cinema. Theatre was viewed as an important art form to enrich the soul, unlike film in its early days. The idea came from an Italian example, Teatro Populare in Milan, and it was Filippi’s vision to bring Shakespeare to the masses. It was to be established on the basis of a minimum subscription of one shilling. One supporter writes, “At the present moment in many of the most densely-populated industrial districts of London, the workers have no alternative to the picture palace or the music hall.” (The Times, 20 April 1914)

An experimental season at The Old Vic, Waterloo Bridge Road elicited the following comment:

“…the conspicuous success of the season has shown what instant response the production of Shakespeare and Sheridan and other classics meets with even from the very poorest class of play-goer.”

Two Shakespeare plays a week were planned, but unfortunately the season was poorly attended in the long term. Instead, opera proved to be more appealing:

“The weary, cockney, New Cut folk were attending the Vic, happy and eager, listening with rapt attention to Verdi or Bizet or perhaps Wagner, for pennies are saved for many weeks for the inevitable Wagner night and though prices vary from 2d to 1s that is no mean sum to our audiences. It had been achieved by the living loving power of human life, and a knot of faithful friends and workers sharing a common courage and common faith.” (Opera for Everybody by Susie Gilbert)

The curtain falls

Rosina died in 1930 having been associated through her acting, teaching, writing and advocacy with many of the theatrical greats of her generation. She was well regarded and indeed beloved, the writer R. Temple Thurston dedicating his book, The City of Beautiful Nonsense to her, with the inscription, "To Whom I am indebted for the Gift of Laughter....".

Further information

The LMA Exhibition Life on the London Stage runs until 6 December 2017.

29 June 2017
Last Modified:
08 August 2018