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Review: The First Actresses, National Portrait Gallery, London

2011 December 5

Perhaps one reason we now refer almost exclusively to ‘actors’ is that, for the longest time, the word ‘actress’ was synonymous with ‘prostitute’. Presumably this relates to the Immodesties they are obliged to suffer on stage; as Shakespeare in Love taught us all so well, pre-Restoration these were considered so severe that women were not allowed on stage at all.

Frontispiece to Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies; or, the Man of Pleasure's Calendar. Picture shows a young woman in eighteenth-century costume being courted by a man with a sword.

Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies

This exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery looks at the moment immediately after Charles II reversed this rule, and it’s a fun little look at some portraits, caricatures and paraphernalia of women who were allowed on stage, ‘from Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons’. It’s focused on portraits, but there are some super little earthenware tiles with different actresses on them in Room 3. There’s also a facsimile of the Yellow Pages-style brothel directory, Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies; or, The Man of Pleasure’s Kalendar, illustrating the fall from grace of the once ‘Convent and Garden’ of Westminster Abbey – a bit too close to eighteenth-century Theatreland for PR-comfort. Since its reissue by the History Press this book has now achieved some cult status – the guy next to me, looking at it, said to his companion, ‘You know, Gladys: Harris’ List – that’s the one we’ve got in the toilet’.

Nell (c.1651-87) opens this exhibition – a talented comic actress, although she is popularly most recognised for inspiring Charles II’s last words ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’ (she survived him by barely a year, fact fans). There are two portraits of her here, in both of which she’s got her mammaries out. This exhibition would have these as evidence of her ‘skillful manipulation’ rather than ‘brazen hussydom’; the second portrait shows her naked to the waist and looking directly at the viewer with a gaze at once languid and challenging. You might be reminded of Manet’s Olympia, condemned as ‘vulgar’ and ‘immoral’ on its first exhibition at 1863, mainly because the nude is looking directly at the viewer rather than obligingly turning her head away for better ogling comfort. And indeed, such a tension between looking and being looked at probably underscored a lot of the moral uncertainty about the early actresses.

Later on, we get Sarah Siddons (1755-1831), powerful, tragic grande dame. She appears in Room 3 painted by Thomas Lawrence as public intellectual, tutor to the royal children – and at a vantage point that forces us to look up at her imperious face, rather than to avert our eyes from her naked bosom. This is hung alongside a number of grandiose actress-as-Muse paintings, large as their themes, and also including Muses of Comedy and society amateurs like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

But even in the late eighteenth century ‘actress’ still wasn’t a career you’d want for your wife. Thespiennes like Elizabeth Ann Sheridan (1754-1792) and Elizabeth Farren (1759-1829) – both exhibited here – gave up their acting careers, on request, upon marriage. While the eighteenth-century gentleman was not renowned for being into female careers in general, the issue here seems to be more ‘other men looking at your wife’ than anything else: after all, these men were ‘forward thinking’ enough to marry an actress in the first place. Perhaps they were nervous of the number of early actresses, like Nell, who had affairs with kings and nobles. If so, they had a good few hundred years of uncertainty left: Edward VII was still pretty into actresses at the turn of the twentieth century. ‘I’ve spent enough on you to build a battleship’ he complained to Lillie Langtry (1853-1929), eliciting the tart response ‘And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.’ (It may have been such impertinence that led to her replacement by another actress, Sarah Bernhardt, shortly afterwards.)

Dorothy Jordan dressed in male military uniform with a large feathered hat, looking out at the viewer.

Dorothy Jordan in travesti - engraving after the John Hoppner painting in this exhibition

But, as this exhibition shows, one of the primary moral gripes with these early actresses was actually about something a bit unexpected: the travesti roles many of them built careers on. There are some fascinating visual representations in this exhibition of actresses – like Dorothy Jordan (1761-1816), whose bosom apparently ‘concealed everything but its own charms’ – in their famous ‘breech’ roles, both Shakespearean (stalwarts like Twelfth Night and As You Like It) and just… male (Tom Thumb). It seems that, after decades of young boys aping womanhood, the first actresses set themselves the challenge of continuing the noble tradition: it was conscious decision, rather than occasional dramatic necessity, for many of them to adopt the travesti.

