The Sarah Bernhardt Collection of Jewellery and Objects of Vertu

The Sarah Bernhardt Collection of Jewellery and Objects of Vertu

Sarah Bernhardt (1844 – 1923)

Born one of three illegitimate daughters of Julie Bernard, a Dutch courtesan who had established herself in Paris, Sarah, (originally named Henriette-Rosine Bernard) had a difficult start in life and was a wilful child. At first she wanted to become a nun, but one of her mother’s lovers, the Duke of Morny, Napoleon III’s half brother, decided that she should be an actress, and when she was 16, arranged for her to enter the Paris Conservatoire, the Government sponsored school of acting. Leaving the Conservatoire in 1862, she was accepted by the Comedie- Francaise, the national theatre company, as a beginner on probation. Not initially excelling, her acting contract was cancelled in 1863 when she slapped the face of a senior actress after she had been rude to her younger sister.

Quickly gaining somewhat of a reputation in her private life, Sarah became the mistress of Henri, Prince de Ligne, and in 1864 gave birth to her only child, a son, Maurice. Relationships came and went throughout her life including liaisons with many famous men, allegedly the French writer Victor Hugo, and the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VI.

From 1866, Sarah began to establish herself as a successful actress and after signing a contract with the Odéon theatre, she had the opportunity to play lead roles such as Cordelia in King Lear, her audiences apparently charmed by the lyrical quality of her voice which was described as a ‘golden bell’. Her finest roles included Dona Sol in Victor Hugo’s Hernani, said to have brought tears to the author’s eyes. She starred in some of the most popular plays of the late 19th /early 20th century including La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello, and Fédora and La Tosca by famous playwright Victorien Sardou. She also played several male roles in her career, appearing as Hamlet in Paris and London in 1899.

By the 1870s, Sarah was a leading actress in her profession, renowned for her expressive interpretations and her commanding presence on stage. In 1880, she formed her own travelling theatrical company, becoming an international success and appearing on stage throughout Europe, the United States, Canada, and later Australia and South America.

In 1905, whilst touring in South America, she injured her leg jumping from a parapet in La Tosca. By 1915, gangrene had set in and the leg needed to be amputated, but she still continued her gruelling schedule of tours in America and Europe. In 1914 she was made a member of the Legion of Honour. She was also one of the first actresses to star in moving pictures, and to make sound recordings.

An eccentric character, (she apparently slept in her own silk lined coffin), Sarah had always taken her career into her own hands, her motto ‘Quand meme’ translating appropriately as ‘no matter what’. By the time of her death in 1923, she was hailed as one of the greatest actresses of the late 19th/early 20th century, and perhaps is now seen as one of the best known figures in the history of the stage.