Minnie Cunningham was a music hall singer and dancer, best remembered for featuring in a painting by Walter Sickert. She was born in Birmingham in 1870, the daughter of music hall comic singer Ned Cunningham. He was well-loved and successful, being described by the Birmingham Gazette as the ‘greatest comic singer in the world.’ His daughter started her music hall career after his death when she was ten years old. Minnie Cunningham tells us she began as a male impersonator and sang her father’s songs, although reviews of the time don’t mention male impersonation, only her singing and dancing. She moved from the provincial halls to London where she performed at the principal halls of the day.
It was during her London success that Minnie Cunningham was introduced to the painter Walter Sickert by the poet and music hall critic Arthur Symons. Both men were smitten by the popular artiste and Sickert arranged to paint her portrait. The figure of Minnie Cunningham was painted from life in Sickert’s studio in Chelsea in 1892. For this painting she stood on a raised stand as if she were on stage but when asking her to pose for a later painting Sickert writes that he had built a proper stage ‘six foot square, with steps up to it.’ The background is thought to be the Tivoli on the Strand in London where Sickert had seen her perform. The painting was originally entitled, Miss Minnie Cunningham ‘I’m an old hand at love, though I’m young in years.’ This was one of her popular songs at the time and while singing it she dressed as a young girl which made the performance more daring. The painting became known as Minnie Cunningham at the Old Bedford. It was exhibited for the first time at the New English Art Club in 1892 to a mixed reception, with a reviewer in the Pall Mall Gazette writing ‘The red dress of Minnie Cunningham glows with refined richness in its setting, but the proportions of the figure and the feet and hands seem altogether absurd.’ The subject and setting were just too shocking for many at the time and it was said by some to represent degradation and vulgarity.
Minnie Cunningham remained popular for some years, performing, writing songs for herself and others and appearing in pantomime. She maintained it was very difficult to gauge the public taste in choosing a song but her compositions ‘The hen that cackles the most’ and ‘Give us a wag of your tail, old dog’ seem to have hit the mark. Minnie spent time in Ireland, calling herself ‘the Little Irish Gem’ and a tale is told of male admirers turning up with glass bottles to throw at the performer who replaced her at the top of the bill, giving us an idea of her popularity.
While in Ireland she claimed £500 through a court case for alleged breach of contract in which she was engaged as principal girl in the Jack and Jill pantomime at £30 a week. She refused to wear the costume for her part saying it was too short and offended her standards of decency. Discussions with management were unsuccessful, often ending in tears. Eventually another performer, Edith Fink, was appointed to the role and had no complaints about the length of the costume. At one point in the court proceedings the two performers removed their hats and boots and stood back to back on a table to see who was the taller of the two. Minnie Cunningham was undoubtedly the taller and was asked to put on the costume for the jury’s eyes only. There were rumours that she was worried that Dorothy Ward playing the part of Jack, an extremely well-known and talented performer, would outshine her. The jury could not agree on a verdict and were discharged.
Minnie Cunningham lived with her mother in Southgate Road, Hackney. Her mother died in 1916 and Minnie seems to have retired shortly after this. She died in 1954 at the age of eighty-four and her later life is a mystery. She remained in Southgate Road, but her obituary tells us only of Minnie’s performing life taken from her own words.
Thanks to britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
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Walter Richard Sickert & the Theatre 1880-1940. PhD thesis submitted University of St Andrews by William Rough 2010