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The First Actresses - National Portrait Gallery

The First Actresses. Mary Robinson - Perdita by John Hoppner, 1782 (detail). Copyright Chawton House Library, Hampshire.

Exhibition preview

THE FIRST Actresses, an exhibition presenting a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain, is on display at the National Portrait Gallery from October 20, 2011 to January 8, 2012.

Taking centre stage are the intriguing and notorious female performers of the period whose lives outside of the theatre ranged from royal mistresses to admired writers and businesswomen.

The exhibition reveals the many ways in which these early celebrities used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and create their professional identities.

Featuring famous masterpieces alongside works that are on show for the first time, the fascinating stories of actresses such as Nell Gwyn, Kitty Clive, Hester Booth, Lavinia Fenton, Elizabeth Linley, Sarah Siddons, Mary Robinson and Dorothy Jordan are explored through portraits by the leading artists of the period including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner and James Gillray.

To complement The First Actresses, a display entitled The Actress Now showcases portraits of contemporary actresses from the Gallery’s Collection.

Including paintings of Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren, and photographs of Vanessa Redgrave and newcomer Anna Popplewell, the display highlights the talent and achievement of British women currently performing in theatre, television and film, all of whom owe a debt to the pioneering first actresses.

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London, WC2H 0HE