Sunday, 6 November 2011

The First Actresses.

A morning lecture at the National Portrait Gallery by way of introducing their new exhibition The First Actresses, a fascinating collection charting the rise of women on the stage from their first appearance in the 1660s to their glittering ascendancy through the eighteenth century.

It was a fascinating talk focused mostly on the competitive way in which the eminent but formal Joshua Reynolds and the more natural flowing Thomas Gainsborough sort to gain commission from the actresses of the day for academy portraits. It was the start of a real move into respectability. Up to that point Gillray and Hogarth had reinforced the popular image of actress as whore with a string of satirical cartoons; but by the 1770s a counter revolution led by David Garrick ensured that performers such as Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan and Sarah Siddons were viewed as artists in their own right.

The exhibition itself is fairly small, and a bit overpriced, but it does offer a coherent sense of theatrical history and some startlingly comparisons in the way in which these early celebrities were depicted. My favourite picture was of the beautiful but tragic Elizabeth Linley, whose promising career was brought to an end at the age of nineteen, when her new husband the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan - made jealous by her popularity and concerned his own reputation would be compromised insisted that she retire from the stage. She went on to manage the books in Drury Lane and died at just 37. Gainsborough's painting captures the loneliness and boredom of an out of work actress. She looks past us now trying to remember a happier time, when her gaze engaged. Restless hands idle in her lap. She's absolutely still whilst the wind temptingly provokes her to act by gently ruffling her clothes.


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