The Immodesty here implied resulted in endless caricatures, many of which are exhibited here. My favourite was entitled ‘An Actress at her Toilet; or, Miss Brazen Just Breecht’ – though perhaps even stranger were the portraits of various male actors, including David Garrick, in drag – enormous hoop and all – as a kind of forerunner to the pantomime dame.

Take a feminist friend and thrash it out in the Portrait Gallery café with their superior yoghurt and granola, says this reviewer. And visit John Donne on the top floor, if he’s not gone into cleaning yet.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. December 6, 2011

    Great post! I’m very sorry not to have made this exhibition, yet. I don’t know what depth of historical commentary it offers, but as you’ve indicated, there are some absolutely fascinating issues surrounding the rise of the actress.

    One thing I did want to query — It seems that, after decades of young boys aping womanhood, the first actresses set themselves the challenge of continuing the noble tradition: it was conscious decision, rather than occasional dramatic necessity, for many of them to adopt the travesti.

    There’s a rather less kickass element to this. Once professional English actresses appeared on stage after 1660, it was very much a commercial decision to create more cross-dressed roles in addition to those already in the canon (if you think about it, quite a lot of Renaissance plays which limped over into the Restoration – some of which had survived as “drolls” during the Puritan era – include cross-dressed female roles which now became the preserve of female, rather than male performers); simply put, it was a way of displaying female bodies.

    Now, obviously, pretty girls in the clothes of pretty boys was as hot then as it is now, and right up until trousers became everyday female wear, cross-dressing onstage offered an amazing kind of physical freedom to the actress. So everybody was still a winner – but as far as I’m aware, there’s very little evidence that this was a subversive/grassroots action orchestrated by comic actresses – or indeed by women full stop. It was largely a way of showing off the real female bodies that constituted the latest stage novelty.

    Langtry is amazing, you’re right. Her autobiography is so full of lies and evasions; you have to admire it. She’s constantly going on about just how well she and Princess Alexandra (i.e. her lover’s wife) got on, dwelling at length on an anecdote about how the Princess visited her after she suffered a funny turn at some dinner. The funny turn was because she was carrying a child that might have been the Prince’s (in fact, she probably wasn’t the Prince’s daughter – but this didn’t stop Langtry telling him that she was. Ditto Prince Louis of Battenberg, and ditto Langtry’s Jersey childhood sweetheart. Poor Jeanne grew up thinking Lillie’s estranged husband was her father, and only found out the truth a day before her wedding).

    In terms of noble/gentlemen not wanting to marry actresses, the unease about that took centuries to recede, but by the nineteenth century a *lot* of women marry well on and off the stage, sooner or later. Again, this is not unlinked to the Victorian status of prostitutes; even contemporary research acknowledged that MOST Victorian prostitutes were under 26 and hardly any were older (well-known examples such as the Ripper victims obscure this), but assumed that on their 27th birthdays, all urban sex workers chucked themselves into the Thames/perished beneath hedgerows. The fact that the Thames wasn’t flooding and that you could still pee in a bush without finding a dead woman did lead some to acknowledge that most prostitutes were in fact marrying out of their profession and disappearing into society – not unlike some actresses. Meanwhile, though, plenty of actresses were marrying actors (Siddons did) and forming/remaining in theatrical families that offered training, protection, and the beginnings of respectability – and contrary to popular belief, we have always had *some* respectable actresses, from Mrs. Betterton onwards!

    In any case, thanks for letting me ramble on. :)

    • Miranda permalink*
      December 6, 2011

      Oooh, I was kinda hoping you’d comment, love your blog!

      Fascinating stuff, quite tempted to read Lillie Langtry’s book now…

      • December 6, 2011

        Thank you! Yeah, this is pretty much my specialist subject, can waffle on for ages.

        Langtry was amazing & from a feminist POV quite interesting as both “the first professional beauty” (she wasn’t quite that but that’s her significance now) and as one of the actresses who made a success of Rosalind – which is Shakespeare’s longest female role (within a single play) and thus also the largest “breeches role” in the English dramatic canon. There’s some very cool stuff about Shakespearean cross-dressing and the suffragettes, in fact…

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