“Clara Fisher’s Head: George Combe and the Phrenological Career of a Child Actress.” Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Ottawa, ON. June 2015.
In her 1897 memoirs, actress Clara Fisher Maeder looks back to her days as a transatlantic child star in the 1820s. In one chapter, she recalls a visit to Edinburgh where the members of the Phrenological Society, led by George Combe, requested permission to make a plaster cast of her head so that they might determine whether her prodigious talents manifested themselves in her skull. To Combe’s apparent delight, the resulting cast of Fisher’s “uncommonly large” nine-year old head afforded unique insight into the “particular combination of faculties… essential to success in the histrionic art”; these included strength in the areas of secretiveness, imitation, concentrativeness, self-esteem, and love of approbation (qtd. in Maeder 107, 108-9). In Combe’s estimation, Fisher’s large head explained why her portrayal of Richard III was as captivating as, if not superior to, that of the adult star Edmund Kean.
Combe was no stranger to the stage. In 1833 he married Cecilia Siddons, the daughter of famed actress Sarah Siddons, and was a close friend of Siddons’ cousin, the actress Fanny Kemble. But the actress who seems to have defined Combe’s career was Fisher. Not only did he continue to refer to Fisher’s head, and feature drawings of it, in his subsequent publications, but he also appears to have brought the cast with him when he crossed the Atlantic and embarked on a North American lecture tour in 1838-39. According to Fisher Maeder, the cast eventually found its way to an “out-of-the-way place in British Columbia,” where her daughter’s brother-in-law came across it in the mid-1890s (14).
The story of the creation, analysis, and subsequent circulation of Clara Fisher’s head in journals, books, and luggage (!) points to the convergence of theatre culture and pseudo-medical inquiry in the mid-nineteenth century. More pressingly, it offers a startling example of how child actresses became caught up in larger pedagogical (not to mention racist) projects during a period of colonial expansion and imperial domination. In an effort to untangle the many threads that encircle Clara Fisher’s head, this paper traces the economic, social, and cultural capital that Combe accrued through his association with Fisher, while considering the extent to which Fisher, first as a child actress and later as a doyenne of the North American stage, legitimized the practice of phrenology through her lingering presence on Combe’s pages and lecture stage.
Maeder, Clara Fisher. Autobiography of Clara Fisher Maeder. Burt Franklin, New York: 1897.