The First Actresses: Nell Gwyn to Sarah Siddons

Past exhibition archive
20 October 2011 - 8 January 2012

Mary Robinson - 'Perdita' by John Hoppner, 1782 (detail) © Chawton House LIbrary, Hampshire

The First Actresses presented a vivid spectacle of femininity, fashion and theatricality in seventeenth and eighteenth-century Britain.

Taking centre stage were 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 revealed 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 were 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 were explored through portraits by the leading artists of the period including Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, John Hoppner and James Gillray.

The exhibition was supported by the Patrons of the National Portrait Gallery.


The First Actresses

Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn
Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn
by Simon Verelst, c1680
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Find out more about this portrait

Women were first permitted to perform on the English stage in the early 1660s, after the Restoration of King Charles II.

Respectable women would not usually consider a career in the theatre. But because the profession demanded the ability to read and memorise lines and to sing and dance, the first actresses came from varied social backgrounds. By the end of the seventeenth century women players were much in demand, both on the stage and as subjects of painted portraits and prints. These helped to enhance the fame of early actresses such as Nell Gwyn and Moll Davis.

By the early eighteenth century the theatre was thriving in Britain. However, in 1737 a licensing act was passed making it illegal for companies to perform without a royal charter. This led to the censorship of plays performed in licensed theatres. The effect was to outlaw many groups of ‘strolling players’ but also to enhance the dominance of the official theatres in which women could seek careers as actresses.

Covent Garden Ladies

Dorothy Jordan as Hypolita in ‘She Would and She Would Not’
Dorothy Jordan as Hypolita in ‘She Would and She Would Not’ 
by John Hoppner, exhibited 1791
© Tate, London, 2011

By the mid-eighteenth century the licensed theatres of Drury Lane and the Theatre Royal were at the heart of a growing culture of public entertainment in London. The streets of Covent Garden were also famous for their ‘bagnios’ or brothels. This encouraged an association between the idea of the actress and that of prostitute, despite the fact that many actresses sought respectability and professional status.

The popularity of cross-dressed or ‘breeches’ roles for women provoked lively debates about feminine decorum and the display of women’s bodies on stage. During the century several actresses renowned for their breeches roles, including Peg Woffington, Frances Abington and Dorothy Jordan, attracted large audiences for their famous comedy performances.

Critics and writers obsessed over the real and imagined sexual exploits of these famous women, anticipating modern celebrity culture. Reviews also focused on their physical appearance and fashionable outfits, often confusing their stage roles with their private lives. For example, in the 1770s the actress Mary Robinson was often known as ‘Perdita’ after her role in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

The Actress as Muse

Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse
Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse
by the studio of Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1784 © Cobbe Collection, Hatchlands Park

The Royal Academy of Art was established in London in 1768 under the leadership of Sir Joshua Reynolds. It provided an important public exhibition space for British art and portraiture was one of the most popular genres in its annual exhibitions. At the same time, theatre managers such as David Garrick were making efforts to give the dramatic arts a more reputable status. A close relationship developed between the visual and the dramatic arts and Royal Academy exhibitions often included large-scale portraits of successful women players such as Sarah Siddons and Dorothy Jordan. Full-length portraits representing actresses as the classical muses of tragedy or comedy presented a positive image of their stage roles and acting abilities. These ambitious portraits served as forms of advertising for both art and theatre, and were engraved for circulation by print sellers.

Later in their careers many actresses also became playwrights or writers, including Elizabeth Inchbald, Sarah Siddons and Mary Robinson. By extending the range of their artistic accomplishments they encouraged the image of women as creative agents. These activities also helped to shape their reputations in the predominantly masculine worlds of art and literature.

Caught in the Act

Paintings of performers in character, or acting within a well-known play, became popular during the eighteenth century. It was developed by artists such as Francis Hayman and adopted later in the century by Johann Zoffany and James Roberts, among others.  Theatrical portraits often included celebrated actresses positioned centre-stage within dramatic scenes, as Roberts’s portrait of Abington in the famous library scene in Richard Sheridan’s play, The School for Scandal, first performed in 1777. 

The popularity of the theatre also encouraged a growing taste for amateur dramatics. Many aristocrats built theatres in their country houses for ‘private theatricals’. However, the spectacle of upper class men and women ‘dressing up’, including well-known figures such as Lady Buckinghamshire or Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, was seen by some to symbolise the moral degeneration of the aristocracy. This fashion for amateur dramatics featured prominently in graphic satire, especially the colourful caricatures of James Gillray.

Divas and Dancers

Lavinia Fenton
Lavinia Fenton possibly by George Knapton, c. 1739. Private Collection.

