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In the eighteenth-century, a trip to the theatre offered people of all classes a few hours of dramatic entertainment and the chance to lose themselves in the glamour of the stage. Inevitably, the fact that licentiousness and crime were often gleefully carried on within its walls also meant that the Georgian theatre was often closely associated with vice of all persuasions.

Hurrah for the National Portrait Gallery, then, who explore the fascinating lives and often dubious reputations of the women who took to the stage in their exhibition The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. It closes this Sunday (8th January) and I heartily recommend that you visit if you can (coming from one who took to ruthlessly elbowing everyone out of the way and shouting ‘ooooh!’ loudly at everything in its opening weekend).

This beautiful collection of portraits, books and theatrical souvenirs give a tantalising glimpse of the spirit and aesthetics of the stage. The women at its centre each have their own story to tell: prostitutes, cross-dressers, child actresses and a bevy of royal mistresses make themselves known, often immortalised by the most lauded artists of their time.

One of the paintings that really stood out for me – and I’m still not sure that I can put my finger on why, exactly – was Thomas Hickey’s beautiful portrait of Frances Abington (1737–1815) as Lady Bab Lardoon in The Maid of Oaks (1775).

© National Portrait Gallery

By the time of this portrait, Frances had been working as an actress for twenty years – treading the boards to great acclaim in London and Dublin – and had established herself as a renowned beauty and fashion icon. From her humble beginnings as a Covent Garden flower girl known as ‘Nosegay Fan’, she rose to become one of the leading comic actresses of the 1770s, darling of Sir Joshua Reynolds and a lover of MPs and noblemen. As with many women of the stage, the blurred lines between actress, mistress and prostitute plagued her somewhat; whisperings of her teenage employment in a Drury Lane brothel served to reinforce the popular notion that she was still willing to hand out her favours for the right price. Nevertheless, after becoming the mistress of the Earl of Shelburne just before the time of his premiership (1782–3), she was able to retire on a very comfortable income.

There are many facets and themes to this gorgeous exhibition, and to prevent myself from endlessly waffling on, I can only urge you to go before it ends next week. Otherwise, the book is the next best thing. Enjoy!

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons
at The National Portrait Gallery

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