The First Actresses - Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

I recently went to see The First Actresses - Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons at The National Portrait Gallery, where more than 50 portraits of actresses take centre stage in a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain.

Women were first permitted to perform on the English stage in the early 1660’s, after the restoration of Charles II, and this exhibition reveals the many ways in which these notorious, glamorous performers became early celebrities and fashion icons, shrewdly using portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and increase their popularity.

Portraits of everyone's favourite Restoration pin up girl, the ‘pretty witty’ Nell Gwyn (with her varying, revealing ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ on display - above, both by Simon Verelst) alongside Moll Davis, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Elizabeth Linley, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and Dorothy Jordan are exhibited.

What makes this exhibition really fascinating is the focus on the social history of the time and the biographies of the ladies which really does keep your interest from the first painting through to the last. With some early actresses becoming mistresses of Kings and aristocrats and with Covent Garden being just as famous for its brothels as it was for its theatres, the struggle which these women were up against was profound and you really leave admiring these theatrical pioneers.

Touchingly, to complement this exhibition, in a nearby exhibition entitled The Actress Nowdisplays a cacophony of portraits featuring contemporary actresses, ranging from Dame Judi Dench to Helena Bonham Carter (left, by Trevor Leighton) and Keira Knightley, who all owe a great debt to their predecessors in the next-door room.

Exhibition on at The National Portrait Gallery
until 8 January 2012