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The first actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

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Review of  The first actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

 “very interesting and much visited”

David Franchi – Monday 12th December 2011

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons” is the first exhibition dedicated to the portraits of the eighteenth century British actresses. This captivating show examines the figures of the first actresses of the history who played in Britain, and in the meantime it considers their liaison with art and the theatre.

On display a collection of 53 actress-portraits and satirical prints, including Nell Gwyn, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and Dorothy Jordan, by such artists as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Gillray which are major loans from museums, together with works from private collections shown for the first time.

The exhibition shows the remarkable popularity of actress-portraits and provides a vivid spectacle of eighteenth-century femininity, fashion and theatricality. “The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons” shows large paintings of actresses in their celebrated stage roles, intimate and sensual off-stage portraits and mass-produced caricatures and prints, and explores how they contributed to the growing reputation and professional status of leading female performers.

A first topic of the show is historical. Women were first permitted to perform on the English stage in the early 1660s, after the restoration of King Charles II. Before there were no professional actresses and female roles were played by men or boys. Respectable women would not usually consider a career in the theatre. However, because the profession demanded the ability to read and memorise lines and to sing and dance, the first actresses came from varied backgrounds.

In the middle of the eighteenth century the profession of actress was linked to the one of prostitute. Covent Garden was the epicentre of the theatre scene, but it was at the same time famous for its bagnios and brothels. This provoked debates about feminine decorum and the display of women’s body on stage.

The First Actresses” focuses also on the close relationship between visual art and the dramatic arts cradled by the Royal Academy of Arts, founded in 1768, which was interested in creating new forms of expression. Afterwards this brought to the development of the ‘theatrical portraiture’ genre that became popular in the eighteenth century. It consisted in paintings of performers in character or acting in a well-known play.

Last idea the show highlights is that during the eighteenth century London became an important theatre centre in the world and many international recognised actresses were performing in the capital of Britain.

“The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons” is curated by Professor Gill Perry, supported by Dr Lucy Peltz.

As a complement to the main show there is another National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “The actresses now”, that collects photographic portraits of contemporary British female actresses performing in theatre, film and television. It celebrates the lasting legacy of those pioneering women. This display is not a comprehensive survey, but instead aims to demonstrate the diversity and breadth of contemporaneous talents.

Drawn from the Gallery’s Collection, “The Actress Now” includes women with long and varied acting careers, alongside younger performers who have recently made an impact. The display of 39 works in a range of media includes an oil painting.

Both the shows are very interesting and much visited.

Showing until 08 January 2012 National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martins Place, London, WC2H OHE

Published for: www.remotegoat.co.uk

Direct link: http://www.remotegoat.co.uk/review_view.php?uid=7875#reviews

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