Thursday, 1 December 2011

Things to See: The First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery

I'm kicking myself for not finding out about this amazing Things to See before now, but a random browse of the National Portrait Gallery's website led me to a fantastic special exhibition at my most favourite of art galleries. The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, is a display of portraits of true pioneers of the acting profession - as the exhibition name suggests. 

From Restoration era beauties like Nell Gwyn (who rose from orange seller, to actress, to famous mistress of King Charles II) to respected, classical actresses like Sarah Siddons, the NPG's exhibition charts the bawdy to the brilliant, and those somewhere in between.

With the legalisation of female stage performers in the 1660s, the path was clear for women to venture into unknown territory. Those who did gained celebrity status, whether for genuine talent or for the more superficial qualities of a pretty face and figure, thus proving that the idea of celebrity for its own sake is not a modern concept by any means.

During the eighteenth century, the sight of an actress upon the stage had lost some of its shock value, as more theatres opened their doors and more female performers were needed to keep up with demand. The struggle for the Georgian actress was to maintain a respectable reputation in the face of the popular idea of them as prostitutes and courtesans. As the NPG's exhibition explains, this was not helped by the fact that theatres in London sprung up in Covent Garden - an area rife with brothels and houses of ill repute. 

Certainly, there were actresses who used their celebrity status to garner prestigious male attention, and possibly a wealthy patron - and there were courtesans whose stage careers began through the promotion of their charms (and sizeable financial incentives) by their influential lovers - yet there were also those who rose to fame by their remarkable abilities.

Sarah Siddons is perhaps the most well-known example of a woman from humble beginnings who became the greatest tragic actress of her age, all the while cultivating a persona so spotless that she was even invited to read aloud for King George III and Queen Charlotte's brood of children.

Despite their sometimes questionable reputations, many actresses became well known society figures, looked to as leaders of fashion and arbiters of good taste, but at the same time largely inhabiting the shadowy demi-monde between sin and virtue.

The First Actresses effectively chronicles the likes of Sarah Siddons, Nell Gwyn and countless others who paved the way for the modern actress, while exploring key themes of celebrity, respectability, and the creation of a public persona through the use of portraiture and fashion.

Simon Vereist, Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn, c.1680

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons, runs until the 8th January 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery, London. For booking and ticket information, click here.

All images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery. First image contains detail of John Hoppner's 1782 portrait, Mary Robinson - Perdita.