Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn by Simon Verelst, c.1680. © National Portrait Gallery, London

LONDON.- The first exhibition to explore art and theatre in eighteenth-century England through portraits of women opens at the National Portrait Gallery. With 53 portraits, some brought together for the first time and others not previously seen in public, 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.

The exhibition combines much-loved works by artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner, Thomas Lawrence, Johan Zoffany and James Gillray, with some newly discovered works such as the National Portrait Gallery’s new acquisition of the Three Witches from Macbeth by Daniel Gardner. Actresses featured in the exhibition include Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Peg Woffington, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Elizabeth Farren, Giovanna Baccelli and Elizabeth Linley.

Highlights include a little known version of Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, and Gainsborough’s portraits of Giovanna Bacelli and Elizabeth Linley. Important loans include works from the Garrick Club, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Tate Britain, the V&A, as well as Petworth, Kenwood and Longleat Houses.
Starting with the emergence of the actress’s profession in the late seventeenth century, The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons shows how women performers, in drama, as well as music and dance, were key figures within a spectacular celebrity culture. Fuelled by gossipy theatre and art reviews, satirical prints and the growing taste for biography, eighteenth-century society engaged in heated debate about the moral and sexual decorum of women on stage and revelled in the traditional association between actress and prostitute, or ‘whores and divines’. The exhibition also reveals the many ways in which women performers stimulated artistic innovation and creativity and provoked intellectual debate.

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 counterpoint to the exhibition, an accompanying display shows photographic and painted portraits, drawn from the Gallery’s Collections, of some of today’s actresses, some of whom have agreed to be the exhibition’s ‘Actress Ambassadors’.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons is curated by Professor Gill Perry, supported by Dr Lucy Peltz. Professor Gill Perry is Professor of Art History and Head of External Collaborations at the Open University. She is the author of Spectacular Flirtations (shortlisted for the 2008 Theatre Book Prize) that explores issues of gender, spectatorship and femininity in eighteenth-century theatrical portraits.

Dr Lucy Peltz is the National Portrait Gallery’s Curator of 18th Century Portraits, and co-curator of the Gallery’s recent exhibitions Thomas Lawrence: Regency Power and Brilliance and Brilliant Women: 18th Century Bluestockings.

Sandy Nairne, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘That actresses were often the subjects of portraits is no surprise as their fame, and notoriety, made them the focus of acute public interest. The brilliance of the earliest performers, such as Nell Gwyn, was matched by those who followed, from Mary Robinson to Sarah Siddons. They re-defined the boundaries on stage, and off it were becoming some of the most celebrated figures of the age. Now they form the subjects for an outstanding exhibition.’

Dorothy Jordan as Hypolita in ‘She Would and She Would Not’ by John Hoppner, exhibited 1791 © Tate, London, 2011

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784  © Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park
The Three Witches from Macbeth(Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner, 1775. © National Portrait Gallery, London
Lavinia Fenton; possibly by George Knapton, c. 1739. Private Collection.