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Mary Postans. Miniature inscribed on the back to Alfred Shaw and dated Naples March 1834.

Mrs Alfred SHAW (1814-1876)

August 2014

MRS ALFRED SHAW (née Mary Postans) – A GREAT ENGLISH CONTRALTO (b. 8 July 1814, Lee, Kent; d. 9 September 1876, Hadleigh, Suffolk)

The 8th July was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the English singer Mrs Alfred Shaw. She was born Mary Postans and died Mrs John Frederick Robinson. During the late 1830’s and early 1840’s, she was the leading contralto of her day, with a voice once described as being like ‘black velvet’.  In January 1843 The Illustrated London News declared “Every night that Mrs Shaw sings, she renders it still more evident that she is the greatest living English songstress, and the finest contralto known.”  The Musical World described ‘her beautiful voice’ as having “a bright and clear Italian polish, which renders her the most perfect and legitimate contralto singer that has been heard in England for a long lapse of years — her compass is extensive, and throughout equable and mellifluous — her register is singularly perfect, her intonation correct to a nicety — her execution brilliant without redundance — her action graceful — her figure well appropriated to the line of characters she is likely to assume — her verbal articulation distinct and understandable to a marvel. . .  ”  Sadly, her career was short-lived, due perhaps to the overwork which was general at the time, and most probably to the fact that she suffered a number of personal tragedies. The loss of members of her family caused her great distress and her voice failed. Her last major public performances in London were in 1844 and in 1849 she finally retired, aged only 34.  Mary’s grandson, Frederic Holmes Postans, completed a manuscript memoir of the family in 1950 and information from this source has been incorporated into this article.

Mary’s parents Thomas and Agathe Postans (pronounced as in post) had married at Bremhill in Wiltshire in October 1803.  Her brother Thomas was born five years later and on 8 July 1814 Mary was born at the Manor Farm, Lee in Kent.  She was baptised there, at St Margaret’s Church, on 14 August and named after her paternal grandmother.  When Mary was only two her mother, who was of French descent, died and within five months her father had married again, to Nancy Holmes.  They were a close, happy family and by the time she was ten, Mary had a younger half-brother and three half-sisters.

Her father, Thomas Postans, had managed the extensive Manor Farm at Lee for Sir Thomas Baring. In 1816, at the suggestion of Sir Thomas, he was appointed Steward to the United Services Club in London, much frequented at the time by the Duke of Wellington. In 1825 he accepted a superior post, in the Royal household, as Steward of the Officers’ Mess in the Guard Room of St James’ Palace.  This position he held under the reigns of George IV and William IV.  His connections may have been useful to Mary in her subsequent career but he was not a man to exploit his position.  His son Thomas described him in a letter to Mary at the time of their father’s death as  “ . . . the most benevolent and generous of men, whose only fault in a worldly sense was being too good natured. He made for himself a station in society, and was respected by a large circle far above him in rank, yet he had the peculiar good taste and sound sense to know his exact position.”

Mary’s early education was at the Moravian School for Ladies at East Tytherton, near Chippenham, where it was part of a Moravian settlement. She went as a boarder but spent holidays with her family in Lee or London and sometimes at Brighton.

When she was 12 or 13 she was heard by the composer Mazzinghi who immediately suggested to Mary’s father that she should have her voice professionally trained as he clearly recognised that she had exceptional talent. Thomas Postans, anxious as ever to do whatever he could for his children, agreed.  In September 1828, two months after her 14th birthday, Mary was enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy of Music to study singing and piano.  The Academy, which had only been open for five years, was then at 4 Tenterden Street, Hanover Square.  On April 3rd 1830 when Mary was 15, the pupils gave a concert in aid of the Institution at Hanover Square Rooms. Mary sang He was despised and the Quartet Recordare from Mozart’s Requiem with Miss Childe, Messrs Brizzi and E. Seguin.  She  graduated the following summer,  having won the Silver Medal for Singing.

