|The Whore's Last Shift, James Gillray, National Portrait Gallery, 1779|
|Henry Angels as Mrs. Cole in The Minor, Samuel de Wilde, National Portrait Gallery, 1792|
|Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, William Hogarth, National Portrait Gallery, 1738|
|Mary Robinson - Perdita, John Hoppner, Natioanl Portrait Gallery, 1782|
Nell Gwyn (1651-1687) throws you a deliciously superior glance as her robes fall off her shoulders and reveal a not-so-coy vision of her milky breasts. You can look, but you can’t touch, she says. King Charles II’s mistress, mother of at least two of his bastards, and one of the first actresses to perform at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Gwyn seems exclusively to be painted getting into or out of her clothes. As one of the visitors to the National Portrait Gallery commented, “This one seemed to be cursed with a series of wardrobe malfunctions.”
The First Actresses exhibition is a series of portraits by celebrated painters like Simon Verelst, Sir Peter Lely, and Thomas Gainsborough, of the first actresses to be allowed on the English stage. These were women who were desired and feared in equal measure for their bawdy, confident acting, their throw-it-in-your-face personal lives, and their decadent sense of style and fashion.
Many of the women combined a life as an actress and dancer with forays into the royal court. While this was most often as the chosen mistress of a king or a prince (like Nell Gwyn, Moll Davis, and Mary Robinson), women like Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) entered the royal threshold as reading instructor. Instead of displaying a quantity of rippling flesh, Siddons, in a portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, is pictured standing next to a staid side table. A couple of weighty leather-bound founts of knowledge lie on the table, and Siddons’s carriage is made even more stately with a pair of serious eyes and a set of petulant lips.
Some of the choicest pieces in the exhibition are perhaps the ones least touted in the press. These are hilarious satirical etchings by artists such as William Hogarth and James Gillray. One titled Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn is a scene of dressers, seamstresses, half-dressed actresses, surrounded by a mind-numbing quantity of green room paraphernalia. Another, this one by Gillray, is simply titled The Whore’s Last Shift (1779).
While the 1660s allowed female actresses to perform on the stage for the first time, these women were considered disreputable and suspect, and easy prey to roving eyes and fingers. By 1737, only troupes with a royal charter were allowed to perform on stage. In this small but choice exhibition at the Royal Academy, portraits of these pioneering women are accompanied by lush caricatures of male cross-dressers. In The Minor, Henry Angels, in voluminous robes and apron, played the infamous role of Mrs. Cole, a woman who ran a brothel in Covent Garden and appeared often in an inebriated state. In this portrait by Samuel de Wilde in 1792, Angels combines a meaty bosom with a soured outlook.
The First Actresse, National Portrait Gallery, Till January 8, 2012