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Violet Augusta Mary Barnes (subsequently Violet Vanbrugh) was born in Exeter 11 June 1867. She was the first child of the Rev. Prebendary Reginald Henry Barnes, Vicar of Heavitree, near Exeter and his young wife Frances (née Nation).

She decided early in her life that she wanted to be an actress and at the age of 19, went to London where she came to the notice of the great Dame Ellen Terry who had become the leading Shakespearean actress of her day. The young Violet had ambitions to follow in her footsteps but first, she had to learn the ropes as an actress. Ellen Terry got her her first part - as a chorus girl in a farce called Faust and Loose!

Small Shakespearean roles followed but her big break came in 1892 when she was cast to play Ann Boleyn opposite Sir Henry Irving as Henry VIII.

Violet Vanbrugh
Violet Vanbrugh


She married another actor - Arthur Bourchier - in 1894 and their only child, Prudence, was born in 1902. Old Exeter newspapers describe how the couple would visit Exeter from time to time, taking over the Theatre at short notice and staging two-handed matinée performances which delighted Exeter audiences. Those around at the time describe Arthur as being completely overbearing and without interest in his wife's career and sadly, this marriage didn't last. The couple were formally separated in 1916 and divorced two years later when Arthur almost immediately married a much younger actress. Violet never remarried.


Violet first appeared at Stratford in  1906, playing Lady Macbeth. But then a new medium began to take over with and Violet, who was a  beautiful and experienced actress, found herself in demand for leading roles in the movies. She took part in several films including:


1911 Henry VIII (Silent)

Will Barker was the Director and Producer and the film was based on the production given at the His Majesty's Theatre, Haymarket. Arthur Bourchier (Violet's husband) played Henry VIII and Violet, his first wife Katherine, but the undoubted star of the film was Sir Herbert Tree who played Cardinal Wolsey.

1913 Macbeth (Silent)

This was a German production and is now lost. Arthur Bourchier played Macbeth and Violet Vanbrugh played Desdemona.

1931 Captivation 

A very different type of film with a script written especially for the screen. By this time, Violet was in her 60s so she was playing very different roles. In this film, she took the part of Lady Foster who meets a cocky young writer and decides to teach him a lesson.

1935 Joy Ride

A fast moving comedy romp in which Violet played a character called Selina Prune!

1938 Pygmalion

Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion for the stage in 1912. For this first film version he was invited to write the scenario and the dialogue - the directors being  Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard who also played Henry Higgins with Wendy Hiller as Eliza. This time, Violet played a cameo role as the Ambassadress.

1940 Young Man's Fancy

In 1939, Violet retired from the stage. A tiny part in this comedy film was the last public appearance she made.


On 10 November 1942, after a career lasting over half a century in which she was in almost constant employment, Violet Vanbrugh died in London aged 75.





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