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“Free to Play”


Ann Ford
Thomas Gainsborough, 1760
Cincinnati Art Museum

"Ann Ford was a celebrated beauty and professional virtuoso on the English guitar, viola da gamba and musical glasses" (TLS, 15 June 2007). Her father had made sure she had a good education, and she had a voice that thrilled listeners. In 1760 she decided to perform publicly. This outraged her father, who had her arrested. The Earl of Jersey, who had heard her sing at his house, offered her £800 a year to give up her ambition and become his mistress. She refused.

She managed to perform at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket despite her father surrounding the theatre with runners to prevent concert-goers from attending the first concert. Charles Bennet, third earl of Tankerville, one of Ford's supporters, had them dispersed (DNB). The Earl of Jersey was chagrined to learn later that she had earned £1,500 from five concerts.

Gainsborough's portrait of Ann dates from her years of independence, 1760-1761, when she performed publicly; defended her honour in a public letter from malicious slander (the Earl of Jersey causing trouble again); and published the first known instructions for “Lessons and Instructions for Playing the Guitar”, which included several pieces she almost certainly composed (DNB).

In 1762 she married Philip Thicknesse. They had two children, and became “enthusiastic travellers. In 1775 they embarked on an eighteen-month journey (with viola da gamba, two guitars, a violin, and a parakeet)” (DNB). Ann threw herself into literary research while travelling in France, and between 1778 and 1781 published three volumes on the lives and writings of French women.

In the painting she looks a bit like my eldest niece. When I look at her face I see an educated and spirited woman. Marvellous!


Is it likely that a nation that suppresses and subjugates half its people will do well? I do not think so. For all the reasons that have been advanced for a country's success, one I rarely hear discussed is the achievements of women. In Britain they were not able to vote until the 20th century, but for the last thousand years they seem to have done everything else. Women and British Success