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Yesterday was the anniversary of Sarah Siddons birth in 1755. She is  shown below in a portrait by Opie, and so it is an appropriate opportunity to give you advance notice of an exhibition that would surely appeal to Jane Austen. The National Portrait Gallery in London  will be staging The First Actresses: from Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons  from the 230th October 2011 till the 8th January 2012.

The exhibition will examine the portraits and careers of actresses from the Restoration, when they were first legally allowed to appear on the professional stage to the early part of the 19th century. So, the exhibition will present information on and portraits of actresses such as Nell Gwynn, the Covent Garden orange seller, comedian and royal mistress of Charles II, through to Sarah Siddons, the most famous actress of the Georgian era, whose performances were said to be so intense that a co-star was once said to have been rendered speechless, while members of the audience fainted in awe. Jane Austen would have loved to have had the opportunity to do so: she was desperate to see Mrs Siddons perform but never quite managed it…though she was close on a few occasions.

The exhibition will feature portraits of 52 actresses, including Dorothea Jordan, renowned for her sweet nature, fabulous legs (she was famed for her “breeches ” roles, that is playing boys and young men) and for bearing 10 children by the Duke of Clarence, the future William IV. She is shown below,

and she was a favourite of both Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra:

I think you judge very wisely in putting off your London visit, and I am mistaken if it be not put off for some time. You speak with such noble resignation of Mrs. Jordan and the Opera House, that it would be an insult to suppose consolation required…
(Letter to  Cassandra Austen dated January 8, 1801)

It will also feature Mary Robinson, the actress and poet and yet another royal mistress, this time of the Prince of Wales, shown below in a portrait by John Hoppner, which is now owned by Chawton House Library;

© Chawton House Library, Hampshire

and Elizabeth Inchbald, who retired from acting and became a successful playwright, and whose version of Kotzebue’s Lovers Vows was used  spectacularly by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park to highlight the essential nature and ambitions of the main characters in her novel.

The portraits will include works by  Gainsborough, Reynolds, Hogarth and the caricaturist Gillray, so it will be a visual feast. I cannot wait to see it, for I am, as you are only too well aware, as enamoured of the 18th century theatre as was our Miss Austen.

This exhibition will have many resonances for readers of Jane Austen’s novels and letters, so once I have visited it I will be reporting back, of that you can be assured.

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