It was decided that she should go to Italy for further study and in August 1831 she set out accompanied by Madame Sestini.  Her father suggested that she keep a diary of her travels and this was still with members of the Postans family in 1950. They went first to Paris for some sightseeing, then on to Geneva, over the Simplon Pass to Milan and eventually arrived in Florence in October. They stayed there for almost two years to enable her to learn the art of singing in Italian from two of the greatest living exponents, Giovanni Velluti, one of the last of the castrati to appear on the London stage, and Angelica Catalani.  She is also said to have studied with Michele Giuliani. Unfortunately, her diary entries which are quoted in the Family Memoir are about where she was and what she saw and contain nothing about her studies.  She does mention Velluti once when she met the Countess Survillie, ex-Queen of Naples and Spain and Caroline Murat, Napoleon’s sister, who now styled herself Countess Lipona and had also been Queen of Naples.  The ladies were very gracious to her and she was led to the piano to sing.  Mary writes  “Velluti was present, he accompanied me and said everything polite.  The Queens then paid me a number of compliments and I retired.”  She was invited back, presumably to sing for them, on a number of occasions and Madame Murat gave her a beautiful little vinaigrette which Mary treasured for the rest of her life. “ Never did I receive more kindness than from these two celebrated personages, particularly having no claim upon them, I felt it the more.”

They left Florence in September 1833, visited Rome for a few days and travelled on to Naples where they stayed for seven months. Mary’s future husband, the London based artist Alfred Shaw, was also there. He evidently already knew members of the Postans family as he had attended her brother Thomas’s wedding  in London earlier in the year.  There is a miniature of Mary inscribed on the back to Alfred Shaw and dated ‘Naples March 1834’.  He later exhibited watercolour sketches of Italian landscapes at the Royal Academy, so probably spent some considerable time there.

Mary saw Malibran and Lablache at the San Carlo during the winter season but there is no indication of who she might have been studying with at this time.  On 24 April 1834, Mary and Madame Sestini set out on the journey back to London.  Her diary entries end on 11 May when they left Rome for Florence so they probably reached London some time in June.

Once home, Mary became a pupil of  Sir George Smart who at the time was one of the organists of the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, where Mary’s father was now Steward of the Officers Mess.

Her earliest known public appearance after her return from the continent was at Hanover Square Rooms on 4 July 1834, four days before her twentieth birthday.  This was a Grand Morning Concert under the immediate Patronage of their Majesties and the Royal Family, in Aid of the Funds of the Royal Academy of Music. The other principal Vocal Performers were Giulia Grisi,  Mrs W.Knyvett, Mrs Bishop, Mrs E. Seguin, and Miss Wagstaffe.

On 23 October at the Egyptian Hall, Mansion House, she sang at another charity concert under Royal Patronage. The following day The Morning Post reported   “ . . . .  Miss Postans, who we do not remember having heard before, sung Se m’abbandoni.  Her voice is a rich contr’alto and she used it with remarkable taste and judgement.  Most deservedly did she receive enthusiastic marks of approbation. . . . .”  Besides the foregoing aria (from Mercadante’s Nitocri) she sang a Rossini duet with Signor Giubilei.  Other performers were Mrs Wood, Madame Stockhausen, & Moscheles;  so she was already, at the age of 21, appearing with leading artists of the day before fashionable audiences.

In 1835 she made her debut in the Concerts of Ancient Music and at the Philharmonic Society,  then, on 25 June, The Duchess of Kent, gave a Grand Concert at Kensington Palace.  The participants were all to be English, and  Mary was invited to take part by Sir George Smart who was conducting.  She sang in a trio and then a quartet with Jane Shirreff, Emma Romer and John Braham.  Many of the Royal Family were present and Princess Victoria was reported to be in the highest spirits.  In September, she travelled to York to take part in her first great provincial festival.  The Duchess of Kent and Princess Victoria were present and three thousand people thronged the Minster  on each of the four days.  Grisi and Lablache took part and these were Mary’s last concerts billed as Miss Postans.

The following Monday,  she was married at St Helen’s Church in York to Alfred Shaw, by then an artist of some repute.  She was 21 and her  husband 25 or 26.  It proved to be a happy marriage but was sadly cut short by Alfred’s mental state, which, after only seven years together, deteriorated to such a degree that he was declared insane and had to be cared for in an Asylum.

