The First Actresses will explore the vibrant and sometimes controversial relationship between art, gender and the theatre in eighteenth-century England. Combining much-loved masterpieces with newly-discovered works, the exhibition will look at the ways in which actresses used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and increase their popularity and professional status.
The exhibition features portraits by artists such as Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner and James Gillray, with highlights including Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera and Gainsborough’s portrait of Elizabeth Linley. Visitors will discover the fascinating stories of actresses including Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan.
Starting with the emergence of the actress’s profession in the late seventeenth century, The First Actresses will show how women performers were key figures in celebrity culture. Fuelled by gossipy theatre and art reviews, satirical prints and the growing taste for biography, eighteenth-century society engaged in heated debate about the moral and sexual decorum of women on stage and revelled in the traditional association between actress and prostitute. The exhibition will also look at the resonances with modern celebrity culture and the enduring notion of the actress as fashion icon.