The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

A Late Shift tour of the First Actresses exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery was the perfect way to spend an evening with a friend. As the wind blew with menace outside, we stepped into the luxurious gallery. Music was playing, a small bar open for visitors and an expert curator was on hand ready to give us a guided talk and put the collection in context.

The First Actresses is a glorious spectacle of beauty, fashion, theatre and femininity, a depiction of the famous actresses who commanded attention in 17th and 18th century Britain. Artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough were captivated by these notorious and glamorous performers, recording their beauty, dramatic expression and coquettishness through stunning portraiture. Each painting offers clues about the actress shown, the artist and the society that surrounded these divas. Often these paintings would elevate and enhance the actresses’ reputations and increase their impressive fortunes, perhaps this was the beginning of the celebrity culture that we are now so familiar with.

The group wandered round wide eyed amazed by the clever grouping of exquisite paintings. We heard tales of the 18th century ladies of the stage, and their mischievous behaviour. Learning of the infamous Nell Gwyn, the first independent woman to really make her mark in the theatre. Gwyn used portraiture to her advantage, manipulating the artist and viewer with clever innuendo and charm. The first two pictures in the exhibition show her in suggestive poses, revealing her décolletage in an enticing manner, her facial expression demure and subtle. It is clear to see how and why she may have benefitted from these paintings, soon enough she became the King’s mistress.

This exhibition is wonderfully varied, so much so that I began to forget they were all portraits and instead felt utterly involved in their decadent lives. Every piece feels special, I loved examining the detailed woodcuts, and catching my breath at the epic full length portraits of the attractive Sarah Siddons. Not only are the paintings beautiful but they are entertaining and interesting, a history lesson into the lively theatrical scene in London that has shaped how women work on stage today.
Visit the National Portrait Gallery website here.

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