The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

Eleanor 'Nell' Gwyn by Simon Verelst, c.1680 (National Portrait Gallery)Much is being made of Simon Verelst’s 1680-85 rarely-seen portrait of a bare-breasted Nell Gwyn (1651?-87), now paint-stripped of her 19th-century modesty garb, as an enticement to visit the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition The First Actresses. Gwyn’s sexual allure and careful manipulation of her own image have ensured that her celebrity has endured, ever since she first trod the boards at the age of 14, becoming Charles II's mistress three years later. But the use of this titillating portrait as a promotional tool also resonates neatly with the themes of female celebrity explored historically in this fascinating display.

After the Restoration and the reopening of the theatres by Charles II in 1660, the theatrical experience offered women such as Nell new possibilities on a number of levels. Here, through works such as Mary “Moll” Davis by Lely (c.1674), Joshua Reynold’s Frances Abingdon as Prue in Love for Love (1771) and Elizabeth Inchbald by John Hoppner (1789-95), we are shown how portraits became a form of performance in their own right. Beyond the individual stories of the women, the curators have found lively ways of highlighting wider issues around femininity and sexuality in the period.

The exhibition thus explores the connections between actresses and prostitution, for example, as well as cross-dressing and the conflation of the public and the private in depictions of these early celebrities. Prints and pamphlets also provide a context to the portraits, as does a case of ‘mass produced’ objects relating to actresses. A room entitled ‘Caught in the Act’ showcases paintings of performances on stage, including some amusingly wooden ‘conversation piece’ scenes, such as James Roberts’ canvas of William Smith as Hamlet and Elizabeth Hopkins as Gertrude, performed at Drury Lane Theatre (1777-78), and Frances Abingdon acting in The School for Scandal (1777), also by James Roberts.

Following in the vein of the NPG’s successful 2008 exhibition Brilliant Women about bluestockings of the same period, The First Actresses is much more than a collection of paintings of striking, animated women portrayed by leading artists, as those seduced by Nell Gwyn will discover for themselves.

The First Actresses is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until January 8th, 2012.

From the archive

Celebrity in 18th-century London

Stella Tillyard asks what fame meant to individuals and the wider public of  Georgian England, and considers how much this has in common with today’s celebrity culture.

Painted Ladies

Charles Saumarez Smith, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, reflects on some of the issues raised by the exhibition 'Painted Ladies: Women at the Court of Charles II'.