The Pick - The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

October 20, 2011

Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

National Portrait Gallery, London, until 8 January 2012

Because Covent Garden was famous for its brothels as well as its theatres, early actresses faced something of an image problem. Alongside the spectacle, seduction and "sensibility" often on display in this lavish exhibition, we witness a resolute search for professional recognition and respectability.

Nell Gwyn (c.1651-87), one of the first stars as well as a royal mistress, after Charles II allowed women to appear on stage, is portrayed bare-breasted. By the time we get to Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), she is seated on a throne in a pose borrowed from Michelangelo, dressed as the Tragic Muse in sombre purple and brown, with shadowy figures representing Pity and Fear accompanying her. In between comes Joshua Reynolds' delicious 1771 portrait of Frances Abington in character (illustrated above), the erotic potential of the pose largely underplayed.

Although these pictures are very different, they all reveal what curator Gill Perry, professor of art history at The Open University, describes as "the feminine face of celebrity" during a period that marks "the beginning of celebrity culture as we understand it today". Figurines and a set of tiles depicting well-known actresses in costume, borrowed from the ladies' powder room at the Garrick Club, operated as souvenirs and marketing tools. Then, as now, biographies and memoirs fed the public desire to know more about stars' private lives.

To help draw out the parallels, the National Portrait Gallery is also putting on a simultaneous exhibition about The Actress Now (until 8 January 2012), bringing together photographs and portraits in oil, pencil and ceramic of well-known performers from Gemma Arterton and Julie Christie to Zoë Wanamaker and Kate Winslet.

Although the images of the first actresses helped bring them fame and fortune, Perry also detects signs of anxiety about their animation, sexuality and economic independence. Women famous for cross-dressing "breeches parts" were often mocked, as were the aristocrats with a passion for amateur theatricals.

Equally suggestive of how female performers were "tamed" are two fabulous portraits by Thomas Gainsborough from the 1780s.

One depicts the singer Elizabeth Sheridan (née Linley) sitting in a landscape like an aristocrat with a perfect pink complexion and dress. When she married the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan in 1773, he had insisted that she give up her career.

Giovanna Baccelli was a celebrated Italian-born dancer who became the mistress of the Duke of Dorset, moved into his family seat at Knole and accompanied him to Paris when he became British ambassador. Gainsborough depicts her dancing, but in an extremely demure pose on what looks like a path in a country estate, her tambourine beside her on the ground, the flowing train of her dress blending into the trees behind. The popular professional performer has been transformed into a child of nature or nobleman's pet.

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