Monday, November 21, 2011

The National Portrait Gallery presents 'The First Actresses - Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons'

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.

By the mid eighteenth century Drury Lane and Covent Garden had their theaters thriving, standing, unfortunately, amidst other businesses, those of a questionable sort and not quite so inspiring.  The brothels  of London surrounding the theatre district increased the connection between theater and sex, the actress and prostitution, despite the fact that many actresses sought legitimacy.  Further feeding the frenzy was the new popularity of 'cross-over' or 'breeches' roles for women.  The actresses Peg Woffington, Frances Abington and Dorothy Jordan (above) all gained great popularity, and notoriety, with their comedic turns in a man's trouser.  The line between performer and person began to blur, with the women now being associated with the roles they played.  For example, in the 1770s the actress Mary Robinson (top picture) was often known as ‘Perdita’ after her role in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.  Critics became obsessed with the personal lives, their fashion sense and their stage outfits.

In 1768 Sir Joshua Reynolds developed The Royal Academy of Art with its exhibition of portraiture one of the most popular genres.  Owners such as David Garrick, among others, sought to bring a greater legitimacy, attain a more reputable status to their theaters and a bond was formed between the arts.  This alliance provided us with many large scale paintings of, among others, the great Sarah Siddons (left) in her famous pose as Tragic Muse. Full length portraits by famous artists provided a dignity, a positive image of their roles and their acting ability.  It was also great advertising. 

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. 

Certain members of the aristocracy built private theaters in their country homes, rehearsing and giving plays for each other.  The painting on the right is of a production of Macbeth.  The three witches are none other than Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne, the infamous beauty Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer.

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.

You can purchase my Regency era novel, "Darcy and Fitzwilliam - a Tale of a Gentleman and an Officer" online at 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.


  1. It is in fact Dorothy Jordan's birthday today (21st November) - in case anyone would like to see her story (she had around 14 children, and was mistress to a Duke for over twenty years, and was renowned for having the best pair of pins in the business) see my blog at

  2. Well done! I wish I could see this exhibit. Aas, it is too far away.

  3. Thanks, Karen, for bringing us a bit of this exhibition. Not only the first actresses, but also the first paparazzi.

  4. A delightful piece, thank you Karen. And such a display of portraits!

  5. I thought that was interesting about the theater owner trying to separate the professions when several of the most popular actresses were openly mistresses to royalty. Seems like a losing battle! (-;

  6. Thanks to Karen Wasylowski, author of "Darcy and Fitzwilliam - a Tale of a Gentleman and an Officer" for sharing this great article--complete with portraits, on 'The First Actresses - Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons'.

  7. Fab article, Karen. Thanks for sharing! And happy belated birthday to that other (and first!) Jordan - Dorothy (Dorothea).


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