Flirting with convention

November 23, 2007

Gill Perry pores over past portrayals of actresses. Today we are used to being bombarded with media images and voyeuristic accounts of female celebrities. And there is nothing new about this phenomenon. As I was researching 18th-century portraiture for my book Spectacular Flirtations , I was intrigued by the sheer quantity of seductive pictures and written reports of female performers that appeared in the Georgian and Regency periods. Actress portraits were a regular feature of the annual Royal Academy shows in the final three decades of the 18th century. When painted by eminent artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough or John Hoppner, the portraits were crowd-pullers. They were discussed endlessly in critical reviews and acted as mutually beneficial advertising for art and drama. Ambitious, bravura works displayed in Academy shows and copied by print-sellers fuelled the appetite for celebrity portraits.

This exhibition culture interacted closely with the vibrant London theatre world; both art forms involved performance and spectacular visual display, and both were located in fashionable sites. From 1780, the Royal Academy was based in Somerset House in the Strand, a stone's throw from the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres, and within walking distance of the Haymarket theatre and the picture galleries on Pall Mall.

These were key venues in the social diaries of educated and genteel members of London society; they were also situated amid the West End's notorious brothels and "bagnios" (bath houses where sexual favours could be bought). The visibility of the sex trade on the streets of Covent Garden enabled an easy confusion of the idea of the actress with that of the urban "whore", partly because they pursued their careers within the same area and partly because several actresses were thought to have taken up acting after working as prostitutes.

The idea of the actress as whore had its legacy in the earlier strolling players, widely seen as dissolute and wanton companies made up largely of prostitutes and vagabonds. Those were mostly dissolved after the Licensing Act of 1737, which restricted the number of theatres that could operate legally in London. Only two, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, were initially licensed by the Crown to perform spoken drama, encouraging this geographical concentration of theatrical and sexual culture.

The permissive female of the London theatre district was a recurring theme of popular prints. Richard Norton's etching The Male Carriage or New Evening Dilly (1798) shows an extravagantly dressed woman whose nocturnal itinerary is lasciviously compared with that of a local carriage in the accompanying text. She/it "sets out from Soho at 8 o'clock every evening; stops at Drury Lane and Covent Garden to take in or if desired will receive in the Yard of St George, and for the accommodation of the Public will also take up and let down in any part of the Town ... The understanding rule to pay before entrance. None permitted to get up behind". According to contemporary reports, the popular association between Covent Garden's whores and actresses was confirmed through their shared dependence on masquerade, which involved deception and fashionable, narcissistic adornment. Both indulged in forms of beguiling, flirtatious display, whether on stage or on the streets.

I was struck by the prevalence of representations of the actress as flirtatious, beguiling or enthralling, as seducing the male audience, in visual and written media. For example, an anonymous reviewer in The Theatrical Inquisitor of 1815 described the contemporary actress-muse as having a beauty that "gives being to the poet's rapturous vision ... smiles that enchant ... tears that dissolve us ... looks that fascinate" and powers that "bind our nobles in chains, and our princes in links of love". This emphasis on flirtatious interaction is found regularly in written accounts of stage performances and painted portraits, especially when the actress is in a comic role, and several in fact entered into relationships with aristocratic and royal partners. The idea of the actress as "flirt" (on and off stage) was one of many publicly perceived identities - along with "whore", comic coquette, tragic heroine or fashion victim - that recur in contemporary accounts. I am especially interested in the ways in which these perceptions are invited, but also sometimes transformed or even challenged, by the conventions and visual narratives adopted in many painted portraits.

While the popular print could openly satirise pretensions and feminine sexuality, the commissioned portrait could be claimed as a "likeness". But such portraits always acted as heavily coded representations of the sitter. Through the use of allegory, allusions, complex visual systems and poses, these images helped to manage social position and negotiate gendered identities. In many large-scale actress portraits, conventions used for the representation of noble sitters are adopted and sometimes subtly modified, as in Angelica Kauffman's portrait of Elizabeth Hartley as Hermione in The Winter's Tale (c 1775). Hartley was one of those Covent Garden "hopeful actresses" who had modelled for Reynolds before achieving success as a tragic actress. She stands in a pseudo-aristocratic mode reminiscent of upper-class portraits by Reynolds, in a vaguely neo- classical robe, with an elbow resting languorously on a classical pedestal. She gazes thoughtfully to one side, as if quietly reciting her lines, rather than flirtatiously inviting the viewer to look. She is coded here to suggest theatrical decorum and elegant demeanour, as muse rather than coquette.

