At the National Portrait Gallery: The First Actresses

“A vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality…” is the promise. The names Nell Gwyn and Sarah Siddons, and other lesser lights, draw us in further. Roll up for the National Portrait Gallery’s winter show but be prepared to not know entirely what you’re seeing and why. And to wonder whether even such a neatly conceived exhibition can survive a few glaring omissions and cover-ups.

Not that cover-up will be your first thought. Nell Gwyn, bosoms exposed, is up first. This whilst the narrative arc of the exhibition begins its solemn explanation that in the period from the 1660s onwards women began to take to the stage with growing confidence, taking back the roles that men had played and assuming the parts of men (breeches roles) as well. They rose above the detractors that called them no more than prostitutes and there’s apparently a straight line from their cultivation of celebrity and image to what we see today.

Some of this is plausible, some it is more open to question. To take the harshest criticism first: that the women on the stage were as close to whores as made no odds. I’m not going to judge the actions of aristos of the 17th century with the eyes of a twenty-first century liberal and will allow for the facts of society of the time but reading through the nice biographies supplied the catalogue I am struck by how many of the actresses held up as examples of strong women achieved their status by becoming mistresses to titled, moneyed men. This, no doubt, is patriarchy in action but whilst the transaction didn’t take place in a backstreet that is still money and rank in return for services rendered. Perhaps I’m labouring this but it seems to me that it would be a more honest exhibition to explore first the ways in which society required women of lesser means to behave this way first rather than claiming somewhat fancifully that they rose above it.

There is also to my eye a big gaping hole here too. The focus on respectability leads us down a very rarefied path and presents as a world view something which only a small section of society would have seen firsthand – although I accept this is where part of the connection with modern celebrity comes in. Granted, we do read about the widespread publishing of actresses’ lives that frequently muddled the real woman with the parts she played and/or fabricated the rest but this is presented as unusual rather than, as seems to be the case, pretty common. A reading of Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder for example presents numerous examples from this period of the press and pamphleteers making up stories when the facts of the news just got too dull. I would have liked to have seen the scope of the exhibition take in these lower forms of stage and associated writing – but perhaps here I’m asking for the moon on a stick.

I’ll stop with the negative and move on to the positive and there really is a lot to admire. The exhibition is very nicely presented and the works on display are genuinely top drawer. The striking portrait of Sarah Siddons really does pull you up and there are many equivalents. You can see why men “in their simple minded way” (as the catalogue rather misandristically puts it) responded directly to her and her peers – and why men of means chose to keep them. The little biographies presented with the pictures are similarly neatly compelling and well structured. One of the pictures – Three Witches – is so striking as to have its own page on the National Portait Gallery website. It’s also a new acquisition for them and The First Actresses is its first presentation here. It counts as a ‘friendship portrait’ and shows Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer enacting the old hubble bubble from MacBeth. There have surely never been witches on the blasted heath as well dressed as these ladies. It is intriguing.

So, with the caveats mentioned above, this is a very interesting exhibition. It provides meat for discussion, shows some very impressive and historically compelling paintings and also allows people like me to stare at ladies in the name of art. I just wish there’d been a bit more depth to the worldview and a bit more deviation from the party line. But, perhaps on this matter, I should leave the last words to Nell Gwyn whose exposed frontage gets things started: “”I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.”

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