Throughout the eighteenth century the boundaries between opera, musical comedy, dance and ‘straight’ acting roles were less clearly defined than today. Most actresses were expected to be able to sing and dance. In 1728 John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera established a new genre of ‘ballad opera’ in Britain, and helped to create popular roles for women. Lavinia Fenton won instant fame when she was the first to play the female lead, Polly Peachum. This coveted role was performed by other successful singers, including Kitty Clive and, later in the century, the celebrated diva, Elizabeth Billington.

Early ballet and French-influenced dance became increasingly popular with English audiences. Continental dancers including Marie Sallé from France, and later in the century Giovanna Baccelli from Italy, performed regularly in London theatres. However, painted portraits of dancers in performance were rare in public exhibitions, reflecting anxieties about the display of the female body in vigorous movement. To avoid the moral concerns associated with their profession, many successful singers and dancers retired from the stage after marriage.

The Actress Now

To complement The First Actresses, this display showcased 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 highlighted 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.

Dame Helen Mirren by Ishbel Myerscough, 1997 (detail) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anna Katherine Popplewell by Francesco Guidicini, 1997 (detail) © Francesco Guidicini/National Portrait Gallery, London

Actress Insights

Contemporary actresses give personal insights into when they first decided to become performers, how the ‘first actresses’ have inspired them, and the ongoing challenges of a career in the profession today.

When did you decide that you would like to become an actress?

Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson

by Tim Richmond, 1988
© Tim Richmond

I decided I wanted to be in theatre when I was 16 and had attended several consecutive performances of Racine’s Andromache at the Avignon Theatre Festival. I think it was because everyone took their clothes off.

Emma Thompson

I remember wanting to become an actress since about five years old. I blame a lot of it on an actress friend called Lisa Harrow who swept into our lives about then. She seemed impossibly glamorous and beautiful and both my brothers and father had massive crushes on her. I remember thinking whatever she is doing she has got it right. I still wonder today if Lisa had been a plumber, my life would have taken a different turn. Later on, when I was thirteen my father became dreadfully ill and it was then that I looked up theatrical agents in the yellow pages and phoned one up and got on her books. It might have been a curious reaction to have when your father was critically ill in intensive care, but looking back with the long, birdseye view that time can give, I can see it made perfect sense: I did it in attempt to escape and create my own reality, which is what acting can be – a loss of yourself into somebody else. A holiday from myself. What I can’t get over is that I have been paid very good money taking all these holidays.

Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter

by Trevor Leighton, 1993
© Trevor Leighton / National Portrait Gallery, London

Sophie Okonedo

Sophie Okonedo
by Sal Idriss, 2002
© Sal Idriss / National Portrait Gallery, London

I am afraid the start to my career was very unglamorous. I was watching the royal variety show on television with my mum. I was about 7 or 8. They performed a segment from the musical Annie. In the chorus, playing one of the orphans was a little black girl with plaits that looked a bit like me. I was transfixed. Up till that point I had not really thought that anyone who looked like me could be on the stage. At least I had seen no evidence of it. From that moment on that’s what I wanted to do. Be an actress. Very little deviation really.

Sophie Okonedo

I think I must have been about 12 when I was asked by my next door neighbour if I wanted to play a fairy in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at my local theatre. I remember that experience so vividly - the smell of the rehearsal room, the excitement before curtain up, the chatter in the dressing room and the first rush of adrenaline when I stepped out in front of the audience. I was hooked!

Zoe Tapper

Zoe Tapper

Zoe Tapper
by Sarah Dunn, 2009
© Sarah Dunn

Do any of the ‘First Actresses’ particularly interest or intrigue you?

Nell Gwyn in particular and Nelly Ternan, Dickens' mistress always held a romance for me, without knowing much about them. My daughter is called Nell not exactly after either but it consolidated the choice and one day I will give her an orange. I have a hopeless nostalgia for times gone by and am fascinated by lives lived in the past but I see probably a lot more romance where I fear there must have been a lot of discomfort, illness, fragility of life, and boredom .However even though they didn’t have a vote, I think women were allowed their curves and their flesh then.

Helena Bonham Carter

Anna Popplewell

Anna Popplewell,
by Francesco Guidicini, 2008
© Francesco Guidicini / National Portrait Gallery, London

Sarah Siddons and Eliza Haywood – Sarah Siddons was by all accounts a phenomenal actress. I would have loved to have seen her Lady Macbeth… and the ‘unsex me here’ speech must have played interestingly in a cultural climate that was so heatedly debating what was and wasn’t the ‘proper’ way for a woman to behave!

Haywood began as an actress but she was also the most prolific prose writer. One of the reasons she interests me so much is that despite her enormous contribution to 18th century prose, relatively little is known about her personal background. She’s a mysterious one! She unapologetically produced reams of amatory fiction, regardless of the controversy and accusations such licentious subject matter attracted.