On 20 October she appeared with Hull Choral Society advertised as Principal Vocal Performer Mrs Alfred Shaw, (late Miss Postans.) The reviewer in the Hull Packet wrote  “ . . . . Her voice is a mezzo-soprano of great power and sweetness, and peculiarly rich in its lower tones, to which natural gifts she adds a cultivated taste and peculiar flexibility.  Her execution is neat, and her style unaffected . . .”

After singing in many concerts including the Manchester, Norwich and Liverpool festivals, she had her own Benefit in London, a Morning Concert on 24 May at Willis’s Rooms, which was  ‘numerously and fashionably attended.’  By this time she was probably eight months pregnant with their first child.  She sang three times including a new song by Neukomm, Farewell, the words by Byron.  She was supported by Malibran, who had recently become Madame de Beriot, Miss Masson, Miss Bruce, Mr Parry Jnr., and Signor Ivanoff.

This was still not her last concert before the birth of her daughter, as on 14 June she sang in John Orlando Parry’s Morning Concert.  On 20 June 1836 it was reported in The Morning Post  “Yesterday morning, at her residence in Berners Street, Mrs Alfred Shaw, of a daughter.”  This child, who was named Agatha Elizabeth, would later become her mother’s constant companion and support during the most difficult years.

There followed on 3 October 1836 one of the occasions for which Mary Shaw is remembered  when she sang the contralto part in Mendelssohn’s St Paul on its first performance in England, at the  Liverpool Festival.   In his book Personal Recollections Henry Phillips writes about St Paul, in which he sang many times –  “ . . . One of the beautiful singers in this oratorio was Mrs Alfred Shaw, originally Miss Postans, who had a rich and powerful contralto.  . .  . Her voice was far superior to that of Miss M.B. Hawes — but she had not, perhaps, the same power of declamation .”

In the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1837 Alfred had 3 watercolours accepted, View of VeniceFlorence from the Boboli Gardens  & View of Tivoli, all noted as ‘sketched on the spot’.

She continued to perform in concerts.  In April 1838 Mendelssohn wrote a long letter to Mary offering her terms for the Leipzig concerts and advising her about what she should sing.  This remains an unpublished letter.  She sang at the Queen’s Coronation on 28 June, which was the first time that there had been female vocalists taking part in a Coronation, then from 11 – 14 September she sang at the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival.  In October the family left for Leipzig, where  Mendelssohn had found them a comfortable place to live.   Agatha was only two years old so they preferred not to stay in an hotel.  Mary sang altogether in 12 concerts over a period of months and in a letter addressed from Leipzig by Mendelssohn to the Directors of the Philharmonic Society in January 1839 he speaks of Clara Novello and Mrs Shaw as ‘the best concert singers we have had in this country for a long time’.  Her debut concert in Germany was a huge success.  She first sang Rossini’s Pensa alla patria and then Mozart’s Addio. Mendelssohn described this as “A matchless performance of a matchless composition.”  He wrote “. . .  I saw some who shed tears at this beautiful melody which nobody had ventured to sing in public concerts before her, and all the musicians were in raptures, she has made more friends with a simple song, than she would have done, perhaps, with the most celebrated scena and as I know the public here, I am sure that impression will be a lasting one, even if they could not hear her again.  Add to this that everybody who saw her seems to be aware that she is not only to be praised as a great artist but, as a lady-like, unaffected, and most amiable person  . . .”

At later concerts she also sang He was despised and rejected of men, Cherubini’s O Salutaris Hostia and the cavatina from Giulietta e Romeo by Zingarelli.

28 January 1839 was her farewell Concert in Leipzig and they then travelled to Berlin in February, Potsdam and Vienna in March, Dresden in April and by the time of her 25th birthday in July they were in Prague where she sang in a concert and at the Theatre.

It seems that they then decided that she should to go back to Italy to begin a stage rather than a concert career. This would also allow Alfred to paint more views of his beloved Italy.  On 17 November 1839, she made her debut at La Scala, Milan in the world premiere of Verdi’s first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, singing Cuniza. There were a further thirteen performances during the season but she was not in the Turin cast when it was revived the following year.  She had a Benefit at the Teatro Nuovo di Novara, Milan when she sang Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide for the first time and  Malcolm Graeme in Rossini’s La Donna del Lago.  These were probably single acts from both works.  They remained in Italy during 1840.

