Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn

Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn

by Simon Verelst, c1680
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The First Actresses

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.

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Dorothy Jordan as Hypolita

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

Covent Garden Ladies

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.

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 Actress as Muse

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.

Frances Abington, Thomas King, John Palmer and William Smith

The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer)
by Daniel Gardner, 1775
© National Portrait Gallery, London

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.

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Lavinia Fenton

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

Divas and Dancers

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.