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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.

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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