Since women were first permitted on the stage in Britain in the early 1660s, they have always generated substantial attention and speculation, particularly with regard to their private, off-stage lives. This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is designed to show the close relationship that existed between art and theatre in the late 17th and early 18th century: it demonstrates that portraiture became a kind of performance in itself as it set out to enhance the reputations of early actresses, avert scandal, and, crucially, develop their professional identities. 

As theatre grew in popularity in early 18th century Britain, public demand grew for information about the lives of famous actresses. Cheaper printing led to the creation of short biographies and memoirs which revealed the life-stories of famous performers, anticipating society’s current voyeuristic attitude towards modern celebrity culture. Alongside written works, mass produced memorabilia also began to appear on the market. Ardent fans were able to purchase porcelain figures of their favourite actresses, stamped ceramic tiles, branded snuff boxes, playing cards, fans, and so on. Evidently, the clever use of the celebrity as a profitable marketing tool dates back to this era.

During this period, the same public that went to the theatre also went to art exhibitions at the Royal Academy. These exhibitions, featuring portraits of well-known thespians, encouraged actress recognition and what we might refer to nowadays as the cult of celebrity spotting. Portraiture, with its new link to public entertainment, became an important means through which actresses could enhance and promote their careers.There is a room dedicated to large paintings of famous actresses in recognisable character poses: a highlight is Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This majestic portrait depicts Siddons, the greatest tragic actress of her time, in a pose where she does not visually engage with the viewer, but instead sits with her head turned to one side, entirely absorbed in her own tragic predicament. Another portrait of the same actress, this time by Thomas Lawrence, features the actress standing with a powerful presence, verging on regal: Siddons’s PR team clearly worked hard to promote her reputation as an actress whose talent must be taken seriously.

By the mid 18th century, the streets of Convent Garden were just as famous for their esteemed theatres as they were for their brothels. This increased the already existing association between actress and prostitute, something that critics and writers also pounced on as they obsessed over the real and imagined sexual exploits of these famous women. A highlight of the exhibition is Simon Verelst’s provocative painting of Nell Gwyn (arguably the first “it” girl) who poses for Verelst whilst sitting, slightly reclining and topless. This painting has not been seen in public for almost fifty years and has been cleaned in order to remove the clothes that were added by an anxious 19th century restorer, for censorship reasons. Another intimate and sensual off-stage portrait is that of Frances Abington as Prue in Love for Love, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In this flirtatious portrait, Frances sits in an informal pose with her thumb placed suggestively on her parted lips.

One of the most intriguing portraits on display is that of the Italian actress Giovanna Baccelli, painted by Thomas Gainsborough. Painted during the late 18th century, at a time when actresses were expected to be multi-talented and able to sing and dance; Giovanna is depicted in a dance pose, wearing a stage costume (and rather excessive stage make up), and looking totally out of place against a landscape background. Nevertheless, the dance position that Giovanna adopts is sufficiently demure to keep in line with anxieties of the time, surrounding the representation of the female body whilst in vigorous movement.   

The focus of this exhibition is on the feminine face of early celebrity culture, with attention being drawn to the way in which the cult of the celebrity has evolved over time to reach its present manifestation and obsession. This exhibition demonstrates, that by and large, the early female pioneers of the theatrical trade rose above the continual intrusion and speculation into their private lives. Through their dignified and professional approach, they were able to gain genuine recognition for their acting talent.
The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, at National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is designed to show the close relationship that existed between art and theatre in the late 17th and early 18th century: it demonstrates that portraiture became a kind of performance in itself, as it set out to enhance the reputations of early actresses, avert scandal, and crucially develop their professional identities. 

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