Tuesday 15 November 2011

The First Actresses

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons 20th October 2011- 8th January 2012 at the National Portrait Gallery. Adults - £11 Concessions - £9
While this exhibition may not pack the clout of this years blockbusters such as the Leonardo or the Degas it is equally unmissable. With its own helping of star names including Hogarth, Gainsborough and Reynolds there is plenty to engage the visitor. I went with my father last Saturday and was shocked at the peaceful atmosphere of the exhibition, which enabled us to get up comparatively close to the works on display. A luxury that was particularly appreciated when it allowed a close viewing of the Hogarth print ‘The Strolling Players’ which gives the opportunity to revel in the intricate satirical details always to be expected in a Hogarth.
 Hogarth The Strolling Players 1738
In our day and age the Hollywood actress is revered given an almost sacred status however this exhibition charts the seedy roots of the profession in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The erotic tones of the portraits of Nell Gwyn the Kings mistress are plain for all to see.

Simon Verelst Nell Gwyn c.1680 and, right, c.1680-5

However the actresses inclusion in the paintings some of which (particularly those in the third room) would have graced the walls of the Royal Academy demonstrates the elevated status of these women and to some extent a level of emancipation from their traditional roles. As well as allowing the painter to experiment with less conventional poses and types.
A particular favourite of mine which encapsulates this sense of experimentation and fun is The Three Witches from Macbeth by David Gardner 1775. Which includes portraits of various prominent women including the influential and fashionable Duchess of Devonshire.

David Gardner The Three Witches from Macbeth 1775
Should the exhibition merely whet your appetite then there is its contemporary counterpart also at the National Portrait Gallery. This is in rooms 41 and 41a and is a free exhibition. There is even a very tempting Catalogue with good quality images and some interesting articles.

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