Of course, the use of elevated props and identities could also make the actress vulnerable to irony and in-jokes, widely disseminated in popular prints, especially those of James Gillray. For a contemporary audience, grandiose associations were always influenced by knowledge of the actress's ambiguous social status. Both in paint on canvas and on stage behind the proscenium arch, the actress's disguises were subject to constant renegotiation and debate, encouraged by an increasing body of critical literature that emerged towards the end of the 18th century, raising controversial issues of women's rights and desirable femininity. Proto-feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft or (ex-actress) Mary Robinson contributed to animated debates on women's educational and creative potential.

These struggles are related to contemporary efforts to raise the status of the theatre and its players. Actor and theatre manager David Garrick's attempts to "clean up" bawdy Restoration plays, revive Shakespearean drama and institute architectural improvements at Drury Lane were all part of this civilising process. Those changes were paralleled by developments in the visual arts. In 1768 the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, under the presidency of Reynolds, provided an institutional and professional framework for the practice and viewing of "high" art. Actress portraits, often in role, were popular exhibits, and could symbolise this productive synergy between the dramatic and visual arts.

Flirtation implies an interactive form of spectatorship - an exchange between subject and object, for nobody can flirt alone. Although men could engage in flirtation, the activity was often seen to be initiated by women, and "flirts", often conflated with "coquettes", were nearly always female. A gendered concept of the "flirt" pervades 18th-century drama and literature. The talents of the comic actress were frequently measured according to her abilities to perform what The Thespian Dictionary of 1802 described as "fantastical coquets", "flirts" and "women of fashion". And men who took on flirtatious or coquettish roles were in danger of being charged with effeminacy. In Garrick's comedy The Male-Coquette (also titled The Modern Fine Gentleman ) of 1757, a male rival (Mr Tukely) addresses the women wronged by the protagonist: "In you Coquetry is a Loss of Fame;/In our Sex 'tis that Detested Name,/That marks the Want of Manhood, Virtue, Sense and Shame." In the terms of Garrick's play, then, a "male coquette" is a feminised, senseless man, while for a woman it denotes wantonness and loss of reputation.

When I trawled through 18th-century dictionaries looking at definitions of the terms "flirt" and "flirtation", I found fewer anachronisms than I expected. For example, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of 1755 defines a "flirt" as "A quick elastic motion. A sudden trick" or "A pert young hussey". However, 18th-century definitions also suggest a subtle distinction between "a flirt" and the noun "flirtation". While both terms are closely associated with fluttering, sprightly or sudden movement, and are often gendered, the former is more often identified with sexual possibilities - especially those of the coquette or "hussey".

In his psychoanalytic study On Flirtation (1994), Adam Phillips writes: "Flirting is fine, but to be a flirt is not (it is one of the many curious and telling things about flirtation that, despite the impossibility of flirting by yourself, flirts are traditionally considered to be women)." A similar distinction between the more socially acceptable activity of flirtation and the more fixed identity of the female "flirt" or "coquette" can be found in some 18th-century texts. Although the terms "flirt" and "whore" are often elided, they were not necessarily conflated, and the painted image could play a significant role in salvaging some concept of the flirtatious actress that did not automatically condemn her to social exclusion and moral disdain. Flirtatious relationships, as suggested in paint, could encourage more sexually ambiguous, and sometimes enabling, feminine roles and social mobility.

Flirtatious roles in plays often involved unstable behaviour in which the identities of characters were confused or constantly changing, as in cross-dressing or "breeches parts". The seductive display of the comic actress's legs and ankles in such roles was the persistent focus of critical controversy. At the same time, breeches parts were central to the repertoires of well-known comic actresses such as Frances Abington and Dorothy Jordan, and contributed to their celebrity status. When represented in high-art portraiture, such roles were frozen in time, and could be presented as flirtatious, but also safely contained within the realm of aesthetic conventions and painterly bravura.

In John Hoppner's portrait of Mrs Jordan as Hypolita, she is represented in one of her most famous parts, dressed as an army officer in Colley Cibber's comedy, She Would and She Would Not (1791). Although her look, complete with feminine blush, invites an imaginary flirtatious exchange with the viewer, the portrait is three quarters, avoiding provocative display of the legs. Her richly embroidered dashing costume and extravagantly plumed hat contribute to a beguiling visual spectacle of femininity, both in performance and as a recognisable individual. At the same time, her almost mischievous expression and elaborate officer's dress enabled viewers to see ironic or unconventional sexual possibilities in this male role. Such portraits, and some of the critical reviews that surrounded them, helped to provide a more ambiguous space in which the actress could negotiate her roles and sexual identities. Through the medium of the painted portrait, she could be rendered more respectable, feminised or even transgressive.

Gill Perry is professor of art history at the Open University. Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre, 1768-1820 is published by Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, £40.00.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments