Maude Branscombe's scant resume on the stage performing "Ixion" and "H.M.S. Pinafore" hardly explains her significance in the history of celebrity. She was the first of the performing artists of the 19th century for whom good looks trumped every other ability; indeed, she was an inadequate dancer, inconsistent elocutionist, and insecure singer. But the camera loved her no end. She became in 1877 an international star on the strength of her photogenic face and figure, celebrated in gallery windows and in the cabinet card displays in city newsstands. The popularity of her image ushered in the era of the buffo artist--the woman of minor talent whose looks made them bankable.
Though Jose Maria Mora discovered Branscombe and popularized her face, every metropolitan photographer paid to have her pose. Her income from sittings far exceeded her wages as featured attraction on the stage. While Lily Langtry and Lillian Russell may have generated more cabinet cards by the end of the 19th century, Branscombe for a five year period between 1877 and 1882 was the most ubiquitous of the professional beauties represented by photography.
English by birth, she became an artist's model in her teens, sitting for the Scottish painter McClean and Elliot & Fry's photographic studio. Lord Alfred Paget secured for her a stage role as Ophelia, but the performance was not a success. Figuring she could find a place in an American extravaganza, she crossed the Atlantic where she experienced the sudden noteriety of being the "most beautiful woman in the world." Her American engagements were never artistically significant--the burlesque, "Orpheus and Eurydice," the burlesque, "Cinderella," "Hamlet," "The Sorcerer," "H.M.S. Pinafore."
Branscombe's photographic popularity began to wane in late 1881, as Mary Anderson's image supplanted hers in the gallery cases. In 1882 she returned to England, played several months in "Manteaux Noire" at the Avenue Theater, before sinking into the stage netherworld of provincial pantomimes. In 1886 she married pianist Victor Lonuen. She surfaced briefly into public notice in 1895 when she took her employer, A.H. Gunn, to court for assault. She was working a stenographer at the time. David S. Shields/ALS