On 3 February, 1841 she sang at La Scala in Luigi Ricci’s Un Avventura di Scaramuccia as Il Contino, billed as Marietta Shaw and there were a further five performances.  On the 16th again at La Scala she was in Mario Aspa’s I Due Savojardi as Alfredo.  They moved on to Turin and Udine then in May Mary appeared as Orsino in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia at the Imperial Theatre, Vienna, with Frezzolini, Poggi and Moriani.

In November she was at the Grande Teatro Trieste as prima donna assoluta where she sang Climene in Pacini’s Saffo.  At the same time, in London, Adelaide Kemble was making her debut at Covent Garden in Norma.  Within a year Mary would join her there.

By January 1842, she was back in Berlin at the Italian Opera House singing Orsino in Lucrezia Borgia and she also gave her own Concert with many illustrious musical celebrities present including Spontini, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and Liszt.  After she sang a Ricci canzonetta which received an encore “Liszt spontaneously hastened to the piano to accompany the admired artist.”

They moved on to Leipzig for a concert on 27 January then Dresden where on February 22 she sang the first act of Mercadante’s Il Giuramento and the last act of Semiramide with Madame Schroeder-Devrient. “She was overwhelmed with applause, appeared, and was re-called frequently on the proscenium and thus confirmed the high opinion entertained of her.  This English celebrity has reaped at Dresden as rich a harvest of laurel as her ambition could desire.”  By March she was in Prague again.

Mary sang in Turin from 12 March until June, firstly at  Teatro Carrignano then in April at the Teatro Regio before the Court when she sang an act of Saffo at the Concert in celebration of the nuptials of the King of Sardinia’s son.  At the same house she sang in Federico Ricci’s Il Corrado d’Altamura.  The family remained abroad until July 1842 when Agatha was 6 and Mary was pregnant again.

They returned to London, where on 23 August their son Alfred Thomas was born at 49, New Bond Street.  The following month she was offered a contract for Covent Garden by  Charles Kemble.  His daughter Adelaide’s performances were proving a greater draw than the plays which were also given at the time.  Adelaide apparently chose Mary because they had sung successfully together in Padua.

The new Season opened on 10 September, after a week’s postponement due to the illness of Adelaide Kemble.  There were 15 operas given and 160 performances in this season, the singers were clearly being overworked.  She made her English stage debut on Saturday, 1 October in Rossini’s  Semiramide as Arsace with Adelaide Kemble in the title role, Theodor Giubilei as Assur. The playbill advertised her as “From the Principal Theatres in Italy, — her First Appearance on the English Stage”.

The performance was a  triumph for both of them, the audience was ecstatic, and their duet in the second act was encored “a repetition in which their voices blended, if possible even more harmoniously”

The Times critic wrote  “ . . . On her appearance, she was greeted with the most overwhelming applause, but she evinced remarkable self-possession, which as it was unaccompanied by the slightest appearance of pretension, must be attributed solely to a just reliance on her own powers.  The first few bars of her recitative she gave with such truth and firmness, with such perfect tranquillity, and so simple and touching was her reading, that the audience even at this early stage of the performance, began to give spontaneous demonstrations of their delight.  And here it may be observed that Mrs A. Shaw seems to be the only English singer who thoroughly understands the use to be made of recitative, which is so often little more than mere speaking.  She grasped it thoroughly, made it thoroughly musical, avoiding without an effort, coarseness on the one hand, and feebleness on the other, and giving every sentiment its proper force. . ”

The Observer critic wrote “Nobody denies that Mrs Alfred Shaw is quite unrivalled in her class of vocalists.  The finest and most fastidious musical judges listened to her with delight.  She has no drawback in her voice, skill, or deportment and we say it deliberately that we never heard the music so finely sung even by Pisaroni who we thought could never be equalled.  This is our confirmed opinion and Miss Adelaide Kemble, considering the place she had taken and holds in public estimation, can almost afford in such an opera to be looked upon as second best.  We understand that Mrs Alfred Shaw was very ill only a week before she made her appearance, and that she had to perform under other disadvantages ; but she made no fuss about these matters, and did not attempt in any way to claim public sympathy.  She relied wisely and justly on her own merits. . .”

