BAILLIE, Joanna (1762-1851)
Plaque erected in 1900 by (Royal) Society of Arts at Bolton House, Windmill Hill, Hampstead, London, NW3 6SJ, London Borough of Camden
JOANNA BAILLIE, POET AND DRAMATIST, BORN 1762, DIED 1851. LIVED IN THIS HOUSE FOR NEARLY 50 YEARS.
Spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare in her day, Scottish poet and dramatist Joanna Baillie achieved widespread fame in the early 19th century with her major work, Plays on the Passions (1798–1836). Her plaque at Bolton House on Windmill Hill is one of Hampstead’s earliest – put up in 1900 – and was only the fourth to commemorate a woman.
‘SHAKESPEARE LIVES AGAIN’
Joanna Baillie was drawn to the study of human character. Her most notable work was Plays on the Passions, a play cycle that appeared between 1798 and 1836. Sir Walter Scott, in Marmion (1808), wrote of Baillie that ‘Avon’s swans think Shakespeare lives again’. Hyperbole perhaps, but Baillie was genuinely seen as the successor to Shakespeare in terms of her ability to infuse historical drama with a fitting measure of psychological intensity. Her 1800 play De Montfort was produced at Drury Lane by John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. There too was performed in 1815 her most successful work, The Family Legend (1810).
Baillie’s contemporary Harriet Martineau recalled that the playwright ‘enjoyed fame almost without parallel’, and Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron and John Keats each made the pilgrimage to Bolton House. The inscription on the chocolate-brown tablet – which blends in with the brick front of the house, one of a row of three built in about 1730 – records that Baillie lived here for ‘nearly 50 years’. In fact, it was just over 30. She first moved to Hampstead in 1791, but seems only to have taken up residence at Bolton House in 1820. In March of that year, she wrote of ‘our new house . . . on what is called Holly Bush hill’. Baillie – whose uncles were the prominent anatomists John Hunter and William Hunter –shared the house with her sister Agnes (1760–1861), and lived here until her death at the age of 88.