In Search Of...The Vestris Hams

By Stephen Coates Last edited 16 months ago
In Search Of...The Vestris Hams
Madame Vestris putting on her breeches. John Lewis Marks© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Garrick Club in Covent Garden, with its seven year waiting list, has always been one of London's more exclusive old-style London clubs — it once turned down Jeremy Paxman as a prospective member. But, with an average member age of 70 and, resistance to female members, its appeal may be limited.

It was founded by theatre lovers and actors in the 19th century and remains thespian in character.  On the top floor there's an amazing archive and an unparalleled collection of theatrical books, ephemera and portraits. It was there that we first learnt from Marcus Risdell, the previous archivist, about 'The Vestris Hams'.  If you are a treasure hunter or keep a list of lost arcane London ephemera, you may want to add these to it.

Eliza Vestris was a talented actress, singer and dancer, who was regarded as one of the most beautiful English women, and at times (when on stage) men, of her day. As one reviewer said:

Two-thirds of Madame Vestris's notoriety has arisen from the facility with which she can un-sex herself, and the confident boldness with which she makes her bow to the audience in breeches.

Madame Vestris as Don Felix. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The breeches described by the reviewer encased a pair of legs which had attained international attention, had their own devoted following, and were generally regarded as being virtually divine:

There is another particular in which Vestris is unrivalled ..I mean as regards the symmetry of those portions of the human frame which are situated between the knees and ankles. I think them, as far as my judgment goes, perfect in every point,

said another reviewer.

The fame of these ‘hams’ alone was said to be able to fill a theatre and such was their allure that a certain Mr James Philip Papera of Marylebone, an Italian plaster worker, was engaged to make casts of them for one of Eliza’s many wealthy gentleman-admirers.  The casts only extended to "a little above the knee, and included the foot" — rather modest by today's standards — but they caused so much excitement at the time that copies were made available to other wealthy fans in a strictly limited-edition.

'A Connoisseur', depicting a man looking at moulds of Madame Vestris's legs. William Heath 1831 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the absence of access to the actual real legs, they were so valuable that Mr Papera took his cousin Thomas Papera to court for secretly making unapproved copies and selling them privately: an early example of copyright infringement. Mr Papera was able to prove the casts found in Thomas's possession were certainly the Vestris Hams because he had been the only person Madame Vestris had consented to stand for and "so beautiful and perfect was the symmetry of the original” that there could be no mistake about their authenticity.

Eliza and her legs led a colourful and noteworthy life. Of course, even in drag, she would not have been allowed to be a member of the Garrick Club despite the fact she became an international stage star, went on to manage theatres, took plays on tour and, in an age where women were generally were not allowed to manage their own lives and money, ran a business employing hundreds of people. She died at the age of 59 in August 1856, taking the hams to Kensal Green Cemetery with her.

The erotic charge of the casts was rumoured to be so powerful that they would undoubtedly fetch a significant sum from today’s connoisseurs of erotica and and aficionados of London obscura. But sadly none of the official originals have survived. Perhaps they were were caressed to oblivion by their infatuated owners?

As is the way with these things, rumours circulated that certain of the ‘bootleg' versions created illicitly by Thomas Papera were secreted away before he was caught.  But, if so, they were either lost to him or he failed to leave a record before his death, because their whereabouts is now unknown.

Despite occasional reported sightings, 'the Vestris Hams' remain objects only of desire.  The single leg found in a private collection at the end of the century was allegedly ground up and sold as an aphrodisiac, and so was never verified as genuine.

See also: In search of Joanna Southcott's box.

Last Updated 20 October 2016