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The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

The origins of celebrity culture captured in a single exhibition

Written by . Published on October 20th 2011.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

‘The First Actresses’ exhibition begins with a crucial reminder that women were not permitted to perform on stage until the early 1660s. Prior to this, female characters were played by men and boys in drag, and were, in consequence, subject to mockery, inauthenticity and ridicule. For this reason alone the exhibition has the entitlement to be taken seriously as a celebration of the female form as well as a spectacular product of a commitment to women’s history.

The classification of what is ‘respectable’ appears to be one of the exhibition’s major concerns. The portraits have been placed in a narrative that aims to demonstrate the transitional nature of the professionalization of the actress.

The acting profession was not originally considered a respectable career for women. It was closely associated with prostitution and the concept of selling one’s body for financial gain. However, as the job description demanded the ability to read, memorize, sing, dance and entertain, actresses came from varied social backgrounds. Over time, it became increasingly difficult to stereotype such a career. By the end of the seventeenth century, actresses were in high demand not only for the stage, but also as subjects of portraits and prints.

NPG Anactressather

The classification of what is ‘respectable’ appears to be one of the exhibition’s major concerns. The portraits have been placed in a narrative that aims to demonstrate the transitional nature of the professionalization of the actress. However, tension arises where the portraits are used to measure serious acting ability, status and fame, but are simultaneously voyeuristic. Many actresses would have ensured that their portraits omitted a specific element of their character, rather than their natural identities. The portraits provide an intriguing masquerade, blurring the reality of the woman with the character that has granted her the right to the portrait in the first place. In other words, the women play up to how the public perceives them and in doing so, mark the dawn of media obsession and celebrity status.

Eleanor ‘Nell’ Gwyn’s rosy-cheeked glow draws observers over to the first oil canvas of the 53 portraits the exhibition has to offer. The top of her left nipple peaks out from her under white chemise, amidst the provocative tones of crimson and gold. With pearls around her neck and in her hair, she appears innocent, demure, yet posseses undeniable status. She purports the tension within the term ‘respectable’ as a professional actress who demonstrates through revealing her bare breast for a portrait.

NPG Sarahsiddonsas

The second portrait amplifies such an idea – Gwyn’s breasts are entirely exposed, her arms spread apart and her dark curls cascading down the side of her back. The chemise has been made to look as though it were opened with force and apprehension and yet the actress radiates power, security and wisdom. She is paler, amassing to a greater sense of authority, marking the sitter as a courtesan. It is hardly surprising to learn that Gwyn was outspoken, witty and a ‘shrewd manipulator’. Simon Verelst painted both of the Nell Gwyn portraits between 1680 and 1685. The second had been cast away from the public eye for the last 50 years as part of a private collection before the opening of the exhibition. The Gallery aims to reacquaint the portrait with the public by using it to advertise the exhibition. Gwyn’s image is restored as one that celebrates the female form and is not ashamed of its potential power.

William Hogarth’s wonderfully satirical, ‘Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn’, provides a welcome humorous tone. Eyes light up and the corners of lips turn involuntarily as spectators pause at the complex 1938 engraving. The piece is a direct comment about the Strolling Players Act 1737. The overcrowded makeshift dressing room symbolizes a theatre overrun by women in a subversion of classical mythology. The virgin huntress, Diana, with her drawers pulled to the floor. Hogarth captures a paradox that is intrinsic to the seventeenth century; actresses gladly welcome the voyeur in gradual exchange for public respect. 

NPG The three witches

The idea of masquerade and pleasing the spectator follows the notion of an actress drawing attention to herself. Sir Joshua Reynolds was one of the painters who famously glamourized actresses in a bid to enhance their popularity and thus the recognition for their plays and theatre companies. The exhibitions second room, titled ‘Covent Garden Ladies’ pays homage to the idea of glamour through a guise as well as the implications of cross-dressing for women as opposed to men.

The public of the seventeenth and eighteenth century fell in love with portraits because they were already in love with the theatre. ‘The First Actresses’ portraits are those that provided a sense of hidden access to the shows and the beloved intimacy of the theatre. Mass reproduction and commodification became a product of this obsession. The exhibition homes a set of tiles and porcelain figures which represent the start of celebrity culture and the idea that the actress can be everywhere whilst belonging to anyone.

The final room, titled ‘Divas and Dancers’ is arguably the most mesmerizing, and the vast oil canvas of Giovanna Bacceli is no exception. Thomas Gainborough painted the Italian dancer in 1782, having been commissioned to do so by her lover of ten years, John Frederick Sackville, third Duke of Dorset. Despite being a dancer, to capture the essence of movement in a woman would have been distasteful to the eyes of the eighteenth century public. Bacceli is in a natural setting that collides with a stage, her own natural setting. She poses to satisfy the Duke’s expectation and vision of her and so the portrait contains many of the contradictions and sacrifices that define the life of an actress both then and now.


The exhibition explores the concept of the actress as a muse, both tragic and comic, which are illustrated through Sir Joshua Reynold’s oil canvas of Sarah Siddons (1784) and John Hoppner’s of Dorothy Jordan (1786). Siddons is seated, still and serious. Her gaze is focused upwards in a regal manner and her face shines pale, as though lit by the dawn of the moon. Jordan, on the contrary, is playfully intertwined with the muse of good cheer, twisting and writhing. Their smiles speak of the freedom of movement, the enjoyment of movement. A reminder that the female body should never and will never be forcibly still, especially in a portrait.

The First Actresses exhibition runs from 20 October – 8 January at the National Portrait Gallery

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