I finally managed to see the First Actresses exhibition on a late Friday evening trip to the National Portrait Gallery after a hard day’s work at the British Library. It was entirely worth it.
The NPG has a number of beautiful pictures of Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and others together with the women’s intriguing stories.
Eleanor Gwyn (1650-87) and Mary Davis (1648-1708) of course were actresses as well as mistresses to Charles II. Nell, who was probably the most famous Restoration actress and a great celebrity on and off the stage, gave the King two sons, Charles and James Beauclerk. Ironically, they were given the first names that should have been given to the legitimate sons and heirs to the throne the barren marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza never produced. (Who knows, the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 might never have happened!) The actress, singer and comedian Moll bore the King a daughter, Lady Mary Tudor, whose two sons (another James and Charles) both became Jacobites and were later executed for treason.
Up until the Restoration period, boys had played all female parts in the theatre, as acting was not seen as a respectable occupation for a woman. Any young girl associated with the theatre would immediately come under suspicion of being a prostitute or as easily available to much wealthier and much older men. They often were. Yet, despite their libertine lifestyles, the women were never exclusively defined by the men they were associated with.
Mary Robinson (1757-1800), who became mistress of the Prince of Wales (later George IV) after enchanting him with her role as Perdita in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, would later become a successful poet, novelist and playwright, while also defending female intellectual capacities in A Letter to the Women of England (1799). The Welsh actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), née Kemble, was the wife of fellow actor William Siddons. But their marriage ended soon in an informal separation, while Sarah became celebrated in her own right as a Shakespearean actress, most notably for her role as Lady Macbeth. It was women like her who made the profession respectable.
The actresses’ portraits by leading artists of the period, including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hopper and James Gillray, are impressive and beautiful. More importantly, however, the women depicted ooze elegance, talent, and self-confidence.
In the end I was a bit disappointed that the exhibition was so small. I managed to get through all the pictures (while also conscientiously reading all the labels) in less than an hour. But maybe back then there weren’t quite as many independent women – widely known in their own right – as one might have wished.
The exhibition is still on until 8 January 2012.
The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at the National Portrait Gallery, Wolfson Gallery, Tickets £11/£10/£9