National Portrait Gallery displays The First Actresses

Date Posted: 23/10/2011

The National Portrait Gallery, London has just unveiled what is reported to be the first exhibition devoted to portraits of 18th century actresses.

The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons is currently on display in the Wolfson Gallery, running until the 8th January, and is comprised of a collection of 53 portraits by acclaimed artists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Gillray.

Providing a vivid spectacle of 18th century femininity, fashion and theatricality, the exhibition shows the actresses in their celebrated stage roles, intimate off-stage portraits, and mass-produced caricatures and prints; aiming to explore how they contributed to the growing reputation and professional status of leading female performers.

Actresses featured in the exhibition include Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson, Dorothy Jordan, Elizabeth Farren, and Elizabeth Linley. Highlights include a little known version of Reynolds’s famous portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse, Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, and Gainsborough’s portraits of Giovanna Bacelli and Elizabeth Linley. Important loans include works from the Garrick Club; the Royal Shakespeare Company; the National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; Tate Britain; and the V&A.

Groups of ten or more people wishing to visit the exhibition are entitled to discounted admission rates. Advance booking is required.

For further information telephone: 020-7312 2483 or visit

Image credit: Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn by Simon Verelst, c.1680 © National Portrait Gallery, London.  

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