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First and Now Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

Eleanor Nell Gwyn

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 very first actresses in the history who played in Britain, and in the meantime it considers their liaison with the 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 vibrant vision 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

Gemma Aterton

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. The display of women’s body on stage was also much criticised and the debate brought to difficult moments for actresses.

The First Actresses” focuses also on the close relationship between visual and dramatic arts cradled by the Royal Academy of Arts. Founded in 1768, Royal Academy of Arts was interested in creating new forms of expression, therefore improving newborn talent by supporting innovative kind of arts. Afterwards this brought to the development of the ‘theatrical portraiture’, a 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 centuryLondonbecame an important theatre centre in the world and many international recognised actresses were performing in the capital of Britain.

Joanna Lumley by Camera Press/ Debra Hurford Brown

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

As well as focusing on the eighteenth-century actress as a glamorous subject of high art portraits, and the ‘feminine face’ of eighteenth century celebrity culture, the exhibition looks at the resonances with modern celebrity culture and the enduring notion of the actress as fashion icon.

As a complement of the major show, in fact, 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. It is not a comprehensive survey, but instead aims to demonstrate the diversity and breadth of contemporaneous talents. The display of 39 works in a range of media includes an oil painting.

Drawn from the Gallery’s Collection, cincludes women with long and varied acting careers, such as Dame Maggie Smith, Fiona Shaw and Dame Harriet Walter, alongside younger performers who have recently made an impact, including Natalie Dormer and Lily Cole. Given the wealth of fine British actresses working today, this display is not a comprehensive survey but instead aims to demonstrate the diversity and breadth of contemporary talent.

Both the shows are very interesting and much visited.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons” runs from 20th October 2011 until 8th January 2012.

The Actress Now” runs from 20th October 2011 until 2nd January 2012.

At the National Portrait Gallery, 2 St. Martins Place, London, WC2H OHE


Written by davidfranchi

January 13, 2012 at 11:45 am

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