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I made it to this exhibition with one day to spare.It closed on Sunday , but, my goodness, it was worth the wait.
The portraits on show chronicled the way actresses have been portrayed from the 1660s when they were finally allowed to perform legally on the stage, to the end of Mrs Siddons reign as Queen Tragedienne in the mid 19th century. An exercise in spin if you like, yet again proving that nothing is new under the sun.
The early actresses, or, more correctly performers, for the exhibition also included images of dancers and singers, had to tread a fine line- for to appear onstage, exposing aspects of their bodes and personalities was thought scandalous by many in the general pubic. Some led a scandalous off stage life and bad reputations stuck. For many, the perception was that to be an actress go the professional stage was analogous with being a prostitute. Some actresses tried to rectify this with portraits depicting them in serious poses, as very correct, classical muses. This might not succeed, however if their private lives were not as exemplary as their images projected in these portraits. As a tactic of spin it often misfired. Dorothea Jordan ‘s attempt to be seen as a serious actress in Hoppner’s depiction of her as the Comic Muse was not at all successful . And of course she was also the Duke of Clarence’s mistress, bearing him many children and supporting him financially.
Mrs Siddons changed all that. And for me the star turn of the exhibit was Sir Thomas Lawrence’s compelling deception of her from 1804.
A monumental canvas in many ways, not merely for its great size, she dominated the exhibit in her sober black dress, her intelligent eyes looking soberly at us, her audience. She stands, presumably turning the pages of a volume of Shakespeare: a powerful woman, famous for depicting powerful tragic roles.
I’d loved to have seen her Lady Macbeth on the strength of this powerful painting. Above, she is shown in this role in a mass-produced Staffordshire flat back figure. No wonder Jane Austen felt herself very unlucky to have not seen Mrs Siddons perform:
I have no chance of seeing Mrs Siddons.She did act on Monday but as Henry was told by the Boxkeeper that he did not think she would all the places and all the thought of it were given up. I should particularly have liked seeing her in Constance and could swear at her with little effort for disappointing me.
(See: Letter to Cassandra Austen dated, 25th April, 1811)
Other highlights for me were the depiction of Hester Booth, the dancer-actress, actually shown in her stage costume as painted by John Elys circa 1772-3, which must be one of the earliest depictions of an actress in costume:
And I loved the small items of ceramics on show: Kitty Clive as The Fine Lady in Lethe from 1750
and this amazing set of late 18th century tiles showing from the bottom up,
Mrs. Yates, Mrs. Buckley, Anne Barry and Susannah Cibber. Do note you can click on these images to enlarge them and see the details.
Though the exhibit is no longer available the book is. Go here to read my review of it. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition: being able to compare and contrast so many canvases in the intimate temporary exhibition space at the NPG was a treat and a privilege. More please. Or should I say, Encore.