A new show examines the mutual benefits gained by actresses and artists, says Richard Dorment .
Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn both by Simon Verelst, c.1680 and, right, c.1680-5
Telegraph, By Richard Dorment
Whenever the Victorian painter George Frederick Watts was asked about his brief marriage at the age of 46 to the 17-year-old Ellen Terry, he explained that he had acted from the highest motive – to protect an innocent young girl from embarking on a theatrical career. A sub-plot of Henry James’s novel The Tragic Muse revolves around the dilemma of a young diplomat whose not-particularly- elevated social position prevents him from marrying the beautiful and talented actress with whom he is passionately in love.
As both these examples from the late 19th century show, the absurd prejudice against women performing on the stage has been surprisingly persistent. The National Portrait Gallery’s The First Actresses tries to understand the phenomenon by looking at the careers of the pioneering ladies who – through beauty, talent, intelligence and force of personality – rose to the top of the acting profession from the Restoration to the Regency periods.
This is a complex subject that the exhibition organiser, Gill Perry, does not try to simplify. Some actresses – the Restoration wanton Nell Gwyn or the Italian dancer Giovanna Baccelli – moved from one royal or aristocratic protector to another. But others, like Eva-Maria Garrick and Eliza Sheridan, married for love and then promptly retired from the stage.
The story begins with Nell, the good-natured, fly-by-night floozy whose career set the template for all who came after her. Born into poverty, she wasn’t really pretty – but she was sexy, fun, and amused Charles II. Like a court jester, she could say what only the King’s most intimate friends dared, as in her famous wisecrack – aimed at the Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth – that she, Nell, was “the King’s Protestant whore”.
We will never know what these women were really like, but the remark suggests Nell’s talent for bawdy repartee made her charm irresistible. And look where that charm got her – and quite a few of her theatrical sisters. Debrett’s is full of distinguished families whose great-great-grannies trod the boards.
Then, as now, scandal was no bad thing for an actress’s career. To become famous, actresses required the collaboration of artists. The earliest example in this show is Simon Verelst’s portrait of Nell Gwyn, presumably intended for the private delectation of one of her lovers. But Hogarth, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Romney all played roles in the careers of actresses (and, admittedly, courtesans) that today would be the job of a PR man. The public arena where their beauty and notoriety could receive maximum exposure was the Royal Academy summer exhibition. By tradition the identities of the sitters in portraits at the RA were withheld, but everyone knew who the girls were and the names of their current lovers. Since their portraits were then disseminated in the form of cheap prints, women such as Perdita Robinson and Emma Hamilton could fairly be described as the first pin-ups.
Visitors from France were shocked to see likenesses by Gainsborough and Reynolds of actresses and courtesans hanging at the Royal Academy alongside portraits by the same artists of the British royal family – unthinkable in the Paris salon.
But there was another way an artist could depict an actress other than as a straightforward likeness. He could show her on stage, as Johan Zoffany does in his portrait of Frances Abington in the role of the Widow Bellmour in The Way to Keep Him. William Hogarth initiated the genre of the theatrical conversation piece with his scene from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, which opened to enormous acclaim in 1728. In it, Hogarth blurs the line between art and life by depicting the dramatic moment during an actual performance when Lavinia Fenton, who was playing Polly Peachum, turned to her real-life lover, the Duke of Bolton, who appears in the picture as part of the audience on the stage. Like a journalist, Hogarth describes the set, costumes and dramatic action accurately, but like a gossip columnist he also tells us what was going on in the actress’s private life. In doing so he made public a liaison that might otherwise have been conducted with discretion.
As a result, the picture spawned a new type of portraiture in British art. When painting actresses (but not, as far as I can tell, any other kind of sitter) artists frequently conflate the woman’s private and public life, aware that their viewers would already know a great deal about both.
And so everyone knew that the opera singer and dramatic actress Anna Maria (Nancy) Crouch was married to a naval lieutenant but living in a ménage a trois with the Irish actor Michael Kelly. In George Romney’s 1787 portrait of Mrs Crouch, a sailing ship in the distance refers to the sad necessity of her husband’s having to leave his bride for naval duty. But if you knew that, then you also knew that the indistinct portrait miniature she wears around her neck does not represent a man in naval uniform. The viewer is left in no doubt that Mrs Crouch is constant in her affection for both men.
It wasn’t all sex and money, though. Both Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence in their full-length portraits of Mrs Siddons go out of their way to show an asexual, Junoesque female who wants it to be known that her career as an actress takes precedence over her identity as a woman.
This collusion between artists and actresses clearly helped to further the women’s careers. But what was in it for the painters? The answer can be found in the writings of 17th- and 18th-century art theorists such as Charles Le Brun, Roger de Piles and Richard Payne Knight. All stressed the importance for an artist of studying the effects of emotions such as terror, pity or joy on the human face. The problem for artists such as Reynolds and Romney was finding an opportunity to observe such emotional extremes long enough to record them. The solution was to watch actors and actresses performing on stage – hence the great friendships Reynolds formed with Garrick and Mrs Kemble, and Romney with John Henderson and Emma Hart (later Emma Hamilton).
The First Actresses is one of those smart, entertaining shows the National Portrait Gallery does so well. Theatrical portraits of any kind can be terribly repetitive, which is why an exhibition about, say, the
18th-century theatre would never work. But by focusing on social history and biography, this show keeps you on your toes from the first painting and print to the last. The catalogue essays are good, the catalogue design abysmal.
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