By Novelist Karen V. Wasylowski
As many know, before the Restoration of the Monarchy in England women's parts in plays were performed by men. When the first professional actress (no one knows her name) stepped out as Desdemona on 8 December, the prologue leered:
I saw the Lady dressed!
The woman plays today! Mistake me not;
No man in gown, or page in petticoat;
A woman to my knowledge, yet I can’t
(If I should die) make affidavit on’t.
Do you not twitter, gentlemen?
It was the year of our Lord, 1660 and through an edict by Charles II, women were finally allowed to legally perform, on-stage, in public. During his exile in France the King had seen females on stage, had enjoyed the view; and, he noted, there had been no outcry or panic in the streets bcause of it. So a new career path was created for British women and a new job title was born: British Actress.
Theses women became the Dame Judi's and Dame Helen's of their day.
In the beginning there was the teenage bombshell, the barmaid, the one and only Nell Gwyn, or 'Pretty Witty Nell' as she was known then; the first recognizable celebrity in British pop culture. She was sexy and funny, she was even the mistress of the king. Simon Verelst's two portraits of her demonstrate her playfullness, her use of the 'wardrobe malfunction' to enhance her notoriety. In one portrait her top exposes just a bit of nipple, the other exposes everything. Nell was the original 'pin-up' girl and a definite show stopper in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition, The First Actresses. It is not her obvious charms that surprises people, however - we see more skin that this most evenings on cable televition. No, it is her obvious charisma, her calm, regal, shameless stare, her 'right back at you buddy' confidence.
A refined, gentle, sort of eighteenth century Paparazzi mentality had begun.
Francis Hayman, Johann Zoffany and James Robert, among other artists, became well known for portraits of the actress in their most famous roles. Paintings of actresses center stage became wildly popular, glamorizing the women and associatng them with certain parts in the minds of the populace such as Roberts’s portrait of Abington in the famous library scene in Richard Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, first performed in 1777. A new enthusiasm began from this - the amateur theatrical.
The First Actresses is on display at the National Portrait Gallery until January 8th, 2012.
Visit my blog, "The League of British Artists" for the latest news of the British artists of today, from Judi Dench to The Hobbits, from Ian McKellen to Downton Abbey.
The League of British Artists, in both tradepaper or e-book. Or visit my website, Karen Wasylowski to read an excerpt from the book, to read the great reviews, or to purchase there also.