Many bouquets were showered on Adelaide at the curtain calls and she handed some of them to Mary which drove the audience to “still more enthusiastic and deafening acclamations” She sang in all, thirty two performances as Arsace ending 28 January 1843.

Her next debut was on 1 November, when she sang Fidalma in Chorley’s English version of Matrimonio Segreto which became The Secret Marriage, with Adelaide Kemble as Fidalma’s niece Carolina and Miss Rainforth as Elisetta.  The conductor was Benedict and he decided to substitute dialogue for recitative which ‘was a great help to the understanding of the plot and business by the audience’. There were only five performances.  Adelaide Kemble retired at Christmas, apparently to marry Edward Sartoris, but in fact they had been married secretly for a few months already, so this opera was rather apt for their situation.

Still at Covent Garden, her next role on 31 January 1843 was  Malcolm Graeme in The Lady of the Lake, the first time that the opera had been sung in English. There were twenty one performances and the Queen and Prince Albert attended on 28 February.

Her contract was finishing and Mary accepted an offer from Macready at Drury Lane to sing in an English version of Sappho.  She was already rehearsing by 21 March.  Macready who quarrelled with several singers and was not impressed by Clara Novello who was to sing Sappho, wrote in his diary  “Mrs Alfred Shaw pleased everyone with her frankness and good humour.”  Sadly, Mary’s problems, which eventually led to her early retirement, began two days later.  Their little son Alfred died of natural causes aged only seven months.  After an inquest he was buried on the 27th at All Souls Cemetery Kensal Green.  Her husband’s mental state now became so much worse that he had to be placed under restraint and Mary arranged for him to be cared for in a private asylum in Hackney.  Her intonation was gradually affected by all her troubles, and she sometimes began to sing flat.

She continued for another three years, often with great success.  She sang in many concerts and at the great Provincial Musical Festivals, in Cinderella at Drury Lane and in Benedict’s new opera The Brides of Venice when she sang Naama.  Eventually, she really had no option but to retire as the problems with her voice became worse.

Mary sang her final Benefit Concert at The Queen’s Concert Rooms, Hanover Square on 6 June 1846.  Signor Brizzi was a participant. He had been in her first concert there in 1830 when they were students at the Academy.  She sang four pieces and Benedict conducted.  The Observer called it “a highly intellectual treat”.  Mary was thirty one years old.  She believed that retirement should be final and she only sang once more in public, a performance of Elijah in 1849.  Her friend Mendelssohn died on 4 November 1847 and her husband Alfred Shaw on the 23rd.  He had been ill for five years and died in Whitmore House Asylum for the Insane, in West Hackney.  He was 36 and was buried with his baby son in Catacomb A at All Souls Kensal Green.

On 11 June, 1851 Mary  married her second cousin John Frederick Robinson, a country solicitor from Hadleigh in Suffolk.  This too, was a happy marriage and they had four children.  They lived contentedly at Hadleigh Hall and she would occasionally sing in private.  When her old friend and patron the Duke of Wellington died, a service was arranged at the Parish Church and Mary sang several pieces.

She still had more bitter blows to contend with when her 17 year old daughter Mary died of tuberculosis in 1869 and the following year her youngest child Elizabeth died from the same disease aged only 12. Mary herself had breast cancer for the last three years of her life.  She died on 9 September 1876 and was buried near her two daughters in the beautiful cemetery at Hadleigh. The following Sunday the Rector spoke about her during the service “…  For several years she has been a sufferer to an extent that few can imagine, for few could conceive how under that bright and cheerful demeanor with which she always greeted her friends, there lay concealed a necessity for stern endurance and for most courageous patience. . . and I may also say that I have rarely witnessed the powers of the mind preserved so clear and unimpaired to the last . . . .”

Jennie Bisset

In compiling this article, I would like to acknowledge the generous help of Mrs Gail Naughton, Mr Brent Fernandez, Mr Alex Bisset, Mr Terry Parker, Mrs Rosemary Raza and the Postans family.

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