Horniman, Annie Elizabeth Fredrika (1860–1937), founding patron of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, was born 3 October 1860, at Forest Hill, London, the only daughter of Frederick John Horniman (founder of the Horniman Museum) and Rebekah Horniman (née Emslie, d. 1895). Her grandfather, who had made his fortune as a tea merchant, was of quaker stock. Educated at home, and at the Slade School of Fine Art, London (1882–6), where she produced little creative work but proved herself a talented copyist, she showed a determinedly independent streak as a young woman. Her earliest interests included women's rights, cycling, Wagner, astrology, the occult, and, despite – or possibly because of – her parents’ disapproval, the theatre. She was left financially independent after inheriting £40,000 of her grandfather's fortune in 1893 (she inherited a further £25,000 on the death of her father in 1906).
Her involvement with the Irish dramatic movement came about through her friendship with William Butler Yeats (qv), whom she first encountered as a fellow member of the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. She became devotedly attached to him and assisted him with his correspondence. Convinced of his genius and anxious to make her own mark in the world of theatre, in March 1894 she agreed secretly to finance a production of Yeats's ‘The land of heart's desire’ at the Avenue Theatre, London. Although this experiment resulted in a financial loss, she later described it as a ‘fruitful failure’. With her appetite whetted she came to Dublin in April 1903 to assist the Irish National Theatre Society (INTS) in its staging of Yeats's ‘The king's threshold’. She again provided the money for the production, which took place in the Camden Street Hall, Dublin, and also created the designs for the costumes. This involvement obviously meant a great deal to her as she later wrote to Yeats: ‘Do you realise you have given me the right to call myself an “artist”? How I thank you!’ (Flannery, 14–15).
Horniman decided to provide the society with a more permanent home and in 1904 she took a lease on the mechanics’ institute hall in Abbey Street and the adjoining building in Marlborough Street and let them to the INTS rent free. While she was unable to attend the opening night, which took place 27 December 1904, she had a direct involvement with the production of Yeats's ‘On Baile's strand’, for which she again acted as costume designer. Her hands-on engagement was maintained the following year, when she made the arrangements for a highly successful tour that took in Oxford, Cambridge, and London; she did the same for a more extensive tour of England and Scotland in 1906.
Although many of the INTS actors initially regarded her support as a godsend, Horniman's financial control over the society aroused almost immediate suspicion among nationalists. Arthur Griffith (qv) came out against her early on, describing her decision to cater for a more affluent clientele over the sixpenny public as ‘undemocratic’ and ‘unpatriotic’ (Frazier, 173). She was similarly hostile towards most nationalists (they were not the kind of people ‘a gentleman could take to a club’, (Frazier, 181)), and from the outset regarded her association with the theatre as a means of promoting artistic drama, and more particularly the work of Yeats, rather than of encouraging a specifically Irish cultural movement. Her own comments to John Millington Synge (qv) provide a telling assessment of the situation: ‘I never made the slightest pretension to any political sympathies . . . If anyone thinks that “Irish” or “National” are anything to me beyond empty words used to distinguish a society, merely a trifle for convenience, they are much mistaken’.
From the earliest stages of her association with the Abbey Theatre she continually railed against what she considered to be the unprofessionalism and slovenliness of the INTS – ‘the dislike of doing anything well’ as she wrote to J. O. Hannay (qv) in July 1907 – which led her to insist that the theatre establish itself on a more official footing. In 1905 she decided to subsidise wages for the actors, who had hitherto been amateurs, and to dissolve the old INTS in favour of a new limited company. Such concerns later manifested themselves in a long-drawn-out campaign against W. G. Fay (qv), whom she eventually had sidelined in favour of an English director in January 1907. She similarly found herself at odds with both Synge and Augusta Gregory (qv), whom she continually suspected of operating against her interests. Despite many simmering animosities (she threatened to withdraw the theatre's funding on three occasions between February and June 1907 for perceived ‘political offences’), she remained unconditionally supportive throughout ‘The playboy’ controversy of that year.
By this time, however, she had begun to distance herself from Dublin and had turned her attention to Manchester, where she established a repertory company for which she purchased the city's Gaiety Theatre in 1908. In the light of these additional commitments and her growing disenchantment with her Irish venture, in February 1910 Horniman agreed to hand over the Abbey to the directors for the sum of £1,000 at the end of the patent period later that year. She had, by that time, spent an estimated £9,957 on the theatre, excluding losses incurred during the subsidised English tours. The final break with the Abbey, and with Yeats himself, came in May 1910, when the theatre failed to close on the death of Edward VII. Having failed to get what she considered to be an adequate apology from the directors, she withdrew all financial support. This in turn resulted in an acrimonious financial quarrel, which was settled only after the intervention of an independent arbiter, who found in favour of the directors.
Horniman continued to work closely with her repertory company in Manchester until 1917, when she was forced to suspend the company's work. Having accumulated sizeable debts she sold the Gaiety Theatre in 1921. She declined an invitation from the Liberal party to stand as an MP in 1923. In her later years much of her time was spent travelling on the continent. Her services to drama led to her being made a Companion of Honour in 1933. She died, unmarried, on 6 August 1937, while visiting friends in Shere, Surrey. Her portrait, painted by John B. Yeats (qv) in 1904, hangs in the public area of the Abbey Theatre.