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The National Portrait Gallery in London’s new exhibit,  The First Actresses  opens tomorrow and runs until the 8th January 2012. I hope I will be going to see it soon. I will ,of course, then let you know my impressions of it( you would be hard pressed to restrain me!). But today I thought you might like to read about the book that accompanies the exhibition, and you might consider purchasing it, especially if you cannot visit the exhibit in London in person.

The exhibition seeks to examine how these first actresses were portrayed, not only in the large-scale portrait but in caricatures, in prints  and on such diverse goods as china figures and tin glazed tiles, and how perceptions of  their reputations changed as a result. The book contains interesting essays on the lives of these early actresses. Of course, it has to be remembered that it was only after the Restoration of the monarchy under Charles II (my hero!) in 1660 that women were allowed to become professional actress and appear on the stage. The way in which their reputations, good or ill, have been portrayed by artists is certainly an intriguing subject to examine in detail.  Many actresses were associated with lax morals and, indeed, outright prostitution. During Jane Austen’s era Sarah Siddons sought to establish a more serious, responsible and respectable persona for the female branch of the profession. But, of course, she shared the stage with actresses like Mary Robinson, shown above on the cover of the book, who was The Prince of Wales’ mistress, and  Dorothea Jordan, shown below in a portrait by  John Russell dating from 1801. She was famous for her marvellous pair of legs, revealed to the adoring public in “breeches roles” where cross dressing was allowed, even encouraged. She was also the long term mistress of the Duke of Clarence, the Prince of Wales’ brother, who pretty swiftly disposed of her servicesin the race to produce a legitimate hero to the throne after the death of George IV’s only legitimate child, Princess Charlotte in  November 1817, but only after she had bourne him ten children and supported him financially.

The great serious portrait , executed by an aspiring or famous artist and exhibited in public was one way in which actresses sought to convince the public that they were to be taken seriously. John Hoppner’s portrait of Mrs Jordan as the Comic Muse, below,  failed miserably in this regard as the attitude in which she was painted  was thought to be  too salacious and  many hostile reviews resulted. The great portrait was, for both parties involved, a two-way street. If it worked, not only did the actress enhance her reputation but  the artist gained fame and possibly more commissions as a result of portraying a celebrity successfully. Plus ca change….

The book contains potted biographies of the sitters included in the exhibition. The portrait of Mrs Inchblad, below, attributed to John Hoppner, is new to me and I think it is fabulous. She was, of course, not only an author in her own right but was also  the translator of Kotzebue’s play, Lover’s Vows, which Jane Austen used to spectacular and revealing dramatic effect in the Private Theatricals episode in  Mansfield Park.

 The Chapter entitled Star Systems Then and Now written by Gill Perry is perhaps my favourite section of the book. As well as considering actresses now and how they are portrayed by artists and photographers,  Gill Perry examines how non-professionals who took part in The Itch for Acting– private theatricals – an itch which infected the society in which Jane Austen lived, were portrayed by artists and the media of the day.

The painting by Daniel Gardner of The Three Witches from Macbeth, shows Elizabeth, Vicountess Melbourne, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and Anne Seymour Damer, as they appeared at the Richmond House private theatricals which were hosted by the Duke of Richmond at his London home in a specially built theatre, and where its aristocratic cast were coached by the professional actress Elizabeth Farren. She went on to marry one of them, the Earl of Derby.

Jane Austen  loved the theatre and was an acute critic of performances she attended in London and in Southampton.She would have enjoyed this book tremendously I’m sure, casting her critical eye over the many portraits, making caustic comments on them no doubt.

You ought to know that the NPG is currently offering the book at a reduced price currently: here is a link to the website should you wish to buy it from them directly, and take advantage of this offer. If you are interested in the theatre of Jane Austen’s era, then I am sure you will want to do so.

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