Anna Cora Mowatt and the Silver Vase

I haven’t devoted a blog to the Watts scandal for some time now. It has not left my thoughts, though. I’d like to come back to it now to look at another artifact that linked Watts to Anna Cora Mowatt – the silver vase. On March 8, 1849, at the close of a benefit performance of the play “Armand,” Walter Watts publicly presented the actress/playwright with a stunning and very expensive object d’art.

I have not been able to find any contemporary drawings of the vase (The ones that accompany this blog are just my approximations) but it is described as being covered in silver and lined with gold, weighing around 120 ounces, and topped with a statuette of Shakespeare. On the front was engraved

Presented to Anna Cora Mowatt of New York, United States, by Walter Watts, Esq., lessee and manager of the Theatre Royal, Marylebone, in respectful and grateful acknowledgment of her services to the drama as authoress and actress; and as a record that worth and genius from every land will ever be honored in England. London, 8th of March, 1849.

On the opposite side the following lines from the play Measure for Measure appeared:

                          In her youth
There is a prone and speechless dialect
Such as moves men; besides she has prosperous art
When she would play with reason and discourse;
And well she can persuade.

The cost of the piece was estimated at £100. 1 To give you some perspective on the relative value of the object, the salary of Walter Watts’ job as a clerk at the Globe Life Insurance Company was £200 per year. The Victorian Web estimates that the cost of living for someone with this sort of comfortable, middle-class income would be around £150 per year.2

Chroniclers of the Watts scandal would later cite this expensive gift as a proof positive of either:

1. Walter Watts’ wasteful, extravagant spending in connection to his theaters,
2. His growing obsession with Anna Cora Mowatt ,or
3. An ongoing romantic liaison between the actress and the manager.

Doubtlessly, dear Reader, all of these conclusions are probably sounding pretty plausible to you as well. Looking at the gift of the silver vase through the lens of the scandal, it is hard to view it as being disconnected from those unfortunate events.

The only problem with this perspective is that this is not how the presentation of this vase was viewed in 1849 – the year when it took place. Victorian society – with all its rules and etiquette — would not have stood by and condoned a rich playboy theater manager like Walter Watts engineering a situation where he could publicly present his married crush with a super-expensive trinket engraved “To sweet, perfect you from me, XOXO, baby,” would they? No. Of course not. And yet, in 1849, nary a well-groomed eyebrow seems to have been even ever so slightly raised for these concerns at the event. How is this possible? Well, it seems that this flashy silver vase was wrapped up in some even more distracting circumstances involving Edwin Forrest, William Macready, the Astor Place Riots, and a play about Cardinal Richelieu’s illegitimate daughter.

Hold onto your gussets and gaiters for part II, Reader, dear…

1. Barnes, Eric Wollencott. The Lady of Fashion: The Life and Theatre of Anna Cora Mowatt. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954. Page 211.
2. Skipper, James and George P. Landow. “Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era.” The Victorian Web.