Running from October 20–January 8, this is the first exhibition to explore art and theatre in 18th-century Britain through portraits of women. The 53 portraits, by artists such as Thomas Gainsborough, James Gillray, William Hogarth, Thomas Lawrence, Joshua Reynolds and Johann Zoffany, include paintings, caricatures and prints. The subjects are shown in character, in fantasy settings and offstage. The exhibition explores how these images contributed to the reputation and professional status of leading female performers. It also shows these women as key figures in a spectacular celebrity culture, fuelled by gossipy theatre and art reviews, satirical prints and a growing taste for biography.
Dance and music played a large part in 18th-century theatre, with performers moving readily between genres. Hester Booth (1690–1773), was “universally admired for her beauty, matchless figure and the unusual elegance of her dancing and acting”, a visitor to London wrote at the time. She was a favourite dancer of the choreographer John Weaver, dancing leading roles in several of his groundbreaking ballets, as Venus in The Loves of Mars and Venus (1717) and as Helen of Troy in The Judgement of Paris (1733). She also acted major roles, including Shakespeare’s Cordelia and Desdemona.
Other performers in the exhibition were best known for their acting, but still made song and dance important parts of their careers. John Hoppner’s portrait of the actress Dora Jordan (1771–1816) as the Comic Muse shows her in motion, twisting her body as if dancing. Baccelli (died 1801) is the exception in this exhibition, as a performer who concentrated entirely on dance. She appears in a celebrated painting by Gainsborough.
The exhibition also features portraits of Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Lavinia Fenton, Peg Woffington, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Elizabeth Farren and Elizabeth Linley. It has important loans of works from the Garrick Club Library, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Tate Britain, the V&A and Petworth, Kenwood and Longleat Houses. Newly-discovered works include the National Portrait Gallery’s recent acquisition of Daniel Gardner’s Three Witches from Macbeth, showing society beauties Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, gathered around the cauldron with their friend, the sculptor Anne Seymour Damer.
As a counterpoint to the exhibition, an accompanying display will show portraits, from the Gallery’s permanent collections, of some of today’s actresses.
The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons is curated by Professor Gill Perry, supported by Dr Lucy Peltz. A fully-illustrated book by Professor Perry, with essays by Professor Joseph Roach and Professor Shearer West, accompanies the exhibition. There will be a full programme of associated events, including a conference on November 11. Tickets for the exhibition cost £11, with concessions available. To book and for further details, see www.npg.org.uk or telephone 020 7306 0055.
Picture: Hester Santlow, in costume for her celebrated Harlequin solo, painted by John Ellys.