Anna Popplewell


My first role out of drama school was playing Nell Gwyn in Richard Eyre's film Stage Beauty, so of course she holds a special place in my heart. When I was researching her for the role, I was captivated by her indomitable spirit. She had a wit and a skill as a comic actress that belied her upbringing and orange-selling roots.

Zoe Tapper


I find all the ‘First Actresses’ fascinating. My knowledge of theatrical history is very limited and this exhibition inspires me to understand and discover each and every one of them. One of the first things that strikes me is that they all had families and mixing work with motherhood is extremely stressful and demanding. They were multi-taskers.

Zöe Wanamaker

Zöe Wanamaker

Zöe Wanamaker,
by Jillian Edelstein, 1990
© Jillian Edelstein / Camera Press

Lily Cole as Elizabeth I

Lily Cole as Elizabeth I
by Eitan Lee Al, 2005
© Eitan Lee Al

The inner compulsion to act, before the days of film or mass media, and at times when it was much more controversial, suggests a kind of kindred spirit that transcends time and makes these women very intriguing to me.

Lily Cole

The status of the actress has changed dramatically since the days of the First Actresses, when it was often seen as a disreputable occupation and not a profession. Are there still obstacles or difficulties to overcome in the career of an actress now?

There are obstacles for actors of both genders, but actresses – though they haven’t the social stigma that made life a very real struggle for actresses in the past – there remain some deep seated prejudices in some of the minds of the public even when coupled with certain admiration. There is an ambivalence towards artists of all kinds in society at large and actresses still have to work hard to be taken seriously.

Dame Harriet Walter

Dame Harriet Mary Walter

Dame Harriet Mary Walter,
by Geoff Wilson, 1992
© Geoff Wilson


The media pimps! Self and fears...

Lily Cole


I wish it were still disreputable. It’s easier to say or show the human condition if you are somehow beyond the pale. When my grandmother learnt that my father was going to marry an actress, she refused to speak to him for 3 days. In fact, I believe she locked herself in the toilet.

Emma Thompson


In all honesty I have spent most of my life thinking it still a disreputable reputation in the sense that it isn’t a very responsible or grown up way to make a living. But equally we do serve a use: I think we help make people feel, or laugh, surrender themselves emotionally where they can’t necessarily in the full flow of daily life. We are in the business of telling stories and we need them to make sense of the chaos of the world, to help us to survive it, it helps us understand ourselves and others. I act partially to escape myself but also because I love people and am fascinated by them: I want to work out how did that person end up being like this? What journey did they take?

As for the actress living today, I would say there are innumerable challenges, obstacles, difficulties. The most obvious is consistent employment, and the challenge of making a living through acting. Only a ridiculously small and unfair percentage of the profession- like 5 percent- is employed at any one time. It is a ridiculously tough and oversubscribed profession and a reliably unreliable way of earning a living. As a woman you have to remain castable over the generations: a great career as ingenue is no guarantee that you will be employable as a character actor in later years. If you are lucky enough to have work come your way then you have the happy luxury but sometimes tricky task to decide whether to do a job or not. Many careers have dwindled or soared on quality of decision making. Oh and luck.

But the most salient difference between now and then is how the profession has been transfigured by the media and fashion world. Two years ago I am sure the average Joe Bloggs would have no idea what Nell Gwyn actually looked like and she would be able to go about her daily life unrecognized. So I am sure that actors had a greater privacy and had to put up with less if not any personal tabloid comment. The profession has also been hijacked by the fashion industry: the stress on what one looks like and wears is extreme; an award ceremony is more about what dress you are wearing than the film you are in. We have become billboards. At a recent discussion with some very well known and successful actresses they were asked if their experience of the profession had held any surprises and they all said that they had not originally signed up to being fashion models.

Equally these days the beauty ideal of thinness and youth put pressures that Nell would not have encountered. Paintings suggest that they celebrated the curve, and womanly flesh. As for aging , I guess they died too early for it to become a real concern or at least I would like to think they were more concerned about other more pressing things like survival than if they they looked old. Also they didn’t have glasses so I suspect everyone looked fuzzy and soft anyway. I fear we have become right old narcissists with the extra decades of time that scientific development has given us.

So yes there are obstacles and difficulties. I think that you have to be a curious blend of mimophant- have the sensitivity of a mimosa so you can be vulnerable when acting, and the hide of the elephant to cope with the rejection and critics. But having said that if you are lucky enough to be in work, it is the most fantastic job in the world. And I count my galaxy of lucky stars every time I am employed.

Helena Bonham Carter