Monday, November 14, 2011

The First Actresses at NPG London

Every once in a while you hear of an exhibition that is so incredibly geared toward your tastes that you question whether you curated it in your sleep.  Sometimes you even happen to be in the right place at the right time in order to actually see these once-in-a-lifetime shows.  I am counting my blessings that I manged to be around for The First Actresses at the National Portrait Gallery which opened last month.

The exhibition is small but packs a great punch.  Upon entering you are greeted by Nell Gwyn's portraits by Verelst.  The first is one of the more recognizable images of the King's mistress but the second, showing Nell in state of undress, has been loaned from a private collection and shows just how stunning the comedic actress was.  Upon seeing this boudoir portrait you have already made your visit worthwhile.  The rest of the exhibition featured so many portraits that I have included in blog posts I felt like I was actually walking into the Gossip Guide!  The rooms were separated into categories having to do with themes such as Covent Garden and the actresses as a muse.  Who was there? Well, anyone who is anybody, my pet!  Hester Santlow tipping her harlequin cap welcomed guests into the menagerie of eighteenth-century actresses.  Mary 'Perdita' Robinson, Fanny Abington, Dorothy Jordan, Kitty Clive, Elizabeth Linley Sheridan, Sarah Siddons, Lavinia Fenton, Giovanna Baccelli, and Hester Booth are just a sampling of the wide range of ladies seen through the paint and pencil of artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Hoppner, Gardner, and Russell.  Even the beautiful Duchess was there in Gardner's depiction of her, Lady Melbourne and Anne Damer as the three witches- it is the first time in ages that the work has been on public display and now it will hopefully stay that way as a new acquisition for the museum.

While limited, the collection the curators accrued is quiet profound in terms of selection.  My only criticism is the lack of gossip in the exhibition.  I would have liked to see more satirical images; sadly, only a couple of Gillrays were included in the exhibition.  I believe having more satirical images would have captured the actresses' celebrity and the fanfare surrounding them.

The First Actresses will be at the National Portrait Gallery until 8 January so do not hesitate to see the exhibition.  For those who cannot possibly manage to get to the show, the exhibition catalog is currently on sale for £19.50 and has fun essays on things like dancing and celebrity (hopefully I will have a review up in a timely manner).


  1. Going tomorrow! I am all excitement!

  2. Lord grant you the strength not to spend too much money in the shop ;)

  3. I wish the show's timing was serendipitous for me but sadly no London trips anytime soon. I just started reading Perdita by Paula Byrne last night and am all jealous now :)

  4. Someone connected with mounting the exhibition and providing artwork explained to me that originall it was intended to be far more comprehensive and spacious. As time went on, the vision (and execution) was progressively downsized.
    I enjoyed it during my 2 visits, and was happiest to find on view a portrait I've been chasing across continents, originally attributed to one painter and now to a different one. But overall, I felt it could be more...even before I was told that it was meant to be!

  5. That's too bad that it was downsized. Which painting have you been hunting? I was hunting the Gardner one of Georgiana and seeing it in person was eye-opening!