The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

The First Actresses


Pub. date: 20 October 2011
Price: £30
ISBN: 978 1 85514 411 8
Format: 285 x 205mm
Extent: 160 pages
Illustrations: 120
Binding: Hardback
ISBN: 978 1 85514 444 6
Category: Art History / History / Reference
Word count: 30,000

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out of print

Gill Perry with Joseph Roach and Shearer West

The First Actresses explores the vibrant and sometimes controversial relationship between art, gender and the theatre in eighteenth-century England. Combining much-loved masterpieces with newly discovered and little-known works, this book will explore the ways in which actresses used portraiture to enhance their reputations, deflect scandal and increase their popularity and professional status.


Featuring a range of large-scale, public and more intimate portraits of actresses, The First Actresses provides a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality from Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons. Ranging from oil paint to porcelain, these portraits illustrate the enduring popularity of portraits of women performers.

Crucially the book seeks to reassess the traditional association between actress and ‘prostitute’, and the moral ambiguity of women playing male roles. Portraiture became an important vehicle for the expression of concerns about female sexuality, social status, decorum, gender and celebrity. The authors also chart the commercialisation of the spectacle of the actress, as well as the connections between the eighteenth-century ‘star system’ and modern celebrity culture.

Organised thematically, sections include: ‘Painting Actresses’ Lives’, ‘Nell Gwyn and Covent Garden Goddesses’, ‘Divas, Dancing and the Rage for Music: Painting Women in Musical Performance’, ‘Beauty, Ageing and the Body Politic of the Eighteenth- Century Actress’ and ‘Star Systems’. Illustrated with remarkable paintings by major artists of the period, a fascinating and lucid text reveals the many ways in which women performers enabled artistic innovation and creativity, provoked intellectual debate and contributed to the popularity and visibility of the theatre.


Gill Perry is Professor of Art History at the Open University. She has published widely on eighteenth-century British art and modern and contemporary art. Her books include Women Artists and the Parisian Avant-Garde (1995); Gender and Art (editor and co-author) (1999); Women, Scholarship and Criticism: Gender and Knowledge c.1790–1900 (co-editor and co-author) (2001); Difference and Excess in Contemporary Art: The Visibility of Women’s Practice (editor) (2003); and Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art 1768–1820 (2007), which was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize, 2008.

Joseph Roach is Sterling Professor of Theater and English at Yale University. A theatre historian, stage director and performance studies scholar, he is the recipient of the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and author of a number of prize-winning publications including The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting (1985), Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996) and It (2007).

Shearer West is Head of the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford and was appointed Director of Research at the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in 2008. She is the author of a number of books and articles on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British, Italian and German art including The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of Garrick and Kemble (1991).